Quick Spin: 2013 Scion FR-S

I’ll be honest with you: I wasn’t expecting much from the Scion-branded version of the Toyobaru. Why not, you may ask? Well, I was quite disappointed by its Subaru counterpart.  Since the Scion is effectively the same car as the Subaru, but with different badges and a (slightly) different interior, I had no reason to expect that the Scion would be measurably better than the Subaru. My worry was compounded by the fact that the FR-S is positioned as the cheaper, younger sibling of the BRZ; did I really expect it to have a nicer interior, or make a nicer noise, or ride more smoothly than its more expensive brother? I wasn’t hopeful. Well, I don’t mean to spoil the review, but folks: I was wrong.

This is the actual car I drove--and I think it looks great in black. (Source: boulderscion.com)

This is the actual car I drove–and I think it looks great in black. (Source: boulderscion.com)

Exterior: 8/10

Not a single fake vent in sight!

Nary a fake vent in sight!

The exterior of this car scores one point higher than the Subaru for me because, joy of joys, THERE ARE NO FAKE VENTS ON THIS CAR! That makes the exterior a hundred times better in my book–it’s just more honest design. As it turns out, the more honest design of the FR-S is a bit of a pervasive theme in this review, so keep an eye out for other areas where I find that to be the case. Otherwise, it’s basically the same as the BRZ–a quite well-proportioned sporty 2+2 coupe that vaguely recalls the Toyota 2000GT. There is one notable difference between the two exteriors, and that is in the front fascias and the headlights. The BRZ has a strange sort of “mouthguard”-looking thing covering the top half of its grille (which is shaped like a trapezoid), whereas the FR-S’s hexagonal grille has a subtler piece of plastic in its upper half. The FR-S also has two sort of fang-like (or dagmar-like, if you prefer) protrusions underneath the grille, whereas the BRZ’s front end lacks these, favoring a more rounded edge in profile. Neither one is really more attractive than the other to me; both exteriors excite the eye, but not to the point of overstimulation. The BRZ also gets standard LED running lights (which look really snazzy), whereas the FR-S has to make do with halogens, no matter what trim level you select. This is a bit of a bummer, but I think that even the halogens look great on this taut, sinewy sheetmetal.

The only thing that spoils my impression of this car’s exterior (apart from the lack of the Subie’s LED running lights) is the Scion badges. I don’t think of myself as a brand-snob, but it will take a little while before I’m willing to mentally disassociate Scion from all of those dreadful, boxy economobiles they’ve been producing since their inception. Still, if any car has a chance of making me appreciate the Scion badge, it’s a Toyobaru.

The car I drove came with a tasteful little spoiler on the edge of the trunk. I didn’t expect to like this very much (generally I find spoilers on road cars to be fairly excessive), but it was actually very slick in person.

The little deck spoiler looks really nice on this car, and very subtly enhances the aggressive look of the car. (Source: boulderscion.com)

The little deck spoiler looks really nice on this car, and very subtly enhances the aggressive look of the car. (Source: boulderscion.com)

Interior: 7/10

As you can see, there's not too much difference between this cabin and the BRZ's--notable changes include the head unit and the HVAC switchgear.

As you can see, there’s not too much difference between this cabin and the BRZ’s–notable changes include the head unit and the HVAC switchgear. (Source: boulderscion.com)

This interior is broadly the same as the BRZ’s, so you can check out my BRZ review for an overview of what it’s like to sit in this car. But the little differences between this interior and the Subaru’s interior were surprisingly significant; in total, I ended up awarding this car an extra two points for its improved cabin. Let me explain why.

The FR-S shares many common components with the BRZ–and this is both good and bad. For instance, they both have the same fabulous steering wheel, the same expensive-feeling handbrake, the same pedalbox, which is nicely oriented for heel-toe, and the same intuitive Toyota switchgear (for turn-signals and cruise-control). On the other hand, they both share the same gear knob, which is a bit tragic–it looks and feels cheaper than it should, even on an entry-level car. Moreover, much like the BRZ, this car lacks a center armrest. I still don’t know who thought that was a good idea.

What struck me as I was driving this Scion–something I forgot to mention in my BRZ review–is how small this car feels inside. It’s low to the ground, and quarters are close between driver and passenger. It’s not nearly as close as in, say, a Lotus Elise, but it is cozy in this car. When I drove the BRZ, I interpreted this feeling as “suffocating;” but, for reasons I cannot explain, I really did feel like the FR-S was a pleasantly snug fit rather than a claustrophobic little car. The two cabins really don’t differ much at all; perhaps the interior has simply grown on me.

