“This car,” Derek Kreindler told me as we grabbed third gear down Toronto Motorsports Park’s front straight, “is like a GT-R for a guy who lives in his mother’s basement.” He had a point. Some American subcultures practice what I think of as immobile ambition — think of all those McMansions with no furniture and a double-income couple anxiously hoping someone will stop by and be impressed by the bridal staircase and crown moldings. Other subcultures are all about getting out in the street and showing off your clothes, your ride, or your woman.
The men of Generation Y aren’t marrying hopeful little starter wives, buying hopeful starter homes, and having hopeful little parties the way their parents and grandparents did in their twenties. Instead, they’ve boomeranged back to the stucco-fronted McMansions of their teenaged years so they may contemplate their student-debt-to-likely-career-prospects ratio at their leisure. Their culture is a mobile one. It’s about getting out of the house, which doesn’t belong to them. What better way to do it than with a $25,000 sports car, paid for with Mommy’s mad money or an afternoon shift at the Barnes & Noble record counter, mostly spent furtively spinning a Ra Ra Riot disk instead of the recommended Diana Krall Christmas album and checking Facebook on one’s iPhone? And after twenty-five years of receiving awards for participation and surfing along on a wave of grade inflation, Gen Y has enough self-esteem to view a full-priced sporting car with a healthy dose of ironic contempt. A Corvette is “trying too hard”, and trying too hard is something one simply never does, you see.
That’s the rather labored social context of the FR-S: all the mad tyte JDM dopeness one can finance for $425 a month. It’s a perfect fit. The problem comes when one views the FR-S in a different context: that of its readily available competition.
In the end, it’s the pricing context that will determine the fate of the little Toyobaru. At $17,500, the FR-S would have been the hottest new car in years. At $33,000, it would fall into the kind of deep dealership sinkholes that used to capture cars like the normally-aspirated 300ZX and Supra.
We chose to compare the FR-S with two cars which have found a happy home around the $24,955 “Scion Pure Price” which your despicable local Toyota dealer will no doubt envision as the top line of a long dealer-added-equipment list: the Hyundai Genesis 2.0T R-Spec ($26,500) and the Mazda MX-5 PRHT ($27,540). The venue, as previously noted, was Toronto Motorsports Park. We shared cars and facilities with our sister publication AutoGuide for the test. Using a “DriftBox”, AutoGuide’s time-trial driver Dave Pratte entered what he calls “attack mode”, recording a lap time of 1:26.2 for the FR-S and a 1:25.0 for the Genesis 2.0t R-Spec. These times were so outrageously good — up to seven seconds better than what other publications had recorded under similar conditions — we didn’t bother to try to beat them.
Instead, I called on my friend, TrackDAZE senior instructor and Camaro-Mustang-Challenge champion Colin Jevens, to help me put the Scion, Mazda, and Hyundai into their proper places. We put dozens of laps on the cars, compared notes, and discussed various arcane aspects of suspension tuning until everybody around us was wayyyy past ready to pack up and go home. If you’re able to read a headline, you can see the results of those discussions: the Scion finished what Motor Trend would probably call “second runner-up” but what TTAC calls DFL. Why?
First things first: your humble author kind of loves the FR-S. I tried to buy one, even. I like the way it looks, inside and out. I like the proportions, the size, the interior. I like the sound of the boxer four. I even like the Scion brand and philosophy, enough so that I would pick an FR-S over a BRZ even though from my perspective the price difference between the two is nonexistent and the BRZ has more stuffs.
I have personal reasons to want an FR-S as well. Nearly thirty years ago, my father borrowed his girlfriend’s “sports car” so I could check it out. It looked exactly like this:
That’s right: a black 1984 post-bowtie Celica GT-S. Black velour bucket seats. Graphic equalizer. Fender flares. Five-speed manual transmission. Hidden headlights. I wasn’t a stupid twelve-year-old; I’d already driven a few cars myself thanks to my mother’s easily-charmed female friends and I knew the Celica was slow even by the standards of the era. But it looked sooooo cool. The interior was a dark, private cave that could easily contain not one, but three yoga instructors. It may have been all show and no go, but the show was pretty good. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell the old man it was a sled. To this day, I’m reasonably sure he thinks it was a Supra.
The FR-S is totes the Celica GT-S coupe for the modern era. It’s stylish, it has a completely blacked-out cave of an interior which calls to the basement-dwelling teenager in all of us, and it is likely to be popular with the ladies due to its Scion badge and lack of spine-crushing acceleration. If you want to buy one just because it’s an FR-S, you have my blessing.
