Off-Track Review: 2013 Scion FR-S
[Editor’s note: TTAC does not review cars, TTAC reviewers do. The reviews can be as different as the reviewers are, and they voice their opinions independently. Due to the high interest the FR-S has received, we put a whole squad of TTAC reviewers into the car, and we are not done yet.]
Alex’s initial look at the pre-production Scion FR-S had a few feathers getting ruffled in the comments section. Then came Derek’s discussion of the hype surrounding the car and his own disappointing drive, and even more feathers were bent askew. Now Jack’s had a go at dissecting the FR-S on the track (his natural environment, if not the car’s), and it’s basically been like firing chickens into a snow-blower.
So, while the little Toyobaru sits in the middle of crossfire of angry verbiage that is like, so totally not what usually happens around here, I’ll belly up to the bar. We’ve had the launch event, we’ve had the track comparo; I had the FR-S for a week to evaluate it as a daily-driver, and one thing right off the bat:
“First things first: your humble author kind of loves the FR-S.” -Jack Baruth
Unlike my colleagues, I’d like to avoid the mistake of simply stating that I like the car in the midst of a discussion of its foibles and short-comings. This erroneous method seems to have resulted in much furor including accusations that TTAC is anti-FR-S – we’re not.
Instead, I place my overall conclusion right at the beginning, in 72-point font so you can’t possibly miss it. This is a good car, and I liked it…
Five minutes or fifty feet: that’s all it takes to fall head-over-heels for the MX-5. I loved Mazda’s little red roadster so much I went straight to craigslist and starting hunting for used ones, temporarily forgetting that shopping for drop-tops shouldn’t be a priority when your wife is 38 weeks pregnant. Oops.
Not so with the FR-S. Those of you who’ve been able to snag a test-drive or a spin in a friend’s new purchase and walked away feeling fairly disappointed: you aren’t alone. My first reaction upon winding out the 2.0L boxer was, to paraphrase Katie Holmes on her wedding night, “Is that all?”
The double torque peak – and in-between crater – makes the FR-S a bit weird to drive in stop-and go. It’s got decent off the line punch, but then you’re revving through a wasteland with little to encourage you forward. Things pick up a bit towards redline, but the 6-7/10ths mid-range (where the MX-5 is such a joy) is lacking something.
What’s more, I couldn’t really fall for the engine note either. It was loud and somewhat tasteless, like – oh, to pick an example at random: this. Frankly, the whole first five minutes was a bit of a let-down. But I persevered.
Things that do work well? The seats are fantastic. The interior is extremely cheap, but it’s also spartan and uncluttered: no buttons on the steering wheel to accidentally change radio-stations during an apex.
The sizing feels right, not quite as little-car chuckable as the roly-poly MX-5, but low and light, like an early Integra or 240SX. What’s more, if you don’t fit in a MX-5, you’ll likely fit in this car – it’s spacious enough, and the roof has bulges high enough to accommodate a helmet.
Forward visibility is pretty good, beltlines are low, and rear visibility can be perfectly ok if you set your mirrors correctly and trust in the shortness of your car. And then there are those kid-size back-seats: perfect for me you’d think, with a little hellion on the way.
Not even close. First, hoisting a pregnant lady in and out of the passenger’s seat isn’t winning you any purchasing points. Second, rear-facing child seats are all the size of Volkswagen Beetles these days: cramming one behind the passenger’s seat is going to require storing your spouse in the glovebox. Booster seats will be ok, but this is not necessarily an ideal young-family second car in the early stages of child-rearing.
Tofu Delivery Rating:
As a grocery-getter, the FR-S does fine. It’s got a trunk, not a hatchback for chassis-stiffness reasons, and at just seven cubic feet, you’d better be good at Tetris. For larger objects, the seats do fold down; obviously the marketing department is touting its effectiveness at loading up a set of race tires and rims for the track.
Unfortunately, there’s a height issue. Taking back the empties on a Thursday left me with puzzle I never had to face with my WRX: I couldn’t get the truck closed. Some careful rearranging did the trick, but there’s certainly a limit to the FR-S’s trunk capacity: nowhere near a huge practical advantage over the Miata.
Sorry, I mean “MX-5”. I know that’s currently the correct nomenclature for Mazda’s little roadster as the scripted “Miata” was seen as too girly. Here’s an advantage for the FR-S then: in the public view, it’s a dorifto-machine, not some limp-wristed mincing-mobile.
Admittedly, the Miata minces through the corners just fine, and I couldn’t care less about its supposed “girl’s-car” image anyway. But then there are those who worry about that sort of thing, so perhaps the imagined stigma was always too much for you.
Flip-side to this is the V6 Mustang: currently the automotive catch-all du jour. “Why not a V6 Mustang?” Why not indeed?
Here are two reasons: it’s a Mustang, and it’s a V6. Ford’s Pony car won’t work for everyone, and as good as the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter V6 is, it’s still seen as the lite option. Someone will inevitably ask you why you didn’t buy the V8 version just as, if you go for the FR-S, someone will inevitably ask you why you didn’t buy the V6 Mustang.
Either way, Saturday night found me at Canadian Tire, purchasing a cordless weed-eater for my tiny suburban lawn. The parking lot is fairly open in the evenings, and an impromptu car show had popped up: Oldsmobile 442s, some Mopar Iron, a Volvo 122s – a very mixed bag.
Just a bunch of guys shooting the breeze over their definitely-non-concourse machines. I strolled through briefly, admiring, listening and nodding, and found myself in a bit of a mood to go for a drive.
I took the long way home, after fiddling with the FR-S’s traction control system (engage sport mode, then hold down the traction control button for a further 2-3 seconds). The car was the same as it ever was. I pushed harder. It got better.
Here, finally, caning the FR-S along the curve, things started to click. It’s not the sportscar second coming of Christ, but it sure works when you thrash the bejesus out of it.
Part of the deal with the old AE-86 is that everyone forgets what a piece of junk that car is, although good fun to flog. Modify it though, and things start getting interesting.
At the last track day I did, an FR-S owner on Dunlop Star Specs was fairly easily keeping up with more powerful machinery. How? He also had a brake upgrade swapped out of an STI. Looked like fun. Did it look like more fun than the NC MX-5 which showed up with Hoosiers stacked on a mini trailer? Uh…
Oh yeah, and there’s this. Want the power the manufacturer isn’t providing off the bat? No problemo. This turbo kit puts out a nice smooth power curve and still uses stock injectors. No need to overnight parts from Japan either – these guys are in Ohio.
Buying a first-year car is always a bit of a crap-shoot. Even the Miata buggered it up with early crank-nose issues. From leaky tail-lights to idle speed problems to erroneous panel-gap fitment, the FR-S has had what can be charitably called teething issues. Here’s a list.
Even still, would I recommend this car? Let’s see: it’s not a better drive than the Miata, but work at it and you’ll find the reward; there’s bound to be aftermarket support to correct most of the issues (the clutch uptake is horrible, but the community’s already all over that one); there’s enough space to just pip the practicality meter. Add this to the fairly reasonable fuel-consumption – though premium is required – and sure, it’s worth a good hard look.
But so’s the ‘Stang, and so’s the MX-5, and so’s a ‘Speed3, and so’s an Abarth, and so is the surprisingly good Genesis coupe. No two ways about it: we’re living in a golden age for cheap motoring. The FR-S is a good choice, but it’s not a no-brainer. None of them are.
Scion Canada provided the car tested and insurance.
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