Nice seats--I truly adore them. They are well-bolstered and hug you in the corners, but they are also remarkably comfortable.

Nice seats–I truly adore them. They are well-bolstered and hug you in the corners, but they are also remarkably comfortable.

The seats on this car are different than the ones you get in a BRZ–all-cloth, rather than Alacantara with leather bolsters. I can’t say that I minded, honestly. They hug the body quite well, and are also remarkably comfortable due to some great cushioning in the very middle of the seat. I could see taking a road trip in these seats and being perfectly happy about it [Ed.: This is based entirely on a hypothetical scenario, and I’ve only ever had 10 or 20 minutes of seat time in this car, so take this with a grain of salt].

One or two small differences that I noticed: I really like that the Scion’s tach is set against a white background, as opposed to the black background behind all of the Subaru’s IP gauges. Moreover, I like the font on the Scion’s IP better. It feels just the slightest bit more mature than the BRZ’s Voltron-looking font does (to my eyes). I’d also like to state for the record that the switches to turn off traction control and engage Sport Mode may look a little flimsy, but they feel very positive and solid to the touch. Oh, and quite happily, the gearknob doesn’t rattle around in its housing like it did in the BRZ; I expect this is due to a recent service bulletin which called for the replacement of the shift bushings in all Toyobarus.

The differences that really caused me to bump this score up two notches are small but important. First of all, this interior feels a lot more honest than the BRZ’s does. The materials and surfaces are all a little bit simpler than the ones in the Subie (because the FR-S is ostensibly the cheaper of the two variants), and the overall effect of this is that the car’s interior feels a lot less…fiddly. If that didn’t make sense to you, then let me see if I can explain anecdotally: the FR-S and the BRZ are both budget sports cars; the price difference between them is not so great that they really appeal to different segments of buyers. But the BRZ is festooned with a mess of Subaru “luxury” equipment: partial leather, climate control knobs with little screens on them, and a truly dreadful integrated stereo head unit and nav screen. All of these things complicate the design of the car’s interior with added “features,” but they’re not high-quality additions, so the inside of the BRZ ends up feeling like a failed attempt to grasp at a luxury/high-tech interior.

The FR-S interior, on the other hand, acknowledges the limitations of its selling price, and because of this, the simple materials and controls come by their simplicity much more honestly. The HVAC knobs in the FR-S are chunky plastic things that don’t purport to tell you exactly how many degrees your side of the car will be set at (Good lord! It was set at 73, but I will positively wilt with the thermostat set even a degree above 72!); it’s a hot-to-cold gradient, with fan speeds ranging from 0-4, and all of the digital gimmickery is left aside. Masterful. And–hold onto your hats–the stereo actually works. More on this later.

In this, among other ways, the FR-S is a bit like using stock Android after having tried a really cumbersome corporate skin (like something from LG, or HTC Sense). You realize that all of the so-called “features” that the skin offered were really just getting in the way of using the device.

Still, the FR-S’s interior is far from perfect. I wish for a better-looking and better-feeling gearknob, and for a center armrest; and, of course, only time will tell if the trim on this car will shake itself to pieces, as I predicted in my BRZ review. And the backseat is still a joke. But the FR-S feels like a far more pleasant place to be than the BRZ ever did. Again, I chalk this up to a combination of my becoming accustomed to the interior, as well as a greater degree of honesty in the use of interior materials.

Ride: 6/10

I had read that the FR-S ride was tuned differently from the BRZ’s. That difference is said to be a subtle one, but during this test-drive, I had very few complaints about the ride on this car. Some bumps were worse than others, but on the whole, my experience of this car’s ride was nowhere near as uncomfortable as my memory of the BRZ led me to expect. The ride was firm, to be sure, but not jerky or painful. I would say that it was well-balanced, leaning decisively toward the sporty side of the equation, and at both city and highway speeds, I found the ride to be a non-issue.

After some reflection, I think I finally understand the Toyobaru’s ride: it really is quite cleverly tuned. Over cracked pavement, potholes, and uneven pavement, the chassis and suspension filter out most of the unpleasantness. You can hear and feel the car’s suspension and chassis reacting to the impact of the broken surface, but you, as an occupant, aren’t actually impacted very much by these bumps.

