One year makes a big difference.
Last summer, Mrs. G and I were sitting at a traffic light on Rte. 1 in Seabrook, N.H., an area of strip malls, big-box stores, and seemingly endless red lights and traffic backups.
Next to us at the light was a last-generation, early-2000s, canary yellow Mustang Cobra convertible. The top was down; the sound system was pounding.
The driver, with shaved head and earring, looked at us with a huge grin and called over “That is one badass car. What is it?’’
Before answering, “A Scion,’’ the thought crossed my mind that we should be switching cars.
After all, the Scion FR-S that we were driving is designed to be marketed to a young demographic, and the Mustang convertible he’s driving is more of a midlife-crisis car.
Interestingly, the current Mustang should be a competitor to this latest Scion. Toyota introduced the Scion brand in 2002 to appeal to younger buyers with its combination of affordability, customization possibilities, and reputation for reliability.
The FR-S adds to that formula with a healthy dollop of performance.
Before the FR-S arrived in 2012, giving Scion this wonderfully stylish, great-handling, and performance-oriented offering, the best the brand could offer in that direction was the tC coupe, certainly a nice and customizable car, but hardly likely to get such a reaction in traffic.
Styling-wise, the FR-S looks as though someone incorporated styling cues from the Datsun Z series, Jaguar’s XKE, Opel GT, and BMW coupes and blended them into a most attractive package.
The FR-S was co-developed with Subaru, which markets a sibling as the Subaru BRZ. Toyota says the FR-S designation stands for Front engine-Rear drive-Sport.
Together, the FR-S and BRZ fill a niche in today’s market that cars like the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, Datsun 240Z, and BMW 2002 occupied a few generations ago.
After British-built sports coupes disappeared from the scene thanks to rust issues and more stringent US safety and emissions requirements, the lower-priced, rear-wheel-drive sports car became an endangered species here.
These new cars, like the Scion, cost about a third as much as the gorgeous and much higher-performance Jaguar F-Type coupe, which was recently introduced; however, FR-S owners will have much of the same owner satisfaction.
The FR-S comes in just a single trim level and carries a base price of $26,555 with the six-speed automatic transmission (including destination charges). Our test car had a smattering of options: fog lights ($490), rear bumper applique ($69), BeSpoke premium audio ($1,198), and a rear spoiler ($399) for a final price of $28,711.
Standard features include 17-inch wheels, keyless entry, LED taillights, dual chrome exhaust tips, air conditioning, sport pedals, cruise control, an obligatory 300-watt sound system with Bluetooth, iPod connector, and USB input … and a folding rear seat.
The folding rear seat and speedometer-tachometer gauges merit comment. With the front seats adjusted for any normal-size driver and passenger there is zero rear seat legroom.
The large tachometer is the centerpiece of the gauges with a smaller analog speedometer off to the left. Fortunately, a digital speed readout was more convenient for those who don’t make it a practice to push the engine’s rpms on the redline.
Mrs. G. had a moment of worry. After packing $300 of Market Basket groceries (pre-worker job action) into a shopping cart, she realized, “Ohmigosh, is all THIS going to fit in THAT?’’—that being the FR-S.
It did, but barely, after we carefully packed the cargo area and put some spillover onto the rear seats, an area with zero legroom. In truth, an FR-S owner would be best advised to keep the back seat permanently folded down for extra cargo-carrying capacity.
Up front, the seats are well-bolstered for cornering and comfortable for longer drives with plenty of legroom.
It’s also clear that younger drivers have an easier time with ingress and egress than their elders—that applies to getting into the car and into driveways. The FR-S is low with a ground clearance of 4.9 inches. That can lead to scraping the bottom of the front fascia on steep driveways, but it also means a low center of gravity for turns.
While the FR-S has a strong array of safety features, including traction control, ABS, stability control, and smart stop technology, it doesn’t have most of the contemporary safety features, such as a rear view camera or other contemporary electronic systems like smart cruise control, and blind-spot and cross traffic warnings.
It does, however, have the optional big-time audio system and a new-for-2014 built-in navigation system-satellite radio. Both came in handy, though nav isn’t quite as good as it is in Toyota’s main vehicles.
On the road, the FR-S remains a joy to drive. The boxer four-cylinder engine combines a Subaru power plant with Toyota’s direct injection system to put out 200 horsepower and 151 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s enough to be fun but doesn’t put you in the high-performance category.
The FR-S isn’t a vehicle to be driven to achieve maximum fuel economy. Its steering is quick and the chassis is well set up for having fun on twisty back roads such as the ones we regularly take across rural Connecticut and New Hampshire.
Still, it’s also at home in commuter traffic, and fuel economy is impressive. The automatic is rated at 25 miles per gallon city, 34 highway, and 28 combined. One tank returned 30.3 mpg and the onboard readout claimed we were in the 34-plus range on another long drive. A downside is that it requires premium-grade fuel.
The lingering suspicion is that the fellow in that Mustang convertible would have loved driving it. Maybe Toyota should have badged it as the FUN instead of FR-S.
2014 Scion FR-S
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $26,555/$28,711. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 25 city/34 highway/28 combined. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 30.3 mpg. Drivetrain: 2.0-liter flat (boxer) four-cylinder, 6-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel-drive.
Horsepower: 200. Torque: 151 lb.-ft. Overall length: 166.7 in. Wheelbase: 101.2 in. Height: 50.6 in. Width: 69.9 in. Curb weight: 2,806 lbs.
Steering and handling, surprisingly comfortable seats and driving position, fuel economy, intuitive controls.
Tight (read uninhabitable) back seat.
THE BOTTOM LINE
All the fun of an old-style British two-seater with Toyota/Scion reliability.
Ford Focus ST, Ford Mustang, Nissan 370Z, Mazda Miata, Subaru BRZ.