While it's not exactly a love child, the Scion FR-S is the offspring of two companies that dance to different drummers.
They can’t even agree on who had the initial idea for the tryst – ultra-conservative and volume-driven Toyota or tiny, little "we only do all-wheel-drive" Subaru.
Whatever, the Scion FR-S and its near-identical twin, the Subaru BRZ, form a pair of ultra-light, two-door sports coupes that put immense amounts of driving fun within the reach of the average consumer.
Simplicity was the key from the outset. Light weight, minimal packaging and few or no options. The result – maximum driving enjoyment.
By any other name
Regardless of who gets credit for what, it is widely held that the lion’s share of the development for the new sports car was handled by Subaru which also supplied an all-new chassis and engine.
The cars are produced at Subaru’s plant in Gunma, Japan, too. Toyota contributions included the design, funding, overall plans and directions and its trick fuel injection system – more on which later.
The stylish coupe is marketed globally by Subaru as the BRZ. Toyota sells its version as the GT86 in other markets but in North America it's branded as the Scion FR-S (Front Engine Sports car) in at attempt to add some spice to its "youth brand."
The only differences in the appearance of the two are the lower front corners of the front fascia, the grille, headlights and a slot on the top of the front fenders.
Even the 17-inch alloy wheels and interiors are identical other than logos.
The hood line is exceptionally low with bulges for the wheels sticking up on either side to allow for Subaru’s characteristic long-travel suspension.
Invitation to drive
The doors open wide for relatively easy access, but you have to duck to clear the low roofline. Access to the rear seats is tight and there is little to no room there should you manage to squeeze into them.
The driver’s seat is adjustable for height and the steering wheel for both rake and reach so anyone can get comfy.
The tachometer with an inset digital speedometer dominates the instrument cluster. There is a conventional analog speedometer to the left but it is practically useless because of its position and the size of the numbers. A pair of analog readouts for fuel and temperature lies to the right of the big tach.
The centre stack controls include large knobs for HVAC system. Its optional Pioneer audio system is sonically great, but does look like an after-thought.
The trunk offers an impressive amount of space, which can be expanded by folding down the single-piece rear seat back. Toyota says there is room back there for a complete set of wheels and tires should they be required for a track day.
That, and the bumps in the roof to make room for a helmet are the first signs the development team expected some buyers to play with their toys.
One trim level
The FR-S follows Scion’s one-trim-level approach. The only options are an automatic transmission and an audio upgrade.
The base price of the Subaru BRZ is $1,200 higher but includes a navigation system, keyless ignition and HID headlights, none of which are available on the Scion FR-S. Subaru also offers a second and higher trim level of the BRZ.
But don’t think for a moment the Scion FR-S is a stripper with wind-up windows and rubber floor mats. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and locks, cruise control, tilt and telescope steering wheel, 17-inch alloy wheels, wireless connectivity and an eight-speaker audio system.
My test car had every available option – both of them. Even with the $1,200 automatic transmission and $515 Pioneer audio system it came in at less than $30,000 including delivery.
The FR-S and BRZ are identical in most respects inside and out. They also share the same engine, transmissions, brakes, suspensions and steering.
The engineers tried to impart a slightly different feel for each by playing with suspension bushings and settings, but you would have to have a very educated seat in your pants and lots of track time to tell the difference.
A blast to drive
I’ve driven the BRZ on public roads and a race track in Oregon and the FR-S on public roads back home and can only tell you both are a blast!.
The combination of light weight, low centre of gravity, near-perfect front-to-rear balance and a well-engineered suspension results in unheard-of agility at anywhere near this price point. The Mazda MX-5 comes to mind as the nearest competitor but it has only two seats and minimal storage space.
The FR-S is simply a delight whether tearing down a twisty back road or cruising to work.
The steering feels like your hands are connected directly to the front wheels. Your butt tells you everything that is going on beneath.
As the old saying goes, there is so much feedback you can tell not just when you run over a cigarette but whether it was filtered or unfiltered.
I think some of the credit for the ability to have so fun at the wheel goes to tire choice. Toyota engineers specified the same low-rolling resistance Michelin Primacy HP tires that are optional on the Toyota Prius hybrid.
They could easily have equipped the car with wider and stickier rubber, something many owners will do in the search for higher cornering levels. But with the relatively hard and narrow tires that come on the car you can approach and play with the limits at much lower speeds, with more safety.
There is no need to go fast to appreciate its nimbleness and inherent balance.
The standard traction and stability controls will keep you on the road and can be turned off if you feel you have the ability to react quickly and properly to an almost instantaneous loss of grip. Warning: if you are used to pushing front drive vehicles to their limits, toss that knowledge and those gained reactions out the window.
I should point out that this same suspension is not for those who seek a pillow soft ride and I forgot how susceptible a light rear-drive car was to cross winds. I would also predict the FR-S will be "interesting" in slippery winter conditions.
Power to scoot
The Subaru boxer (horizontally-opposed) four-cylinder engine sits low in the chassis helping attain a very low centre of gravity. Thanks to Toyota’s dual injection system, it is immensely tractable, smooth and efficient.
With two separate sets of fuel injectors, one for the intake ports and one directly into the combustion chamber, the engine produces 200 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque.
While that may not sound like much in comparison to some of the perceived competition, remember this is a very light vehicle giving each of those horses less weight to move.
The FR-S will scoot to 100 km/h from rest in slightly more than six seconds , a very respectable neighborhood.
My test car had the six-speed automatic which comes with a switch on the centre console that allows you to dull or enhance throttle response by choosing snow or sport mode. In the latter, the transmission will conduct rev-matching downshifts and a tug on the paddle shifters generates a much quicker response.
Enthusiasts wonder when a turbocharged version will crop up. After all, Subaru has extensive experience in this area and parts bins full of the necessary materials.
But that would destroy the current balance of the power/grip equation. More power would require more rubber and that could place the car in a different category in terms of not only price and performance – but also the ability to have so much for so for little money.
Looking for some affordable fun? Hustle over to your local Scion – or Subaru – dealer.