The car you see here is the result of what may be the strangest pairing in automotive history: Toyota, the automaker that has raised dull and conservative cars to an art form, and Subaru, purveyor of designs that completely disregard what the rest of the industry is doing. The product of this bizarre union is a car that plays to neither of their strengths: A small rear-wheel-drive sports coupe, sold by Toyota as the 2013 Scion FR-S. Can such a strange union yield a good vehicle? Read on.
First Glance: Clouded bloodline
At the FR-S press preview, I made it a point to ask the Scion team about the FR-S's lineage. In doing so, I felt a bit like a boy asking his mother why everyone says he looks like the mailman -- not that I have ever had such an experience, but if I did, I imagine the answer I'd get would be just as evasive.
Scion's side of the story is that their parent company, Toyota, came up with the basic concept for a lightweight, rear-drive sports car inspired by the 1983-87 Corolla coupe, known internally (and by Toyota fans) as the AE86. The last of the rear-drive Corollas -- the four-door version had already switched to front-wheel-drive -- the AE86 had a modest 4-cylinder engine so as not to compete with Toyota's own six-cylinder Supra. Slow as it was, its light weight and well-balanced chassis made it an enthusiasts' favorite, which it remains to this day. Toyota wanted to build a car that would re-create that same feel -- hence the FR-S (which, by the way, is called the Toyota 86 or GT-86 in other markets).
None of this explains the mailman's -- sorry, Subaru's involvement in the project, except that Toyota owns 16% of Subaru's parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, and this was apparently reason enough for Toyota to fob most of the engineering work off on them. Perhaps they did it because Subaru has a reputation for building great performance cars like the Impreza WRX, although they seem to have ignored the fact that Subaru is known for all-wheel-drive performance, not rear-wheel-drive performance. Nevertheless, Subaru took the reins, and the results are pretty spectacular -- a fly-weight rear-driver that does indeed embody the spirit of the old AE86.
I find it easy to believe Toyota's claim that they did the bulk of the styling, because the FR-S looks pretty dull, with a shape that reminds me of a genericized (is that a word? Well, it is now) Mazda RX-8. Nothing about the FR-S is particularly memorable, but there are some nice details, like the taillights (which remind me of Star Wars Storm Trooper eyes) and the "86" fender badge with its horizontally-opposed piston motif. (UPDATE: I've changed my mind about this. See my Subaru BRZ review.)
In the Driver's Seat: We know who did this
Climbing in behind the FR-S's wheel, it was immediately clear to me who designed the interior: The steering wheel, column, and stick-shift are stock Subaru, as is the coarse, industrial-strength plastic on on the lower section of the dashboard and center console. Clearly, artful design wasn't a high priority here, with only a slab of patterned-trim plastic on passenger side to remind you that this is a Scion -- that and the de riguer Pioneer stereo, which is powerful enough to knock passing birds right out of the sky. Still, I can hardly believe that Toyota signed off on details like the air conditioning control panel, a rattly cable-operated affair that works with all the precision of a Chinese water pistol. (Perhaps they were preoccupied with figuring out how to make the front fenders look a bit less interesting.)
Still, I loved the front seats, which are designed to look like aftermarket racing buckets. They're comfortable, supportive, and heavily bolstered, though still wide enough to accommodate a hamburger-obsessed journalist like me. The dashboard layout is sensible and straightforward; no fancy instrument-panel pyrotechnics here, just simple analog gauges with the tachometer mounted dead center (thank you, Subaru) and a small digital speed readout to supplement the hard-to-read 160 MPH speedo on the left. (The FR-S actually tops out around 140 MPH.) One brief nod to design is the automatic transmission shifter, which looks like a stick-shift. Nice.
That said, if you were hoping for the practicality of the old AE86, you're out of luck. The back seat is useless unless the occupants are legless, and while Scion says the 6.9 cubic foot trunk is sized for tires -- you can fit four in if you fold down the back seat -- it clearly isn't sized for grocery bags or suitcases.
On the Road: Everything it ought to be
Let's get down to what really matters: Does the FR-S drive the way it ought to? Short version: Hell yeah.
Under the hood is a 2-liter horizontally-opposed (boxer) four cylinder engine -- pure Subaru, although Toyota claims credit for the fancy fuel-injection system, which uses both direct and indirect fuel injection. (The engraving on the intake manifold bears both names.) Output is a modest 200 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque, but with the FR-S's curb weight trimmed to 2,800 lbs, acceleration is decent -- not fast enough to beat a 370Z away from the stoplights, but not so slow that you can't take it seriously as a sports car. The engine note is loud and coarse, and sounds about as enthusiastic at its 7,400 RPM redline as most engines do at three grand. "Not a happy sound," one of my colleagues commented, and I couldn't have put it any better. (UPDATE: After driving the BRZ, I decided I was wrong about that, too.) That said, the engine does have a nice, flat torque curve that gives it a big-displacement feel.
Transmission choices are a 6-speed manual with short, precise throws or a 6-speed paddle-shifted automatic. The manual is excellent, but automatic buyers are hardly getting the short end of the stick (sorry, bad pun). It has a manual mode that won't shift unless the driver tells it to, even if the engine hits the rev limiter, and a Sport mode works incredibly well; it's quick to grab a lower gear and it even blips the throttle for downshifts. If all automatics worked this well, perhaps they wouldn't have such a poor reputation among enthusiasts.
But what about the handling? After a brief on-road drive, which revealed a firm-but-comfortable ride, responsive (if somewhat heavy) steering feel, and moderate engine and wind noise, Scion set us loose on a medium-speed road course to experience the FR-S's handling balance, which is enhanced by a 53% front/47% rear weight distribution and a standard-fit limited-slip differential. The FR-S is set up to let the front tires go first, but it's possible to coax it into a lovely arc of oversteer with the correct steering and throttle inputs -- which, in the interest of full disclosure, I usually did not get right, although the FR-S was exceptionally tolerant of my less-than-perfect technique. But on the tighter autocross circuit, I felt like the star of a Japanese drift video: With the stability control fully off, I could turn in hard, pop the throttle, and break the rear end loose, then drift the car sideways through the entire turn. This is where the modest engine output comes into play; it's almost impossible to feed in too much power, and it takes a deliberate act of will to get the FR-S to spin out.