My negative experience in the BRZ, I have discovered, is a result of the cars’ inability to cope with regularly undulating pavement–the sort where you hit lots of very small pavement seams, all in a row. The suspension doesn’t crash around over these–well, not exactly, anyway. It jiggles and jounces you up and down at high frequency, so that it almost feels like you’re vibrating. As a result, there are sections of I-70 in midwestern states which I can vividly imagine as absolute hell in a Toyobaru; however, I can also imagine that, most of the time (i.e., if you’re not on a cross-country roadtrip and experiencing this jiggling), the ride would be no problem at all.

Handling: 10/10

This car handles exactly as well as the BRZ did, so I won’t expand on the section I wrote for that car too much, except to say that I took the FR-S on a slightly different route–one where I could put it through some esses. Its performance was nothing short of breathtaking, and even at (relatively) low speeds, I was thunderstruck by the way this car felt; I honestly don’t remember the last time I had this much fun driving. I was grinning like an idiot for the entire duration of the test drive.

Brakes: 9/10

I’m actually knocking a point off of the brakes as compared with the score I gave on the BRZ. The FR-S’s brake pedal felt a little numb to me as compared with the BRZ’s. Perhaps this would change over time–the car I drove had less than a hundred miles on it, so perhaps the calipers, discs, and/or pads were not yet “broken in.” Once I got past this feeling, though, braking performance was admirably progressive and firm.

Gearbox: 9/10

Refer directly to the BRZ review for this section: my opinion is the same for this car is it was for the other Toyobaru. The gearbox is a tiny slice of heaven: snicky, slick, and very mechanical-feeling.

One thing I noticed on this test drive that I hadn’t gotten the chance to try out on the BRZ is that Reverse gear is only accessible by pulling up on the shift boot collar. Will people please stop doing this?! The right way to unlock that gate is to push down on the gearstick, people. Still, it’s easier to get at this car’s Reverse-gate-unlocker-collar than it is on the Focus ST‘s transmission.

I also felt a lot more at ease with the clutch on this car during this test drive. The engagement point is definitely a bit high, but the fact that I’ve acclimated to it over the course of a measly two test drives is proof that it is very possible to acclimate to it. For this reason I’ve bumped up the score by one point: once you get used to that clutch, the whole experience is incredibly immersive.

Acceleration: 8/10

Much as with the gearbox, my opinion of this car’s acceleration hasn’t budged. I got the opportunity to wring out the FR-S a little bit on this test drive, and even with myself and the salesman in the cockpit, it went like hell. The automotive cliche that this car makes 60mph feel like 100mph is totally true–even slight acceleration at low speeds is an exhilarating experience. You simply must drive this lightweight gem of a car–not even the brawny turbocharged 2.3L straight-4 in my old Mazdaspeed3 could compare to this engine for sheer fun, and that’s saying something. If 60mph feels like 100mph, I can only imagine that 90mph must feel like Mach 7.

Sound: 7/10

My current theory is that there was something wrong with the engine of the BRZ I drove (misfire? very small rocks in the gas line?), or that Subaru somehow tuned or symposed their engine to have more of their signature flat-4 clatter, because the sound produced by the FR-S is completely different, to my ear. Granted, the FR-S I sampled was optioned with the TRD exhaust package, but I’m pretty sure that just has to do with the shape of the exhaust pipe tips, and has no effect on the actual flow or sound of the exhaust system. [Ed.: I looked into this and the TRD catback exhaust is certainly at least partially responsible for the difference–it’s tuned for more of a bass note while still minimizing drone; this $1100 option is well worth ticking.] Whatever the reason behind the disparate sounds in these two cars may be, I was smitten with the sound of the FR-S’s engine.

It’s a flat-4, so no matter what, it’s going to be at least a little clattery sounding. But the FR-S’s engine struck me as being generally quieter than the BRZ’s engine at low RPM, and less thrashy-sounding when you push it. Either way, I found myself loving the noise this car makes. It doesn’t shriek with the joie-de-vivre of an Italian V6 or V12, and neither does it snarl like the Corvette’s pushrod V8; it even seems down on character when compared with the vulpine growl of the Focus ST’s I4. But there is something fantastically purposeful about the sound this engine makes. More than anything else, it reminds me of a Porsche flat-6 in that respect. The two don’t sound all that much alike, but the character of the aural delight you get out of a Porsche flat-6 is the same sort of thing that you get from this flat-4: it sounds mechanical. It sounds raw. And there is something inescapably alluring about that. In contrast to the BRZ, which I distinctly recall putting in 6th gear a couple of times just so that it would be quiet, I found myself hanging onto gears in the FR-S, just so that I could hear the way it sounds at higher RPM.

