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Scion FR-S a strong return to sport segment

Published: Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012 1:15 a.m. CST • Updated: Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 12:27 p.m. CST

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Toyota’s return to the affordable-performance realm has arrived in the form of the all-new, rear-wheel-drive 2013 Scion FR-S sports car.

It’s now available at Toyota dealers nationwide, with prices beginning at $24,200 for the six-speed manual model, and $25,300 for the version equipped with a six-speed automatic.

A product of Toyota’s alliance with and ownership interest in the smaller Japanese automaker Subaru, this new little two-plus-two sportster is the fifth vehicle in the lineup for Scion, Toyota’s youth-oriented North American brand.

Two other Toyota versions of the FR-S will be sold in other parts of the world — the Toyota GT 86 in Europe and one called simply the Toyota 86 in Asia. Subaru will have its own version, the BRZ, which will be available in the United States and other markets.

Both names – Toyota and Subaru – are displayed on the top of the engine. Subaru is the king of the front-mounted boxer engines; Porsche has similar engines, but they are rear-mounted.

There may be enough room to add a turbocharger under the hood, but Toyota doesn’t yet offer one. Without a turbocharger, the boxer four produces 200 horsepower and 151 foot-pounds of torque in all versions of these cars – Toyota’s and Subaru’s.

Also, there are no plans for a convertible version of the car, mostly because its roof is a key part of its sturdy structure, and significant re-engineering would be required if the hard top were to be removed, Toyota says. But it certainly would be a cool car to have a drop-top on.

Toyota said the collaboration on the engine came from taking the new Subaru boxer design and paring it with Toyota’s own D-4S fuel system, which includes direct and port injection. The engine has a high 12.5:1 compression ratio, which requires premium fuel.

All models have the front-engine/rear-drive configuration. This is a departure for Toyota, in that all of its U.S. cars now have front-wheel drive; it’s also different for Subaru, all of whose U.S. models now have four-wheel drive. There’s no room for a front differential in this vehicle, though.

We’ve already seen some similar fun sports cars of late from Subaru: the WRX and STI models, built on the compact Impreza architecture.

But the FR-S is the first sport model from Toyota since the MR2 Spyder was discontinued in 2007, nine years after the even sportier Supra went away.

Toyota decided to use the Scion name on the FR-S to help breathe some life into this brand that Toyota created in 2003 to try to lower the median age of buyers in its showrooms, which had been creeping into the mid-50s.

Although aimed at Generation Y, the Scion brand has found favor among a broad age range. But it has languished in the past few years. The lineup now includes two little crossovers, the xB and xD; the small tC coupe; and a minicar, the iQ.

None of those comes close to the excitement of the FR-S, though, whose name stands for “Front engine/Rear drive/Sport.” The car has a near-perfect front-to-rear balance, which aids greatly in handling.

It handles quite well, with precise and predictable steering and a road-hugging but rather harsh suspension. If you’re burdened with achy-breaky joints, you might not enjoy the FR-S – particularly as a daily driver. My tester felt every little bump, bringing groans from my unappreciative passenger.

There’s plenty of power for everyday driving and a bit of fun stuff, too. But as I put the FR-S through its paces on some winding country roads, I could just imagine how much more fun it would be with a turbocharger.

My tester came with the automatic transmission, which probably won’t be the choice of buyers who want to enjoy the true sporty nature of this car. It does have paddle shifters behind the steering wheel so you can somewhat control the shift points of the automatic yourself, but it won’t let you push the engine to red line like you could do with a real manual.

The very low-mounted front bucket seats, with red accents, are well-bolstered to hold the driver and passenger in place in tight turns, but this also affects ride comfort.

My spouse, who always has a way with words, said of the FR-S and its rough ride: “It’s a beautiful car, but it’s a lot like women’s shoes: If they’re pretty enough to get a lot of attention, they’re going to hurt.”

Toyota says the FR-S was benchmarked against the Porsche Cayman, which costs about twice as much.

With its two-plus-two seating, there is supposedly room for four people. But the rear seat can hold only small children at best (in their safety seats). The front of the rear seat cushion was all the way up against the back of the front seats in my tester. But the young males who are the targets of this vehicle probably won’t be hauling little kids around.

Toyota says the FR-S was inspired by the AE86 generation of the Corolla, better known as the Hachi-Roku, a vehicle not sold in this country. “Hachi-Roku” means “8-6” in Japanese.

With its low center of gravity and relatively low total weight – about 2,800 pounds – the FR-S and its siblings have decent track attributes, and will no doubt be favorites at weekend autocross events. The “core goal” of the car was “achieving pure balance,” Toyota said.

EPA ratings sound pretty decent: 25 mpg city/34 highway/28 combined with the automatic transmission, and 22/30/25 for the manual. But I didn’t fare so well in my tester, which ran short of fuel after the first three days (it has just a 13.2-gallon tank).

I presume that my driving style had something to do with my poor fuel economy, which averaged about 24 mpg in mostly highway driving. But it’s hard not to drive with a bit of a lead foot in this car; that’s what it’s for.

A limited-slip differential is standard, as are electronic stability control and traction control. There is a switch on the console to allow the traction control to be turned off, but apparently it’s not guaranteed – even with it supposedly in the off position, the traction control kicked in anyway when it decided I was having too much fun.

There are two doors, and the car has a conventional trunk, rather than a rear hatch. The rear seatback can be lowered to increase a flat extended cargo space, and I imagine that most people will be more interested in the back seat for cargo than passengers.

MacPherson struts are used in the front, while the rear has a double-wishbone suspension. Four-wheel ventilated disc brakes are standard, along with lightweight 17-inch alloy wheels.

The muscular exterior design was “inspired” by the Toyota 2000GT, the company said, with an aerodynamic profile, low stance, “menacing face” with “wide mouth,” and a rear end with dual chromed exhaust outlets and LED taillights.

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