Capsule Review: 2014 Scion FR-S

Winston Braithwaite
by Winston Braithwaite

If you purchase a Scion FR-S with an automatic transmission, I hope you’re deeply ashamed. There might be a legitimate reason. I’d accept a condition that prevents you from working a clutch and shifter. You know, something like losing a tussle with gangrene as a child or an advanced Type-II Diabetes induced foot-ectomy.

Harsh, inconsiderate statements, but why the hell would you want this car with an automatic?

I was deeply disappointed by this 2014 Scion FR-S, and I was disappointed by a 2013 FR-S before that. Both were afflicted with automatic transmissions. When it shifts on its own, it’s only half as good. Instead of working in harmony with the excellent chassis, the dopey automatic slams and locks the door on driver engagement.

There are still brilliant elements. The styling is handsome, restrained and timeless. If it only lasts a single generation, the FT-86 is going to be a classic the instant it’s no longer available. The long hood, short deck, stubby little trunklid, and fenders arching over the front wheels make up a great-looking car.

Greasy Prius tires, the story goes, were chosen to bring the limits down and make the car more fun on every drive. It works. The FR-S doesn’t need a race track to make you smile. Other ToyoBaru legend-making will include threadbare references to the old AE-86 Corolla. I contend that we’re looking back too fondly. The FR-S isn’t cheap speed, either, racking up a $28,711 price tag configured as I drove it. Options were limited to the rear bumper applique, fog lights, rear spoiler, and the BeSpoke premium audio package, which at $1,198 makes up the bulk of the increase over the $25,800 base MSRP.

For 2014, Scion added some leather-like padded vinyl to cover what had been areas of cheap plastic. It’s an effective trick that premiums up the place. The BeSpoke infotainment system includes navigation, voice control, and Bluetooth connectivity, but it will make you work for it. The unit is fiddly to use, the screen is small, and the Bluetooth sound quality will annoy the people you’re calling. Still, it’s refreshing to get a cabin that’s more of a business office. The important controls are located well and easy to use, and that discourages getting distracted by the electronics. After all, we’re here to drive.

The FR-S is a swell trainer. All of the attitudes and responses of a performance car are available to you without the need to plunge past 100 mph. Much like a Miata is a great performance driving starter kit, the FR-S is an accurate-handling car with well-weighted steering, an alert ride, and responsive turn-in. There’s a Torsen limited slip differential standard, and 17″ wheels with 215/45 tires are small these days, but about all you need with the modest curb weight. The FR-S is certainly equipped as a serious driver’s car, ain’t it a bitch that it’s got no lungs to match the legs?

If only the FR-S had about 100 more horsepower. Actually, I wish for about 75 lb-ft more torque, no need to be greedy. The 2.0 liter Subaru boxer is tweaked up with the Toyota D-4S dual fuel-injection rig that uses its direct injectors all the time and supplements with port injection under certain conditions. Scion touts the 100 hp per liter, and it is good for a naturally-aspirated engine. Thank the high 12.5:1 compression ratio for the 200 hp the engine delivers, but torque is a paltry 151 lb-ft to move 2,800 lbs. That’s something not even a 4.10:1 final drive can make up for.

Wimpy engines are more palatable with manual transmissions. While the automatic may help with off-the-line torque multiplication, I hated the mushy flat spot in the middle of the rpm range. Flatten the pedal, nothing much is going on until you clear 4,500 rpm. That’s a long wait. Dyno tests of the FR-S have shown a deep drop-off in torque from 3-4,000 rpm, and boy howdy do you feel it behind the wheel.

Despite the sharp handling, the FR-S is a chore to drive with the auto. It’s less involving than it could be, it doesn’t have enough power to be responsive, and even with a sport mode and paddle shifters, the entertainment is marginal. I’m not a fan of automatics masquerading as race-bred automated gearboxes, and this six-speed in the FR-S is no exception. Up or down, shifts happen too slowly, and that’s something no amount of gimmicky rev-matching can fix. By the time the transmission gets around to delivering what you’ve asked for, the moment has passed, the apex you were clipping is in the mirror, and that’s that. Yawn city instead of yee-haw.

The aftermarket can help, just like it’s been supporting Miata buyers in search of increased wattage for years. Superchargers are a start, V8 swaps have happened. “You’ll mess up the balance!” they’ll cry. Yes, some, but the FR-S could use a little irresponsible imbalance. Trading some increased understeer and a slightly higher center of gravity for a deeper, more flexible well of whoop-ass would be a worthwhile transaction.

The official line is that the wonderful new turbo version of this engine in the WRX won’t fit. There’s also nothing in the Toyota or Subaru dugout that’s packaged like a pushrod small-block, so dreams of a dry-sumped aluminum OHV V8 snuggled against the firewall are just that. Subaru and Toyota are telling the truth. Automakers have to make stuff fit, meet crash standards, avoid setting things on fire, and be reliable for tens of thousands of miles. That’s hard and expensive, and it’s why we can’t have nice things.

They say turbo plumbing won’t fit, and as neat as it would be to drop the 3.6 liter flat six from the Outback in the nose of one of these things, that’s about as likely to happen as a turbine. A talented individual with money (lots of money), time (lots of time), and skill (lots of skill) can turn the FR-S into whatever he or she pleases, powered by whatever can be made to fit. It’s a great platform for the modern-day AC Cobra or Sunbeam Tiger. Box-stock, especially with an automatic, the usefulness of the Scion FR-S is limited.

