On the Road Review: Scion FR-S Coupe

Automakers have long held the belief that in order to attract youthful shoppers, you have to build youthful, sporty cars. For Toyota, with one of the older customer profiles, it became necessary to regain a customer base that once was the foothold of the giant in the American marketplace — young buyers looking for economical, efficient, attractive and sporty cars such as the original Celica.

After teaming with Subaru — with Toyota doing exterior design and chassis work, Subaru doing powertrains — the result is not quite Celica-esque. Toyota’s version, the Scion FR-S shown, and Subaru’s BRZ edition are fun, fast cars that handle crisply and are rewarding to drive in a literal sense. Think Mazda Miata with a sloping fixed roof, token rear seat/parcel shelf and slightly more power.

But the original Celica had a certain practicality to it. It was thrifty to buy and own, it was popular (especially with young women) and it was sporty without being the class hot-shoe and promising things it could not deliver.

The FR-S is certainly sporty; it is sleek to the point of being racy-looking, with the proper splitter panel up front, aggressive 17-inch wheels and a tuned exhaust note that is missing from the Subaru version (strangely). Turn-in is sharp, body lean when pressing the curves is almost nonexistent and the responses from the three pedals in our UltraMarine Blue sample were immediate.

Standard pieces include a fully independent suspension, with expensive double-wishbones in the rear, for supple handling, a Torsen limited-slip rear differential for better traction while cornering and ventilated disc brakes at each corner for max-braking effect. The 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder engine is direct injected and uses variable valve timing to increase output — a credible 200 hp — while the rear-drive chassis makes all of the right moves when the driver selects “enthusiasm mode.”

The FR-S sounds better than the Subaru version, sampled earlier this summer, which is odd because Subaru does the powertrain tuning and it has the WRX and STI models in-house, so you would think it would have the better sounding sportster. The FR-S rides better than the stiff BRZ, too, a nod to Toyota’s efforts to reach a larger audience without compromising the car’s sporting abilities.

People really like the look of the FR-S. Long stares on the road and in close quarters revealed a certain admiration for the car’s lines, the eye-popping paint and the youthful stance that the car embraces. So, the FR-S does raise the pulse on many viewers.

In summary, the FR-S has the makings of being a really meaningful sports car, except the masses haven’t noticed, or, if they have, they are ignoring the little 2+2 coupe in favor of other choices. Sales are double those of the Subaru version, but still weak, less than 1,000 units a month from Toyota’s Scion dealers. Toyota dealers nationally sell over 1,000 Camry sedans each day.

Given the success of the new Mustang, Corvette and Camaro, one must wonder why the FR-S/BRZ twins are struggling to find a profitable level of sales, or a reason for Toyota and Subaru to create a generation two of these coupes. Does there need to be a convertible model? One would say no, convertible sales are down. Do the twins need a turbo-injection of power? A critic might say yes, at least optionally, as buyers are embracing big(ger) horsepower. A more powerful version of the FR-S would likely get more cars onto racetracks, where Mazda has successfully been creating excitement, fans and buyers for over 25 years. Alternatively, get the FR-S into the various drift competitions that are West Coast popular.

The FR-S might also benefit from a lower price point. The optional TRD exhaust system, which gives the car more personality, lists for $1,100. Add the marginal stereo upgrade, another $1,200, and a rear spoiler for $399 (which should be stock), as well as a center armrest, $249, and you have pushed the SRP to over $29,000. At this price, you do not have a rear view camera, one-touch lane signaling or any steering wheel controls for the frustratingly small stereo system buttons — that lacks satellite reception. In addition, for just over $29,000 you can get into a Nissan 370Z that has 50 percent more power, more features and is vastly quicker. Value-conscious buyers notice these things.

The FR-S is a fun driver. It is a nice looker. It has a lot of details and pieces that make it attractive to some buyers. However, it is missing the cache, the single hook that will make the car a “must-have” for millennial drivers and others that make up the younger-driver market that both Toyota and Subaru seek, and need.

Toyota has openly expressed a desire to become more popular in the performance segment of all markets. The FR-S is a good little starting point. Let’s see what comes next and how serious Toyota, Scion and Lexus are about making competitive sporty cars for the masses.


Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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