As I calmly waited for the car to arrive, I felt none of the usual anticipation for the experience that lay before me. The burbly metallic blue coupe eventually rolled up, giving me the chance to convince the car’s caretaker to hand over the keys. It was at that point when I realized that almost everything I thought I knew about the car was dead wrong.
I’m not one for the traditional press-pass-in-a-fedora automotive journalism in that I don’t live and die by the press cars I get, nor the impossibly twisty roads that surround me, but by the angles that I can apply to certain areas of car culture, whether they happen with new cars or not.
About a week ago, I was contacted by a twitter-follower-now-real-life-friend Gregson Mathe from Shifting Lanes about him getting his very first press car - a Scion FR-S. He mentioned that he’d like to get my impressions of the car and allowed me some seat time. Say what you want about unfair perks of the job, but any time a total stranger offers you the chance to drive a brand new car based solely on the quality and frequency of your hazy internet ramblings, you take it.
Having driven several of the more “sportsy” Scions in the past and painting the company in a not-so-positive light when they unveiled their latest corporate #brand exercises, I was skeptical, especially when a handful of my esteemed colleagues either kept quiet on the subject of this car or said that it was slower than they imagined and that it was definitely to the platform’s detriment. Having no actual seat time of my own, driving this car could, in theory, both satiate my curiosity about the now-ubiquitous model and prove without a shadow of a doubt that I’m pretty likely to take bad advice from idiots.
As I turned the key and started the relatively small four-banger, the soles of my suede loafers shook slightly, an equal-and-opposite reaction caused by the frequency of the bassy, factory-installed TRD exhaust system. “Crap, that’s loud,” I thought and said - a common occurrence when you lack the ability to filter your thoughts like I do. Engaging the clutch was effortless but in a very ambigious and questionable way - it was standard new car fare - not in the fact that the engagement point was in the exact right spot or it didn’t smell like the business end of a thousand left-foot redline dumps, but that nearly every consumer-level affordable manual car has a clutch pedal that’s feather-light without a set engagement point, but a range instead. It’s a great addition to a car for people that don’t yet understand how to drive manual, but for the seasoned manual driver, it may be the pre-installed window dressing that no one asked for.
To level with my lovely readers, I will spare you the long-winded tirade that would have me going on about the controversial power level of the car and how omitting a totally-makes-sense turbo setup was a mistake punishable by lifetime boycott. I’ll instead direct you to Patrick George’s concise and clearly more intricate article about why power doesn’t necessarily a good car make - at least in this case.
If I’m honest, it’s actually not a very good first or only car, for a few reasons: the car is billed as a 2+2, but as far as I can tell, it was an elaborate ruse set up by Toyota and Subaru’s legal department to see how far you could go without actually committing insurance fraud. It’s like the annoying game of “I’m not touching you!” played by billion-dollar corporations. The bottom of the backseat literally touches the back of the front seat. Forget leg room, you’d be hard pressed to slide a three-pack of manila folders through that gap without giving yourself a papercut.
As an addition to the somewhat screwed-up perspective of this car’s interior, the speedometer makes no logical sense. It sweeps at an odd Aston Martin-esque angle and two thirds of the gauge means jail time in Virginia. Optimistically, the speedometer sweeps to 160 mph, but even the most brazen of FR-S owners will struggle to command enough runway space to get up to 135. My guess is that seeing a speedometer that goes that high ignites that “My dad can beat up your dad” mentality when compared to that of the car’s archnemesis, the Mazda Miata, which tops out at a measly 150.
At highway speeds, the grating drone emanating from the car’s well-placed dual triangle exhaust pipes will likely have your significant other second-guess their decision to stay with you, at least until they finish binge watching Orange Is The New Black. However, there is a silver lining in all of this wanton irrational negativity - the same reasons why the Scion FR-S makes a rather crappy first car are exactly why you should buy it as a second car, leave your kids at home, and change your Netflix password.
Most people consider driving nirvana to be on a winding coastal road with your foot welded to the floor in a European car that has two cams spinning away above a loudly-ticking cylinder head and a manual transmission with more-than-two-but-less-than-five forward gears, made at a time when the number one holiday gift idea for the woman in your life was a shiny new mop. The reason why so many die-hard enthusiasts look to this experience as the penultimate bucket list drive is because the human brain has a tendency to laser focus the positive and block out the negative.