Toys: 5/10

I’m giving the FR-S an extra point in this category over its brother because, though they both offer a paucity of doodads and gizmos, at least you can use the ones that you are given in the FR-S.

Trying to operate the BRZ’s touchscreen stereo/navigation unit at speed was like trying to perform eye surgery with a chainsaw: someone was bound to get hurt in the process. As I mentioned in the “Interior” section, the fact that Scion has owned up to the FR-S’s slightly lower price means that they’ve fitted a stereo system to this car which doesn’t force you to use stupid second-rate touchscreen controls. It’s all physical buttons, and it’s intuitive enough that I figured out the gist of how to operate it on my way out of the dealership parking lot. Bravo, Scion: you’ve fixed one of my least favorite things about the BRZ.

This is the head unit supplied by Scion, and for me, it was light-years better than Subaru's touchscreen nightmare. (Source: boulderscion.com)

This is the head unit supplied by Scion, and for me, it was light-years better than Subaru’s touchscreen nightmare. (Source: boulderscion.com)

Like the BRZ, this car comes with AUX-in, USB-in, and Bluetooth. It doesn’t have automatic climate control, but I don’t care, and neither should you. The HVAC system on this car is one of my all-time favorites for its elegance and simplicity.

The FR-S doesn’t have a plethora of gadgets to distance you from the business of driving; on the contrary, it just gives you the essentials: HVAC and a stereo with modern connectivity. Folks, this car doesn’t even come with an armrest–you were expecting radar-guided cruise control?

Value: 8/10

I had a hard time with this score. I gave the BRZ, priced at $25,801, a 5/10. This car has a “no-haggle” price of $24,999. So, to be clear: in this FR-S, you are getting what I judge to be a superior car for just about a thousand dollars less than the cost of the equivalent BRZ. That’s a phenomenal deal. So yes, this FR-S gets three extra points, for being better than the Subaru and cheaper than the Subaru at the same time.

Let me say one more thing on the subject of this car’s value. I got out of the BRZ feeling a little let down. That car was supposed to be a back-to-basics sports coupe, and it just felt like a loud, uncomfortable car with some sporting touches. It had great characteristics, but it didn’t strike me as being a great car. But from the moment I climbed into the FR-S, I knew that it was a more honest machine, and that impression really defined the experience I had with it. Ferdinand Porsche once said that “good design is honest,” and this FR-S is a supremely good piece of automotive design because of its honesty.

Another famous designer, Apple’s Jony Ive, once said that good design should fade into the background, so that the design of a product doesn’t interfere with the experience of using that product. In the FR-S, there were moments when I lost myself in the car; the car itself seemed to disappear as I drove along. This is a profoundly strange feeling, and maybe some of you know what I’m talking about from experience, but essentially my brain stopped distinguishing the steering wheel and my hands as separate entities; in these moments, the urge to change gear felt as natural as the urge to inhale or exhale. It felt like the distinction between myself and the car was blurred.

Source: (boulderscion.com)

(Source: boulderscion.com)

If this has never happened to you, then it must sound unspeakably stupid. But to me, these moments where I get lost in the machine are blissful. Moments like these are a big part of the reason I love cars. I’ve only experienced them a handful of times before; this car put me in a position to have that experience on a test drive. The fact that this machine is available for roughly the same price as a GTI or a Mustang V6–which, while fun, are nowhere near as immersive or engaging as the FR-S–isn’t merely “value.” It’s full-on lunacy.

I stepped out of the FR-S today and immediately felt a pang of intense desire: I wanted badly to make this car mine, to drive it to work every day, to wash it by hand, to take it on road trips and to explore its limits on Flagstaff Road. I haven’t wanted a car this much in a long time, and because it’s as inexpensive as it is, I might just buy one when I return from England next July. I will absolutely drive the new GTI next year before I make a decision, but if I had to decide–right now–between my much-adored GTI and the FR-S I just drove, I would go home with the Scion.

Aggregate Score: 87/100

(C.f. the BRZ’s aggregate score, 64/100)


One thought on “Quick Spin: 2013 Scion FR-S

  1. Pingback: New Digs | PRNDLoser

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