Front-wheel drive is dreary. No matter what you do to a front-wheel drive car, it will still be dreary. You can stuff 250 ponies under the hood of a front-wheel drive car, and you’ll make it fast, potentially treacherous and dangerous to drive...and still unutterably dreary. Front-wheel drive in any car with sporting pretensions is just horrible and wrong. As it is in…well…any car, really. Apparently, Toyota and Subaru realized this, got together, and gave us a proper rear-wheel drive sports car. Moreover, they made it affordable, too.
It’s dubbed the Subaru BRZ and the Scion FR-S in the US (It’s a Toyota FR-S elsewhere), and referred to by wags as the “Toyobaru”. It starts at around $24,000, and is powered by a 2-liter Subaru 4-cylinder 2.0l boxer engine with 200 peak horsepower, and 151 lb-ft of peak torque—about which, more in due course. It’s also very light, with a curb weight of just 2,758 lbs for the version with the 6-speed manual transmission, and 2,806 lbs for the 6-speed automatic with flappy paddle shifters.
It’s supposed to be an entry level sports car for the enthusiast—presumably young and poor—who cant afford, say, a Porsche Cayman, which is, itself, an entry level sports car for the enthusiast who can’t afford a 911.
How it looks
Outside, it looks like a Nissan 370Z. It’s just different enough to prevent Nissan’s lawyers from coming down on Toyota like a ton of bricks. That’s not a bad thing, though. The 370Z looks fantastic, and the FR-S doesn’t look much worse. Pictures don’t really do it justice, because it looks quite nice in person.
Inside, however, you do get a sense that this is a budget car. The dash is coated with a soft-touch material, by which I mean plain foam rubber. The seats are cloth, and no higher-end material is even available for the FR-S. The fascia is dominated by lots of hard plastic, and the faux carbon fiber pattern on the surface isn’t fooling anyone. Nor do the silver-colored plastic trim pieces do more than mildly suggest what brushed aluminum might look like, if there was any actually in there.
But, look, it costs $24,000. That’s a really low price. You’re not going to swath the interior in leather and titanium at that price point. Can’t be done. Materials and quality are as good as you can possibly expect at the price.
If you want a version with a nicer interior, get the Subaru BRZ, which has a nicer, upgraded interior, and even leather seats. Oh, and good luck with that. Subaru is allowed to make 1 BRZ for every 3 FR-S units. Most of them have already been sold. So, don’t hold your breath while searching for one, because you’re liable to turn awfully blue.
In front of the adjustable, telescoping steering wheel, the driver’s instrument cluster is dominated by the analog tachometer in the center. There’s also an analog speedometer on the left, though, since there’s a red LED speedometer/odometer/gear indicator readout in the tach, I’m not sure why you’d care. Especially since the numbers are small and hard to read.
There’s no sat-nav or touch screens. There’s a radio. There are A/C controls. But while you do have both Blutooth and USB connectivity for the Pioneer stereo, there’s literally nothing in the front that would frighten, confuse, or awe anyone who popped in for a drive from, say the 1990s. Indeed, it looks like that was when the interior was designed, by a guy who was probably thinking, “Alice in Chains may be the best band that ever was!” while he was doing the first design drawings.
The front seats are comfy, and fit my 200 lb. frame like a glove. They are well bolstered. There are two back “seats” where completely limbless passengers could “sit”, providing they were headless, as well. But the back “seats” fold down. That creates a passthrough into the tiny “trunk”, where, without the passthrough, some small objects could conceivably be stored. With the rear “seats” folded down and the passthrough open, there’s enough storage space for groceries. As long as you go to Albertsons, rather than Costco.
But, who cares, really? The point of this car is not passengers or storage, but rather the driving experience.
How it drives
The FR-S is about one thing: handling. On curvy canyon roads, it rides like it’s on rails. The steering is as precise as you could wish for, despite being an electrical power steering system. The chassis is superb, body roll is minimal. Everything about this car comes down to pointing it into the corners, and blasting out of them again. The traction control is minimally intrusive in street driving. The suspension is fantastic, with…wait for it…a Torsen limited-slip diff in the rear.
But there’s more!
For whatever reason, Toyota decided to equip the FR-S with the same tires found on…the Prius. These are not sport tires. Don’t get me wrong, with the Traction Control on, they’re perfectly fine for normal sporty driving, with perfectly adequate levels of grip. But, here’s the thing: When you turn off the traction control and put it in sport mode, those thin tires allow you to do very bad things. You can flick the wheel to kick the back end loose, dial in some opposite lock, press the accelerator, and proceed to drive around town sideways all day at 35 miles per hour.
On the other hand, it’s not fast. At all. It’s peppy and eager, but can’t hit 60 MPH from a standing start in much less than 8 seconds with the automatic tranny, and not much less than 7 seconds with the manual. A similarly-powered Golf GTI will beat it every single time. The problem is that it’s just not a torquey engine. I always hate to see a big differential between horsepower and torque, because I know the acceleration will be disappointing with the weedy torque. So it is with the FR-S.
Having said that, the nice thing about the Subaru boxer engine is that it’s a really easy engine to power up in the aftermarket. There’s a local performance shop here in town that’s got an FR-S with nearly 500 HP. I’m pretty sure they aren’t using the Prius tires on that one, though.
What’s good about it
The FR-S is completely focused on the the driver, and the ability to blast through tight corners with impunity. Pretty much nothing available for driving on public roads handles better or more precisely. There’s nothing to fiddle with, nothing distract you from the act of driving, apart from the relatively simple stereo. If you want to drive—I mean really drive—the FR-S is designed to help you do that as much as possible. It’s almost a re-incarnation of the old European roadsters like the MG, in that it’s not excessively powered, but rewards sharp handling on winding roads.
What’s bad about it
The lack of power is a disappointment, though, there’s no way around it. The one thing that keeps the FR-S from being a truly great car is another 50 HP and 75 torques. It doesn’t have to have enormous power. If the FR-S had 250 HP and at least 230 lb-ft of torque, it would be just about the perfect driver’s car. But it doesn’t, so it’s not. Which is sad, because it’s so good in every other way.
There is much to like about the FR-S. You can powerslide and make donuts at will. The handling is unmatched for blazing down mountain roads. It’s too underpowered to be truly great, but that can be easily fixed in the aftermarket. With the current proliferation of front-wheel drive cars on the market, the FR-S is a breath of fresh air. There’s nothing on the market that can touch it at the price.