It’s the perfect day and the perfect road for a brisk mountain drive in the siena red Z3. For the last time this year it’s easily warm enough to put the top down—in a little over a week the remnants of Hurricane Sandy will bury the area in snow. WV15 winds tightly along a mountain ridge, flanked on each side by peaking fall foliage. Valleys far below on each side, you’re on top of the world. There’s only one problem with this soul stirring picture: my father started the day closer to Cass, and the BMW is holding me up. With the next brief straight I snick the firm, short-throw shifter into third, spur the boxer well over 4,000 rpm, and roar past him. WV15 is an even better road for a Scion FR-S en route to meet up with a pair of Mazda RX-8s for our Third Annual Appalachian Road Trip.
No car is the best car for every situation. The Scion was borderline awful on I75 the previous day, assaulting my ears with tire roar and the rest of me with incessant jiggling. “Steel drum,” I note. My ass grows sore within an hour. The seatbelt cuts into my neck each time I forget to fasten the retaining strap to the left of the headrest. Due to the small windows and lack of a sunroof option, the dark, plasticky interior has the ambiance of a cave, albeit one with red stitching. The needle of the analog speedometer starts off at four o’clock, and even at highway speeds is still pointing towards my left knee. It’s nearly useless, so luckily there’s a digital speedometer in the tach face. One wonders why they didn’t follow Mazda’s example with the RX-8 and drop the analog dial altogether.
But the Scion’s fuel economy is good when you consider that it’s geared for performance. On I75 (speed limit 70, actual speed somewhat higher) the trip computer reports 31 mpg. I leave the Interstate for US20. On this 55 mph four-land road the noise level becomes much more bearable and gas mileage jumps to 36.
Still, these endlessly straight highways are not the ideal habitat for an FR-S. Anyone who’ll regularly be driving them is well advised to buy something cushier. Aside from minimal sound insulation and an unyielding suspension, the FR-S includes little beyond the most basic features. There aren’t even audio controls on the steering wheel. Then again, the problem with the audio system’s buttons isn’t that they’re hard to reach. They’re close at hand, but feel cheap and defy logic.
After 235 miles of driving I’d rather not repeat (but will in a few days) I finally exit I77 onto OH800. Afterwards, the further south I go the more frequently the road kinks. By the time I pick up OH26 in Bethesda, my opinion of the FR-S has improved dramatically. Even more than in the incredibly forgiving Mazda RX-8, you have to be extraordinarily clumsy with your inputs to upset this chassis. The rear end dances a bit more than the Mazda’s across mid-corner bumps, just another part of the price for the Scion’s stiffer suspension bits and lower curb weight. The car’s dynamic balance could hardly be more perfect. If you’re on the gas at all the rear tires will slide well before the fronts can start to scrub—in my time with the car the latter almost never happens.
I pass a couple of cars on the way out of Woodsfield, and the final 40-odd miles to Marietta are wide open. The sun is low in the sky, and I intend to be on the other side of the Ohio River before it drops below the horizon. The Scion’s 2.0-liter engine produces 200 horsepower, but at 7,000 rpm. Torque output peaks at a lofty 6,400 rpm, and there’s little twist south of 4,000. Once over bicycling speeds this isn’t a problem. When frequent curves call for oversteer on demand, just keep the engine at a constant boil over 4,000 rpm.
With an assist from the Torsen limited-slip rear differential, the boxer provides enough torque to work the rear end around even at fairly high speeds, but not enough to break it totally loose. At lower speeds it is possible to get the car sideways, but a touch of counter-steering easily retrieves it. For drivers who’ve never owned a rear-wheel-drive car before, the FR-S is a great place to start. At high rpm a “sound symposer” Auto-Tunes the boxer’s usual grumble into a surprisingly successful impersonation of a small block roar. Fuel economy falls in half, to 18 mpg.
Not everyone is a fan of the Michelin Primacy treads. But until near the end of this stretch, when the rear end gets a little loose, they cling tenaciously to 26’s curves without audible complaint. The seat’s tight, firm bolsters do the same with my torso, and now that there’s a need for them I don’t complain. Set to “sport,” the stability control provides just the right amount of safety net. There’s no need (as in the Infiniti G37 I drove along this route two years ago) to choose between an overly intrusive system and none at all. Even though the net is never clearly needed, on an unfamiliar, highly challenging road I appreciate knowing it’s there. After 40 exhilarating minutes I’m in Marietta.
