But there aren’t many true sports cars around.
Not for less than $25k to start, at least.
Arguably, the Mazda Miata has been the only one.
It has certainly been the most successful one. For 25 years now – and still going strong.
Subaru and Toyota (an oddfellas partnership, if ever there was one) decided to have a go at this action – joining forces to produce what you might call an uber Miata.
They offer a very Miata-like experience – at the same price point – but with a twist.
Unlike the two-seater-only Miata, the twins have back seats.
Brutal back seats, surely. But there, nonetheless.
Also a more macho mien.
No “chick car” issues here.
It’s a very different take on the same basic concept.
Which is cool.
After all, why should there be just one hamburger joint in town?
The FR-S is a compact-sized, two-door and (theoretically) four-seat sport coupe. It is mechanically identical to the Subaru BRZ, with minor exterior styling, trim/packaging and pricing differences between the two cars – which are actually built by Subaru and have Subaru-designed drivetrains, including most notably the “flat four” boxer engine used in both cars.
Base price for the Scion-ized version of the Sciobaru twins is $24,900 – vs. $25,695 for the same basic car in Subaru duds.
Interestingly, the Scion starts out less – but ends up costing more – than its twin. A top-of-the-line FR-S with the Release Series 1.0 package and the optionally available automatic transmission stickers for $31,090 while a Blue Series BRZ (top of its respective line) goes for $29,940.
Direct competitors are few – because there simply aren’t many compact-sized/rear-wheel-drive sports coupes available at this price point.
Make that any.
Cars like the Hyundai Genesis and Ford Mustang are RWD sport coupes, too – but they’re also much larger, heavier and more expensive. Meanwhile, cars like the VW GTI and Ford Focus ST are priced in the same ballpark, but they’re front-wheel-drive.
Probably the closest-in-kind cross-shop among current new cars is the Mazda MX-5 Miata. It’s a little smaller – and only a two-seater (as well as being a roadster, with a convertible soft top standard) but it’s also RWD and offers a comparable sports car driving experience (these cars are very evenly matched in terms of acceleration and handling) and the price points match up closely.
At $23,970 to start, the Miata actually costs a few bucks less than the base FR-S.
Both twins have had their suspensions slightly retuned – but this will only be noticeable to those who track-day their cars (and compare them with last year’s cars). All trims get a standard 6.1 inch LCD touchscreen screen for the audio system, with Scion’s BeSpoke upgrade available optionally.
Minor cosmetic tweaks – including new design exhaust tips – also distinguish the ’15s from the ’14s.
Like the Miata, this car is inexpensive fun. A track day car that can be driven everyday.
And unlike the Miata, this car has back seats.
Brilliant high-speed handling. A Lotus for less.
Boxer four has all kinds of potential.
Back seats are literally useless for carrying passengers because there is literally no legroom. No air gap at all – unless you bunch up the front seats to create some – and then the driver and front seat passenger will be the ones suffering.
Broody/heavy – and plasticky – interior.
Horrible cupholders guaranteed to spill your coffee – and dislocate your shoulder.
Boxer engine’s potential remains untapped; automatic-equipped cars are much slower than manual-equipped versions.
Both twins pack the same engine as last year – and the year before.
On the plus side, it is an unusual engine. A Subaru-designed/sourced flat four, with the cylinders laid flat on their sides – one pair “boxing” the other across a common crankshaft. The major functional advantage of this layout is inherent smoothness – and that the center of gravity is lowered. Instead of the engine standing upright and with the cylinders lined up in a row – as would be the case with a conventional in-line four (as in the Miata), the engine in the FR-S and BRZ is pancaked horizontally and this naturally enhances the balance and stability of the car.
On the downside – depending on your point-of-view – the output remains unchanged: 200 hp at 7,000 RPM and 151 ft.-lbs. of torque at 6,600 RPM. Buyers who had been waiting in anticipation of a WRX’d (or even better, STi’d) version of the 2.0 engine will have to wait some more … or do their own WRX’ing.
Still, the twins perform well as-is. Meaning, they perform as well – or better – than the MX-5 Miata.
A manual FR-S gets to 60 in 6.4 seconds or so; the Mazda (being slightly less powerful) is just slightly less quick.
It needs about 6.6 seconds to do the same run.