The problem comes when you make two comparisons. The first one, ironically enough, is to that ’84 Celica. That Celica had the famous 22R-E Toyota engine. Keep it maintained and throw a chain in it from time to time, and that Celica will last forever. The FR-S, by contrast, has a Subaru engine. I don’t want a Subaru engine in my FR-S. To some extent, that’s like putting a Northstar in a Lexus: hey, it’s boring, but now it will blow up and die! I don’t want to become an expert at swapping head gaskets. I don’t want to do all my maintenance from underneath the car. I want the engine from the dearly-departed last-gen Celica GT-S. Or the turbo engine from the All-Trac before that. In fact, I’d just rather have a JDM last-gen All-Trac, or the CALTY-designed bar-of-soap All-Trac which preceded it. Hell, give me a first-gen All-Trac. Know how much power the ’89 All-Trac had? As much as the FR-S. Where’s the progress? I want a Toyota engine in my Toyota. I want the car to last forever, with no hassle. It’s part of the promise of buying a Toyota. The FR-S, by those standards, breaks the promise. If I am willing to do my own head gaskets, I can buy an STi for similar money, crank the boost, and humiliate the FR-S both down the freeway and on the racetrack.
Our second comparison happens on the racetrack, as fate would have it, and that’s where the FR-S should shine. It’s a great steer, in the literal sense. It’s nice to steer around. It’s about as “neutral” as a street car gets and it does whatever you ask of it. As long, of course, as what you ask doesn’t include going quickly. The Genesis simply eviscerates it. Dave Pratte’s super-quick lap times don’t adequately demonstrate the difference between the two cars. The Genesis is much faster down the straights and in the turns the actual corner speed is pretty much the same.
An FR-S with a Genesis-matching two-liter turbo engine — which is to say, an FR-S that Toyota could easily build in their sleep, from the parts bin, and eliminating Subaru from the equation to boot — would be preferable to a Genesis on-track. That would be the car to have. Get the drivetrain out of the last All-Trac, crank the boost a bit, forget the crap about the center of gravity, and let’s have a great car, okay?
As delivered, the FR-S is not quite a great car, and the boxer is to blame. Half of the time, it can’t even get the “Toyobaru” up to track speeds where the infamous all-season tires would feel loose. It doesn’t give any sense that it’s making the rated two hundred horsepower. It’s a bunch of sound and fury signifying that you’re about get passed by a Hyundai which costs less. Ten laps in the Hyundai will absolutely spoil your FR-S enjoyment, because the Hyundai simply motors away everywhere there’s a chance to do so, and it can play the ’84 Celica Game too: it’s also a deep, dark Oriental cave of a closed coupe and it also looks sporting from a distance. Why buy the FR-S when the Genesis is available? Because it’s a Toyota and therefore reliable? Well, it’s a Toyota with a Subaru engine.
At this point, if you’re part of the FT-86 owners club/clique/Facebook page, you’ve no doubt constructed an elaborate mental response about how the FR-S is lighter, and more nimble, and a far better driver’s car than the Genesis, and how a true driver, a guy who knows anything about cars, would, like really see that. A real driver would prefer the filet mignon of midcorner adjustability to the high-fructose syrup of an overboosted turbo.
Guess what? A real driver prefers the Mazda Miata.
Compared to the Miata, the FR-S feels a thousand feet wide and two tons heavy. The visibility is dismal. The engine feels no stronger than the little four in the Mazda and it doesn’t respond as readily to small changes of throttle position. The steering, sublime when sampled individually, seems to be a little short of the Miata’s. All of a sudden, you realize that the FR-S isn’t the “Miata coupe” that some Internet player-haters called it when the specs came out. It isn’t that good. A true Miata coupe would run rings around the FR-S. A true Miata coupe would make the FR-S obsolete overnight. It’s within Mazda’s power to render the FR-S as irrelevant as Rick Springfield’s entire career.
Even against the hardtop Miata however, the FR-S is still second best, and in my opinion (although not the opinion of Colin Jevens, who believed it to be slightly more fun overall than the R-Spec) it can’t match the Genesis either. It’s too slow to beat the Hyundai and too limp to match the Miata. The English phrase “falls between two stools” applies here, but where the Scion really falls, in the end, is in last place. Yes, you can mod the hell out of it and have a great time, but as we will show you in a special “Zeroth Place” supplement at the end of this series, there are better choices for that, too. It’s back to the basement for the Future Toyota – Eighty-Six.
Images courtesy Julie Hyde, who wants you to know that her lens wasn’t working correctly.