For instance, the high-strung car that revs to the moon, made at a time when communism wasn’t just your hipster friend’s political affiliation on Facebook, probably needs its valves checked, the car will leak oils of many shades and viscosities, the carburetor is likely clogged from all the ethanol we use in modern fuel, the driving position will give you back problems, the bias-ply tires will make driving in the rain akin to ballroom dancing with Cthulhu, and you won’t need to worry about accidents because I’m told the force of the steering column piercing the front of your skull only hurts for, like, a second.
The Scion, however, is all of the good, with none of the bad. It’s quirky enough that it isn’t an acquired taste, but you can learn how to drive it in your own way, forming the bond not on the mandatory side-of-the-road breakdown, but in the fact that you learned to steer with the throttle without going into an embankment, under the speed limit. The FR-S and BR-Z have managed to harness and manufacture the very thing that makes driving enjoyable and gave it an invisible buffer zone.
The 2.0-liter boxer engine is similar to the EJ engine in the older Subaru WRXs in that it makes the telltale loping V-twin exhaust noise, but it was made in a way to actually encourage people to work on it, exactly as you would on an older car that would probably carry a much steeper learning curve.
Pop the hood and see an extreme lack of engine covers with an easily reachable dipstick and engine oil filter - the latter of which is a great addition, since the oil filter location on previous generation boxer engines demanded that you place your hand between the hot exhaust pipes. It allows one to form a hands-on connection to the car without being forced to do so via catastrophic failure, and that is quite rare, especially for something new.
The ride is firm, but the seats’ heavy bolsters and soft padding go a long way to dampen the effects of potholes, a far cry from the bump-steer-and-pray suspensions that you’d get on anything vintage and more composed, purpose-built and simple than nearly anything else on the new car market. However, I wouldn’t buy this car new, mainly because there’s only one generation of the car and specific trim levels differ very little. In the current market, you’d be able to find a 2013 FR-S in great shape for nearly half the price of a new one.
It drives every bit as good as the Fiat 124 featured in the last episode of Top Gear except the owner won’t have to worry about rebuilding a carburetor fifty miles from home or the valves cannibalizing themselves because they were designed for leaded gasoline. It also has more than twice the horsepower of almost any vintage roaster and makes a noise both unlike and better than any Mazda Miata in existence. The reason why I reference the Mazda Miata, also known as Jalopnik’s One True Car, so frequently is simply because it’s the FR-S’ natural rival in many ways even though the scales of gearhead justice seem to tip to the Subayota models the more I truly consider it.
The Miata is an undoubtedly great car but it barely breaks convention in that it hasn’t taken any chances on its formula since the NA in 1989, and even then, that was a takeaway from small British roadsters that once ruled the road and track. Some can see the all-analog construction of the Miata and think it’s delightfully retro, but I think it’s simply a case of the world changing around a static object. Nothing really changed, and while there’s nothing wrong with a “don’t fix what isn’t broken” mentality, sometimes it can’t hurt to shake things up. (I do have to applaud the Mazda engineers’ fanatical approach to keeping the new Miata’s weight down with all the safety gear modern cars are required to have.)
In addition, the Miata comes with a soft convertible top that’s vulnerable to tears, rips, and the crazy significant other that needs to know what happened to Piper Chapman at the end of the last season. You can’t take more than one passenger in a pinch and the depreciation curve on the new generation hasn’t gotten to the point where it’s realistically anything but a rich person’s third car. In a few years I’m sure the market will change, but currently you’d get more slides per dollar by going elsewhere.
When Subaru and Toyota got together to make a car that was specifically made to commemorate the cult status of the Corolla AE86 and built the platform to go around corners completely sideways and in a hurry, the partnership on a project of this scope was unprecedented. The fact that the car housed a boxer engine gave it a uniqueness that no other sports coupe possessed, nor would likely possess without heavy aftermarket modification or several rounds of hard sake at the annual corporate mixer.
It was a model unto itself and did the best it could to show everyone and anyone that it was the epitome of the under-the-speed-limit driving experience - where imperfection is not only good, but indispensable to anyone lucky enough to grab the keys and find a path that begs a hearty beating.
(Photos by Tavarish)
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes and makes videos about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world’s cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he’s the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn’t feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.