But, be advised: The optional six-speed automatic really slows the car down. Zero to 60 takes nearly eight seconds when so equipped. You do, however, get a reward – or rather, compensation – in the form of significantly improved fuel economy due to the automatic’s better-than-you-can-do-it shifting. With the auto-box, an FR-S rates 25 city and 34 on the highway – vs. the manual-equipped car’s 22 city, 30 highway.
In both cases, the Scion does better at the pump than the Miata – surprising, given the Mazda is smaller and lighter and has a less powerful (167 hp) engine. It should also be mentioned that the Miata still comes standard with a five-speed manual. A six-speed is available, but you have to pay extra to get it.
On the other hand, the FR-S requires premium fuel while the Mazda merely recommends it.
So what happens if you run regular unleaded in the Scion? You won’t hurt anything. But you may notice a slight drop in fuel economy and performance, because the engine is optimized to burn higher-octane fuel. Or put another way: You won’t save much if any money by using lower-cost regular unleaded – because your gas mileage will drop a bit from what it would otherwise have been if you’d filled up with premium.
There is a wise old gearhead saying: It is more fun to drive a slow car fast than it is to drive a fast car slow.
The FR-S is not slow, of course. At least, not when equipped with the six-speed manual transmission. But it is not a bullet – like a 370Z, for instance.
Or even a Hyundai Genesis.
But it is very light – as modern cars go. Just over 2,700 pounds – which is a bit heavier than the Miata (2,480 pounds) but nonetheless, a comparative featherweight compared with members of the 3,000-plus-pound club like the Genesis (3,495 lbs.) and Mustang (3,524 lbs.) and 370Z (3,278 lbs.).
Even small FWD 2-plus-2 hatchback coupes like the VW GTI (3,160 lbs.) and Ford Focus ST (3,223 lbs.) are comparative porkers in comparison.
With its boxer engine mounted low in the chassis – and the weight of its drivetrain more evenly distributed from front to rear – the Scion’s handling is inherently advantaged as compared with the FWD stuff.
In a FWD car – with most of the drivetrain’s weight located over the front axle centerline – the back end (already light) tends to get lighter as weight shifts forward mid-corner. And may the ghost of Elvis help you if you brake suddenly.
Suspension tuning can compensate for this to some extent, but the RWD layout is naturally better in terms of high-speed dynamics, especially when dancing on the razor’s edge. For example, by applying more throttle, you can effectively transfer weight rearward and use the rear wheels to help steer the car – impossible to do in a FWD car, where the back wheels are merely along for the ride.
The Scion’s grip threshold is extremely high – as is true, frankly, of almost any modern sports car. So high, in fact, that to really explore the car’s (or your own) limits it is necessary to drive at speeds that are grossly illegal in the land of the formerly free. This is both good – and extremely frustrating. Good, because the car’s limits are so high that you can drive it very fast (relative to the posted speed limit) with almost no real effort. The car does the work for you. What would have been tire-skittering/lunch-losing scary in a ’70 MG is – yawn – just loping along in a car like the FR-S.
To catch up to the limits of the FR-S requires track day hustling – and at that point, you are in danger of a roadside anal probing followed by a stay at your local Abu Ghraib.
Or something worse, if the car gets away from you.
Probably this is why Toyota made it so that if you select the most aggressive VSC/Sport setting, the traction control stays on. At least, just enough on to reel you back in, if you push the car beyond your limits.
This year, they sent me an automatic-equipped version to test. I found it much less enjoyable to drive, even though the automatic transmission itself cannot be faulted. In Sport mode, the gear changes are speed bag brutal. The tires would chirp … if the engine made enough power to do that. The rev-matching downshifts dance in near-perfect syncopation with whatever you happen to be doing. Descending the 9 percent grade and series of sharp S turns that is Bent Mountain Road out here in The Woods, the Scion’s box admirably double downshifted and held the right gear to keep the engine on its power curve through each sweeper.
But – and this is just as true of the Miata – there’s not enough horsepower (or torque) for an automatic to work well in a car like this. That is, to get the car going soon enough … for a car like this. Losing two seconds (almost) to 60 is a tough thing to accept, even if you do get more gas mileage as part of the deal – and because there’s so little torque at lower engine speeds (remember, the 151 ft.-lb. peak does not happen until 6,600 RPM) the car frequently feels sluggish until the revs can build (and torque is produced).