The problem comes down to money. A Mustang GT is a squeak away at $31,210, less if you can find a dealer hot to move the now-finite S197 models to make room for the 2015 S550 platform Mustang. For a little bit more every month, or a slightly longer loan with a quarter or half point more on the interest rate, you’ll get a 420 hp V8 and a chassis that’s not anywhere near as disciplined as the FR-S, but good enough. A Mustang GT can make the FR-S a small speck in the mirror and keep it there, whether the road is straight or twisty. A Mustang V6 Premium is priced right on top of the FR-S and will whip it, good. Any multitude of ratty used performance cars are truly vehicular methamphetamine capable of deeply embarrassing the guy bringing his $30,000 Scion to track day.

It probably sounds like I don’t like the FR-S. That’s not true. The upgrades for 2014 dress up the interior. The BeSpoke infotainment option is a nice suite of tech where previously there was none. The chassis is still the standout feature, though I wish they’d get over the hybrid tires and put some real performance rubber on it. The entertainment-versus-efficiency tradeoff is good, delivering a lot of fun with a small appetite. The FR-S remains a nimble, good-looking car. It also still screams for some real power and the automatic could make a yogi have a tantrum. Just learn to shift.

Winston Braithwaite
Winston Braithwaite

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  • Balreadysaid Balreadysaid on Jul 08, 2014

    that's exactly what its for! learning its a learning car for drifter enthusiast! like going out and buying a cbr1000rr before riding a xr100. when you drift the cbr1000 and never have drifted before most people get nervous and let off and highside. when you are done with these cars the only flavor you'll have a taste for is of the Bavarian breed! ;) once you realize NA is the drivers car choice look for a v10 and then giggle like the schproket

  • SOneThreeCoupe SOneThreeCoupe on Jul 09, 2014

    @bal- What? @everyone who likes the FR-S/BRZ: I wanted to like these cars, I really did. I joined all the forums, I followed all the hype, I got in internet debates about horsepower vs. chassis dynamics. I did the math, I figured out I could afford one, and I made sure I could buy if the opportunity presented itself. I finally got a chance to head to a dealer and get a test drive in a manual FR-S and... it just didn't live up to the hype. The engine is alright, it really is. I was coming from a Mini Countryman S, a Miata and a Range Rover Classic- the power was entertaining and I saw no problem with it. The gearbox was pretty good, as was the clutch. No problems there. Interior quality- don't care. As long as it doesn't fall apart, I don't care about how things feel or the quality of the switchgear. Steering feel was horrible. Felt anesthetized. The car went where you pointed it, but it went there as if you were playing GT5. I didn't feel involved in the process. Ride quality was hilariously atrocious. On local roads, you'd be constantly playing catch-up rather than enjoying yourself. Was typically valved too stiff to pretend to be sporty rather than actually being sporty. I talked the salesman into letting me take the car into the hills for some driving on roads I know and the car would lose composure too rapidly to be much fun. I left the dealership disappointed and with my entire view on the car ruined- I can make it ride and handle easy enough but making the electric steering actually provide feedback seems impossible. About a month later I bought my brother's '96 M3, which even in its dilapidated state gave better steering feel. Now that I've replaced all the bushings (stock replacements), dampers (Konis), sways (UUC) and springs (H&R OE Sport) in the suspension, the car is light-years ahead of the FR-S in terms of ride, ultimate grip and adjustability. The car has become tossable, unflappable and easily steered with the throttle. My total investment in the car is less than $10k, but it's my favorite daily I've owned by far. Does the E36 M3 have faults compared to the FR-S? Of course- it weighs about 450lbs more and gets an average of 20mpg if driven enthusiastically on a 14-mile round-trip commute. For me, the best FR-S is a used E36 M3. Your mileage may vary, and if you've only known econoboxes and FWD crap-wagons, the FR-S is a wondrous machine. I appreciate the fact that Toyota and Subaru built it, but it's just missing anything resembling a soul.

  • CEastwood From zero there is nowhere to go but up . BYD isn't sold in the U.S. and most Teslas are ugly azz 90s looking plain jane drone mobiles . I've only seen one Rivian on the road and it 's not looking good for them . I live out in the sticks of NW NJ and EVs just aren't practical here , but the local drag strip thrives in the warmer months with most cars making the trip from New York .
  • Lorenzo Aw, that's just the base price. Toyota dealers aren't in the same class as BMW/Porsche upsellers, and the Toyota base is more complete, but nobody will be driving that model off the lot at that price.
  • Mike The cost if our busing program is 6.2 million for our average size district in NJ. It was 3.5 last year.
  • Alan What an ugly vehicle..........and it was named a Mustang!
  • Alan I do believe regulations incentivising hybrids and plug in hybrids should be greater. I also believe that micro cars with emissions below a pre determined level should also be incentivised to allow those who can't afford a hybrid or plug in can afford basic transport.This will create an environment more suitable for all ie, manufacturer, consumer and green groups for the transition away from fossil fuel powered vehicles.The problem is hybrids and EVs are not disruptive and require government support, the US 19th Century rail system had lots of government money thrown at it. Flat screen TVs were disruptive as no government money was needed for the consumer to adopt..............globally.Eventually hydrogen will become the future energy.