The secret is out: You don't have to be a fanatical driving enthusiast to love Scion's new-for-2013 FR-S sport coupe.
Yes, the sleek, sexy-looking two door recreates affordable rear-wheel drive fun in a small car the way the old Nissan 240Z and Mazda RX-3 did in the 1970s.
But the FR-S — for Front-engine, Rear-wheel drive Sport — grabs attention from onlookers no matter who is behind the wheel and even if the car is being driven leisurely. This new model puts some verve into a commute or a trip to the relatives' house, too.
The FR-S also looks pricier, at least on the outside, than its starting retail price of $24,955 with manual transmission and $26,055 with automatic. All models come with a 200-horsepower, naturally aspirated four cylinder.
Perhaps best of all, the smartly handling and well-balanced FR-S is rated above average in predicted reliability by Consumer Reports.
Competitors include the 2013 Hyundai Veloster, which has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $18,225 with manual and $19,475 with dual-clutch transmission that can be operated like an automatic. The base Veloster's four-cylinder engine produces 138 horsepower, but the upscale 2013 Veloster Turbo, with a starting retail price of $22,725 with manual, has 201 horses. All Velosters are front-wheel drive, rather than the rear-wheel drive that many driving enthusiasts prefer.
Meantime, the twin to the FR-S, the rear-wheel drive 2013 Subaru BRZ, has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $26,265 with manual and the same 200-horsepower four cylinder that's in the Scion.
Toyota and Japanese automaker Subaru worked together to develop the FR-S and BRZ, with Toyota officials doing the styling, while Subaru engineers took care of the chassis and powertrain.
They added Toyota's direct and port fuel-injection system to the 2-liter, boxer four cylinder, where the cylinders are horizontally opposed. Boxer engines are a hallmark of Subarus, and the new injection improves the power.
The result is a strong four cylinder that has great sounds coming from its chrome-tipped exhaust. There's decent "oomph" as the car is a lightweight 2,700-plus pounds. But peak torque of 151 foot-pounds doesn't come on until 6,400 rpm, so the car doesn't reach 60 miles an hour until some 6.5 seconds after launch, according to estimates.
Still, the six-speed manual was a precise, satisfying shifter, and the nimble handling and weight balance of the FR-S go a long way to making the driving experience fun.
The engine sits low, which Scion officials say gives the FR-S a dynamically low center of gravity like that of exotic, high-priced sports cars.
This helps explain why the FR-S tester was eminently tossable in curves and corners. There was only a bit of predictable understeer at the limits. There was nary any body tippiness in these maneuvers, and the FR-S always conveyed a strong, palpable connection to the pavement.
The electric power steering was tuned just right and didn't have any artificial feel to it.
The flip side of these laudable driving characteristics is the plentiful road noise that came through all the time from the 17-inch summer performance tires. It was necessary on the test drive to regularly adjust the radio volume as the FR-S traveled from smooth asphalt to a rough stone-and-concrete-mix road surface and back again, for example.
Still, even with the low-profile tires and firm body control, the ride in the test FR-S wasn't punishing. Indeed, the test car provided a decent ride on uneven city street surfaces. The suspension — MacPherson strut up front and double wishbone in the rear — worked to reduce the harshness in the ride that might be expected.
The FR-S isn't bad on fuel, but it's not a top-performer as a small car that stretches just 14 feet, from bumper to bumper. The manual transmission model is rated by the federal government at 22 miles per gallon in city driving and 30 mpg on the highway. The test car, which was driven with spirit, nonetheless averaged 25 mpg in combined city/highway travel.
But the Veloster Turbo is rated higher at 24/35 mpg with manual. Even a 2013 Mini Cooper S is rated at 26/35 mpg.
Additionally, the FR-S specs sheet says premium gasoline is required, meaning a fillup of the car's 13.2-gallon tank can cost nearly $50 at today's prices.
That's for a car with two minimal back seats — they basically look like shelves and don't provide much legroom — and two firm, deeply bolstered, cloth front seats.
In the tester, the black, shaped front seats with bright red accents looked like race-car seats and were great at keeping passengers in place.
The other prominent racing accent was silver-colored, aluminum pedal covers that are standard equipment on every FR-S. The steering wheel was covered in leather.
In other areas, though, the FR-S seemed a bit cheap, with flimsy-feeling cargo area material and cheaper-looking grained plastic on the dashboard.
This is a bit at odds with the fact the FR-S arrived this year as the flagship of the Scion brand, and it has the highest starting price of any Scion, including the better known, boxy, small-van-like xB.
At least every FR-S comes standard with a 300-watt Pioneer audio system with iPod and USB connectivity as well as Bluetooth technology for hands-free phone calling.
Standard safety equipment on every FR-S includes electronic stability control, traction control and six air bags.
Drivers don't get great views out in front of them in traffic, because the FR-S rides low to the ground.
Some 1,100 FR-S models were recalled in June because the owner's manual gave incorrect information about the front-passenger air bag deployment. Scion mailed a correct owner's manual insert in the summer, and the recall did not require any physical change to the cars.