Toyota & Subaru have recreated the sports car: light, nimble, quick, fun, sharp-looking and barely $26,000.
Most of what Toyota builds is “product.” Very good product, to be sure, but—from the Camry to the RAV4 and even the out-there Prius—Toyotas are mainstream: solid and reliable, nearly invisible and generally non-aspirational. We don’t lust after Toyotas; we buy them by the millions because we need Toyotas to get through life.
Yet here is the Toyota FR-S, as in Front-engine, Rear-drive Sport, a brand-new niche vehicle that was jointly hatched by Toyota and Subaru. Maybe to distance itself from such a fringe item, Toyota sells its version of the car as a Scion, the brand it invented for Gen-Y types who don’t see themselves as boring old Toyota owners.
(The plan is, Get ‘em young with Scion, then move ‘em into a Toyota when the offspring arrive, with Lexus waiting as the prize for career success.)
Subaru owners who look under the hood of an FR-S will find a familiar flat-four engine, its cylinders set horizontally, two on each side, instead of in a vee or an upright row. Such a low-profile “boxer” motor helps drop a car’s mass toward the pavement, which improves the handling. This one is tuned for 200 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque—which may not be all the power we think we want, but in a car that weighs only about 2,800 pounds, it’s plenty.
Another benefit of light weight is economy. After a day of whooping around on corkscrew back roads, we were astonished to find that we’d averaged 28 miles per gallon of gas. (Toyota claims as much as 34 MPG on the highway.) We also realized that the FR-S could handle more power without getting twisted out of shape or over-running its excellent brakes. So it’s just a matter of time before one or both makers sticks a turbocharger onto this motor and offers an uprated “R” model.
Our FR-S came with the optional 6-speed automatic. Say what you want about slushboxes in sports cars, but this is a good one. It has three settings—snow, normal and sport—and can be shifted manually with the stick or with paddles on the steering wheel. As an automatic, it’s rarely in the wrong gear; in M mode, it doggedly holds each gear until the driver calls for the next one, and a rev-matching blip of the throttle comes with each downshift. The quick, high-effort steering wants both hands on the wheel, so the paddles are useful. Just pretend it’s a sequential racing transmission—or get the 6-speed manual gearbox and learn to use a clutch.
As one might expect, the FR-S’s ride is hard—we feel every ripple in the pavement—but it is reasonably composed, so potholes don’t knock us unconscious. The payoff comes in sharp turn-in, lots of control through fast corners, and occasional feelings of heady self-congratulation.
One might also expect mild claustrophobia, but the cabin turns out to be comfortably wide, deep and roomy, at least up front. There are back “seats,” complete with belts, but at best they are padded repositories for your tablet and your lunch. Fold down the rear seatbacks, however, and a snowboard fits under the trunklid.
Just like boring cars, modern sports cars have to meet all sorts of safety standards, so tell your parents that the FR-S is stuffed with airbags and all the electronic nannies—ABS, VSC, TRAC, EBD, BA, SST at al.
—found in Mom’s Camry. They’re there when we need them and unobtrusive otherwise (and if you wish to indulge in anti-social behavior, the stability control can be switched off). The FR-S is also quite up-to-date in other ways, with features like LED tail lights, halogen reflector headlamps and all the hands-free connectivity stuff that you Gen-Yers can’t live without.
Whatever your definition of a sports car—front-engine, mid-engine, rear drive, clutch or clutchless, hardtop or softtop—there is one thing that a sports car absolutely must deliver: that sense of being hard-wired directly to your butt. After many gratifying miles in the FR-S, I believe a small portion of my jeans is still stuck to the driver’s seat, and not just because of the clingy upholstery in those form-fitting buckets. The FR-S is a proper sports car—even if it is a Toyota (or a Subaru).