No doubt this is why Honda never offered the S2000 (RIP) with an automatic and – arguably – neither of the twins (and for that matter, the Miata) ought to be saddled with an automatic, either.
All these cars are not only easy-drivers with manual transmissions (thanks to hydraulic-assist clutches with light-on-the-legs action) they are better drivers with the manual.
Get the automatic if you must.
But otherwise, stick with the stick. You’ll be much happier, even if you do lose a few MPGs.
The FR-S is a much more macho-looking car than the Miata, which has been accused of being a “chick” car. Which it’s not – just ask all the guys who autocross Miatas in SCCA club racing.
If anything, the more harmless-looking Miata makes it easier to run under the radar and actually use the car for its intended purpose. The week I had the FR-S (in red) I also had a Miata (in gray).
Guess which car drew less attention from the bullet-headed beat-down boys?
Just shy of 10 inches longer (166.7 inches vs 157.3 for the Miata), 2.2 inches wider through the hips (69.9 inches vs. 67.7) and considerably heavier (2,708 lbs. 2,480) though both cars are featherweights, by the increasingly portly new car average of 3,200-ish pounds.
Interestingly, you feel like you’re sitting lower in the FR-S, even though the Miata actually sits lower to the ground (50.6 inches for the Scion vs. 49 inches for the Mazda). This is due to the Scion’s higher door tops. In the Miata, a tall geek like me could almost rest his left elbow on the top of the door, with the window rolled down.
And that’s good noise.
On the downside, the placement of the cupholders in the FR-S is torturous – and spill-certain. There are two in the center console – mounted impossibly far back, such that you either have to use your left hand to get your cup (reaching over yourself to do it) or raise your right arm up – and then back – and try to pick it up, like one of those grabber arms at a kewpie doll game of chance. There is another upholder molded into each door panel – and it’s big and in the right place. But it’s also partially obscured by the forward-canted door pulls – which makes getting your coffee out of there without sloshing it all over you a near-Olympic challenge.
The interior layout itself is business-like (which is good) but slightly broody – and a bit plasticky. I like the up-tempo look of the Miata’s dashboard more.
I am not sure whether to cheer – or jeer – the layout of this allegedly 2-plus-2 sports coupe.
Theoretically, having back seats ought to make the FR-S (and BRZ) the more wife-acceptable/everyday-viable cars vs. the two-seater Miata. But in actuality, the FR-S (and BRZ) are two-seaters, too.
The back seats – while physically there – are like looking through a plate glass window at ice cream you can’t have. With the front seats in almost any position that makes sitting in them viable for either the driver or the front seat passenger, there is literally – I am not exaggerating – no space for putative back seat riders’s legs. These would need to be tucked in, fetal style, for our hypothetical people to sit back there. Now, if the FR-S/BRZ twins were hatchbacks (like the Scion tC I reviewed a few weeks back; see here) then the additional real estate could at least be used to carry cargo. But the FR-S and BRZ have conventional trunks – which are so tiny (6.9 cubic feet) as to be hardly worth having.
The rear seatbacks are one-piece, though – and they fold. This helps … cargo-carrying-wise.
Also, the trunk – though small – is larger than the Miata’s purse-sized 5.3 cuber.
I love the pull-up emergency brake – which is set so that you can lock up the rear wheels.
Also, the oil filter is located topside – just pop the hood. No need to crawl under the car to get at it.
More power would certainly be nice, but it would also make the FR-S (and BRZ) less affordable than they are – and also put them into competition with cars like the Genesis coupe and Nissan 370Z.
I think Toyota-Subaru is being smart to keep things as-is. The cars are selling well, in the way they were meant to sell – as specialty/niche vehicles. They were never meant to be high-volume cars or, for that matter, high-performance cars. They were designed to be sports cars – and affordable.
Incidentals: Being a Scion, the FR-S doesn’t offer many factory options. But there are a number of dealer-installed (or over the counter and you install) options, including fog lights (look out, they’re $490), an upgrade exhaust system, various wheels and – the big one – Scion’s BeSpoke premium audio rig, which includes Internet radio and navigation. It’s an easy to use unit, with just a few buttons – but the screen is smallish and has an aftermarket look to it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s nice that Subaru-Toyota didn’t just make another Miata.
Or even a better one.
Just a different one.
Throw it in the Woods?
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