When I think of a sports car, my mind’s eye conjures up a low-to-the-ground two-seater with a long nose, a short rear deck, flat cornering, tight steering and enough – but not too much – horsepower going to the rear wheels.
Also, when I think of a sports car, Toyota and Subaru do not jump to mind.
I know, Toyota has had a Formula One effort, but of no real distinction, and NASCAR, where Toyota has had some success, is competition strictly for racing fans who think bumper cars at 200 mph is sport. News flash: a bumper car cannot be a sports car. As for Subaru, this is the brand of ultra-safe, super-reliable four-wheel-drive cars with the styling pizzazz of the Bridges of Madison County.
So give credit to both companies for recognizing the problem and doing something to fix it. Not just recently, either, but as far back as 2007 when Subaru first spit out a “mule” vehicle from a shortened Legacy chassis to validate a sport car concept. Today, that concept has become the Subaru BRZ ($27,295 base) and Scion FR-S ($25,990 base), and both are very real sports cars. Bravo.
Special kudos to Subaru, which did all the engineering development. As for Toyota and its so-called youth brand, Scion, a tip of the hat for getting the pricing down to a number that even a recent college grad can afford.
All these thoughts came in a flood when I took a recent turn in Scion’s FR-S – for front-engine, rear-wheel drive, sport. This one is known in other markets as the 86 in tribute to a generation of the Corolla better known as the Hachi-Roku – “8-6” in Japanese. Like the FR-S, the Corolla AE86 was a lightweight coupe with the engine up front and the power going to the rear.
Here in 2012, what Subaru engineering has wrought is the perfect engine packaging of a horizontally-opposed “boxer” engine with its cylinders laid flat, in opposition to one another. If you want to take corners on a rail, a low centre of gravity is a must and that’s what we have here. Moreover, the front-rear weight ratio of 53:47 is outstanding.
But we’re not overwhelmed with oomph. The point is, if you want to get the most out of this car, you need to drive it well and properly. The 2.0-litre four-banger – with ultra-modern direct and port injection for each cylinder – isn’t turbocharged or supercharged, so the horsepower number comes in at a modest 200 and the torque is 151 lb-ft. That’s enough for a car that weighs a modest 1,251 kg, but it’s not blast-off time when you bury the throttle pedal.
I would only buy this one with the six-speed manual gearbox. You have the option of a $1,180 six-speed automatic transmission that adds 50 kg to the car. Driving a sports car with an automatic is a bit like riding a racing bike with training wheels. That’s point one. Point two: you don’t want to add unnecessary weight to a sports car.
Save the money. The manual offers quick, precise shifts with short throws. Toyota argues that the automatic features “aggressive up-shifts and sporty, rev-matched down shifts via steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters” and my answer to that is, so what?
At least both gearboxes have the same 4.10:1 final drive ratio. We have a lively, high-revving engine here, if you want to get the most out of what power is on tap. Also standard is a slick Torsen limited-slip differential. This matters most when you’re cornering, especially cornering with energy and enthusiasm. You can feel the Torsen at work putting power to the rear wheels where it needs to be and right now.
When you find the right stretch of entertaining road, you can, in fact, feel all the chassis engineering at play. Subaru’s engineers deserve credit for the essential design, but let’s give an honourable mention to Toyota/Scion for whatever last-minute work was done to the MacPherson struts up front/double wishbone layout in the rear. The 13:1 ratio of the electronic power steering means you get generally sporty responses, though at times they can be a hair slow when you really push. Wheels? 17-inch alloys; and, naturally there are ventilated disc brakes all around.
The cabin here is also all sports car basic, too. Nothing fancy, I mean. Yes, Scion touts 2+2 seating, but who are we kidding? All you can seat in the back are two gym bags, though the rears do fold flat. The front buckets are a snug fit, I like the flat dashboard configuration and there’s a large tachometer staring straight back at the driver. Perfect. The list of standard gear is outstanding, too – right down to the eight-speaker Pioneer audio system.
Scion won’t sell more than a handful of these; this is a serious car, not a smartphone. It’s also a work of engineering art, if there can be such a thing.
2013 Scion FR-S
Type: sports coupe
Base price: $25,990 (freight $1,495)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 200 hp/151 lb-ft
Transmission: six-speed manual
Drive: rear-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.6 city/6.6 highway using premium fuel.
Alternatives:Subaru BRZ, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Volkswagen Golf GTI, Porsche Cayman, Hyundai Genesis Coupe, Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Mini Cooper S