In the 1990s, Japanese sports cars dominated the automotive industry. You name it, every Japanese automaker had their own affordable sports cars that boasted a fun to drive index with four or five seats and relative affordability. Mazda had the RX7, Nissan had the 300ZX and the 200SX, Honda had the Prelude and the NSX, Toyota had the Celica, MR2, and Supra, Mitsubishi had the 300GT, and so on. But sadly, all of the aforementioned were put to pasture due to growing demand for more mainstream vehicles. Before the Scion FRS, the cheapest sports car with a rear wheel drive layout and four/five seats with an emphasis on handling was usually more than 25,000 dollars (besides the Mustang or Camaro). Automotive purists have been demanding for a back to basics car, a car that is all about driving enjoyment for not a lot of money. This is where Toyota and Subaru came in. Toyota wanted to return back to building fun cars like it did with the Supra, Celica, and the MR2, and it wanted to up its credibility with a new affordable sports car. Subaru and Toyota teamed up in 2007; Subaru would focus on the engine and the chassis development while Toyota did the styling and marketing, and both would get their own version. They looked at the Toyota AE86 (1983-1987 rear wheel drive Corolla hatchback and coupe), 1967 Toyota 2000GT and 1965 Toyota Sports 800 (both rear wheel drive sports cars) for inspiration during development. After a long five years of teasing us car fanatics with countless concepts, the production GT86 and its twin, the Subaru BRZ finally came to market in 2012. It was sold in other countries as a Toyota, but due to Toyota’s “youth oriented” division, Scion which was struggling in North America, the Toyota GT86 was branded a Scion FRS (Front Engine, Rear Wheel Drive, Sport) as an attempt to make Scion relevant again.
For the FRS’s design, Toyota’s objective was to create an “authentic rear wheel drive sports car with compelling style.” The long and sleek hood and sharp headlights hint at this car’s handling pretensions. The only thing I do not like about the front is the fog light housings. The blunt shape disrupts the surface of the lower bumper. The side profile is full of details that hark back to the 1967 Toyota 2000GT such as the kink of the window line and the front and rear fender haunches. The “86 Boxer” badge placed on the front fenders depicts pistons in a boxer configuration, a nice touch. The rear looks purposeful with a detailed diffuser (black part of the bumper) and the dual exhausts complete the look. If I had to complain, the taillights are too generic for a car of this type. The interior is strictly function over form. The steering wheel is a nice shape, and controls layout look uncluttered with lots of red stitching throughout.
Toyota bench marked the Porsche Cayman and Honda S2000 for handling in this FRS, and it shows. I am sitting in the passenger seat, hanging on for dear life as my friend (the owner) approaches corners at speeds so high that we experience G forces to the max. I asked her, “So I am guessing you like this car?” and she responded, “Obviously.” The FRS utilizes a boxer engine format (more on that later) which allows for a low center of gravity, improving its handling. If you drive it normally, you might say it drives well, but push it hard, and the FRS really comes into its own. There is very little body lean, and it feels stable at any speed and remains composed over bumps and dips. It eagerly darts into corners, and there is virtually no understeer. You might be surprised to learn that the FRS uses the same exact tires as the Prius hybrid. The reason for this is that Toyota reasoned that this car is not all about going around a corner better than other sports cars, but that you have more fun doing it. Basically, the tires grip well enough, but when you push it, the tires break loose, resulting in a controllable drift. The more I think about it, it is a great way to exploit the power without having to go fast. The steering’s feel is one of the best I have ever experienced. It feels very immediate, as if you are touching the road itself. It steers with alarming precision and accuracy that is better than many sports cars, and the weighting is spot on. Despite the extraordinary handling, ride quality does not take a hit. Sure, it is choppy, but it is tolerable on most roads. The easy-to-modulate brakes inspire confidence.
As for the powertrain, this is where Subaru’s expertise comes in. As a purveyor of boxer engines, Subaru and Toyota agreed to employ a boxer engine for the GT86/FRS/BRZ. A boxer engine feature pistons that move horizontally rather than vertically like in conventional engines. With 200 horsepower, it is not exactly fast, and many automotive purists have complained that it lacks power. I can attest that there is plenty of power. It may not offer lighting fast acceleration like a BMW M3, but that is not the point of this car. This is going to sound anti car guy, but what is the point of having so much power, that you cannot use it in real life daily? Not once during the drive did I think the car needed more power. I really like how the engine really comes alive after 4,500 rpm all the way to its 7,500 redline. The six speed manual transmission suits the character of the FRS. It has a light action to it, but you still feel connected to the car somehow. The clutch pedal has excellent feedback and bite. There is a six speed automatic transmission available, but the manual is the transmission to go for. Fuel economy is decent at 22 mpg city, 25 mpg combined, and 30 mpg highway for the manual transmission.
The engine is buzzy most of the time, but when you floor it, it emits an addicting growl. There is some road noise, but refinement is not that bad.
Sadly, its handling greatness does not translate into well finished accommodations. While solidly constructed, the interior is furnished with scratchy plastics, and some buttons feel fragile. The gauges are logically laid out although I wish the speedometer was bigger as the numbers are too close together. There is a digital readout of your speed in the centrally mounted tachometer which remedies this problem. The low center of gravity means you sit really low in the car. In a country where big SUVs are the norm, driving next to them is a little nerve wrecking, but it is liveable. It is easy to get comfortable, and everything is in reach. The seats offer decent comfort and excellent bolstering, but they lack lumbar support. It is acceptably roomy in the front, and the cabin offers decent visibility. The rear seats are inhabitable, and access to them is subpar. I would not recommend sitting there unless you are small or you absolutely have to. Access is problematic due to the low roof and high door sill. This version comes with a touchscreen setup. It is frustrating to use as it is slow to respond, and it attracts sun glare easily. At least the climate controls are easy to use. Trunk space and cabin storage are surprisingly good.
I am seriously blown away by this car. I don’t mean to sound whimsical, but you literally feel alive when driving this car. This car appeals to me because it is both fun and practical. For 25 grand, you get world class handling with Toyota reliability and practicality. No wonder it is receiving all kinds of accolades worldwide. As a car guy, this car holds significance for me not just because it is an affordable fun sports car, but because it might herald a return of the 1990s. Remember how as the Ford Mustang grew in fame and sales, Chevrolet and Dodge revived the Camaro and Challenger, and the muscle car era was reborn? I’m hoping that this FRS has the same effect as the Mustang did. Sure, you can get a Volkswagen Golf GTI, Subaru Impreza WRX, Mazdaspeed3 or a Ford Fiesta ST for less money, but those are not rear wheel drive. Rear wheel drive is a sports car trait, and your only options (before the FRS) were to get a Camaro or a Mustang under 30 grand. But anybody who lived through the 1990s will remember that Japan manufacturers really came into their own with their sports cars. The Nissan 300ZX, 200SX, Mazda RX7, Toyota Supra, and so on were the rage. Even the front wheel drive Honda Prelude and Toyota Celica jumped in this trend. These were the cars that most car guys wanted their first car as. Now, all the attention is on the expensive and “cool cars like BMW M3/M4, Audis, and so on which is fine, but this proves my point. The Scion FRS, along with the Toyota GT86 and Subaru BRZ, is truly one of a kind.