The next day I drive from Parkersburg to Cass, passing that Z3 along the way. A few nearly brilliant miles on WV16 are wasted behind an expertly driven but still insufficiently speedy 18-wheeler, no passing zone coming to my rescue. Virtually all of the others are automotive nirvana. The roads are amazing, the trees are every color but green, other cars are few and far between, and the harder I push the FR-S the better it feels.
Rolling into Cass, I spy the old man’s copper red RX-8 parked on the shoulder. An old friend and his father in a second RX-8 won’t arrive for a few more hours. Cass, a former logging company town, is now a state park. We fill the time with a visit to the engine shop. Outside five old locomotives, Shays aside from one Heisler, are kept under steam 24/7 when they aren’t transporting tourists up and down the mountain. Inside, a sixth is being rebuilt. You can just hang out there as long as you like. We did. That night we stay in a nicely renovated “company house.” If you have any interest in steam locomotives, a trip to Cass is a must.
Not coincidentally, the scariest/most thrilling (depending on whom you ask) road in the state passes through Cass. An aptly named narrow asphalt ribbon, Back Mountain Road snakes back and forth, up and down through varied terrain. Limited sightlines and even more limited space for two cars to pass require slow speeds through many of the curves, but with others it’s possible to see that nothing’s coming. I’ve long thought the Mazda RX-8 the perfect car for such a road, where handling and visibility are a much higher priorities than power. Like the Scion, the Mazda puts handling over straight line performance and luxury, with minimal insulation, a peaky engine, and a finely balanced rear-wheel-drive chassis. I delayed my week with an FR-S by two months so I’d be able to compare the cars back-to-back in this ideal environment.
Hopping into my father’s car, differences become instantly apparent. With a slightly higher seating position and much larger windows, it’s considerably easier to see out of the Mazda in all directions. If Toyobaru took advantage of the flat four engine to lower the FR-S’s hood line, it’s far from evident. All of the RX-8′s control efforts (steering, throttle, brake, shifter) are much lower. In hard turns, the Mazda leans more and doesn’t feel as firmly tied down, but it also feels more agile and communicative. The Mazda aspires to drive like a smaller, lighter car than it is, and achieves this to a surprising degree.
Though the Scion is over 300 pounds lighter (2,758 vs. 3,075), it feels heavier. In character, it’s much closer to a 370Z or even a Camaro than to the Mazda. It does feel considerably smaller and lighter than those cars, but its throaty engine roar, tight suspension, heavy controls, and limited visibility place it in their genus. Or is the Scion a mixed-breed? If someone Miata’s got out while in estrus, and encountered a Z on the prowl, I wouldn’t be surprised if an FR-S arrived a few months later with the size and road manners of the mother but the character of the daddy.
Looking to more practical considerations, the Scion easily wins one category, with fuel economy about 50 percent better than the Mazda’s. But the RX-8 rides much more smoothly and quietly, making for a more relaxing drive the next day to Hawk’s Next (the FR-S is left behind in Cass). Our lodge is eight miles from an annual festival at the New River Bridge.
All four of us get into one of the Mazdas twice to sample some excellent local cuisine and a third time to watch hundreds of people base jump off the bridge. (One of Trey’s friends who happens to be a Navy SEAL, declared this insane, as the seven seconds it takes to plummet 900 feet to the bottom of the gorge provides little time to correct mishaps.) This wouldn’t have been possible in the FR-S, which has no rear doors, almost no rear legroom, and no space for toes under the front seats. (Back home later, even my smallest child complained.) There’s also a little less trunk space in the Scion, and much less storage space in the cabin, but either car will hold enough luggage for two people for an extended weekend.
In the end, I had a blast in both cars on the mountain roads. Both are very entertaining, yet also very forgiving, while also being fundamentally different. The Scion is much more fuel-efficient, while the Mazda’s genius packaging makes it far more practical in just about every other way. Picking one over the other based on how they drive is much like picking Thai food over Italian, or vice-versa. The Mazda RX-8 makes love to the road. The Scion FR-S masters it. Which do you want to do? Thousands of other drivers have already spoken with their wallets. The RX-8 is dead, while the 370Z and Camaro are still with us. In tuning the FR-S the way they did, Toyoburu’s development engineers have delivered what the market clearly prefers.
Scion provided an insured car with a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.