Scion FR-S — Worthy of a sports car badge

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Scion has added a new sedan and hatchback for the 2016 model year in an effort to infuse new life into the struggling brand, but the best all-around and most interesting Scion in the stable of the quirky Toyota off-shoot is still the FR-S four-place rear-driven coupe introduced in 2013.

Three years ago when we first drove the FR-S we called it a delightful little road-carver. More than 18,000 left dealerships in 2013, the first full year on the market. However, after the initial demand for the sports car, sales slumped 23 percent in 2014 to 14,062. And based on the first eight months of this year, 2015 sales will finish at around 11,500.

Fortunately Scion which has made a handful of improvements for 2016 decided that the FR-S is just too good a product to let slide into automotive history. And after driving a 2016 edition, we haven't changed our opinion either. We still would enthusiastically encourage those on a tight budget wanting to enter the world of fun-on-four-wheels who love a well-mannered manual transmission to visit a Scion store.

Scion has pumped up the sports car with interior improvements, two new colors — a red called Ablaze and a blue called Oceanic — and a standard rear backup camera. The FR-S gets a more premium feel with bright silver accents on the steering wheel bezel, shift bezel, door grip and along the side of the center console. More important is a new standard audio system with a seven-inch touchscreen display and voice recognition technology.

While we think these modest upgrades are noteworthy, it would seem that sales could be spurred in a much bigger way with the addition of a turbocharged model or the development of a convertible edition. But from what we can determine, Scion (Toyota) officials as well as co-developer Subaru, have scrapped any plans for "going bold" to save the car.

Prices have been held close to the 2015 level, up by only $405 for both manual and automatic. Scion says the 2016 model with six-speed manual transmission starts at $26,075 including destination charge and the six-speed automatic with paddle shifters and rev management system begins at $27,175.

The FR-S as noted is one half of a joint venture with Subaru. The two Japanese companies together developed the sports car and both vehicles (the Subaru version is called the BRZ) are built at a Subaru plant in Japan.

Toyota headed up the styling and assisted with powertrain hardware while Subaru provided the four-cylinder boxer engine, which has been heavily modified, and did much of the engineering and development work.

The 2-0-liter engine powering the FR-S makes 200 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. That's a modest output in today's 4-cylinder turbocharged world, but acceleration is on the fast side of just OK because of the car's low curb weight of 2,800 pounds and its seemingly flat torque curve.

The slick-shifting manual brings out the best in the FR-S. Row expertly through the manual gears and a 6.5-second 0-to-60 time is possible. Figure on average with the six-speed automatic about 7-to-8 seconds. But this car is so much more than straight-ahead performance. It's the balanced handling that wins the day. We drove a road course near Las Vegas to experience the FR-S's handling prowess — enhanced by a 53/47 front/rear weight balance — and even in totally inept hands, the car was a hoot to drive quick and hard. And it was just as much fun on our favorite stretch of rural law-enforcement-deprived back road curves.

Even with all this fun behind the wheel you will probably ask, what about gas mileage? It's an obvious question in this age of unpredictable prices. The answer is a good one — 25 mpg city, 34 mpg highway, and 28 combined with the automatic.

The FR-S is offered in a single trim and comes standard with air conditioning, cruise control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, the aforementioned rearview camera, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, an eight-speaker sound system with seven-inch touchscreen, a full complement of safety equipment, and two years or 25,000 miles worth of free servicing.

There are a lot of factory and dealer add-on accessories available that can take the price into the $30,000 range but they are not necessary to get a total FR-S experience. What we would like, but not available, is a XM Sirius satellite radio and a blind spot monitoring system.

Our test car came with the automatic transmission — which ups the base price by $1,100 — and the bottom line to $27,175.

Base price: $26,075; as driven, $27,175
Engine: 2.0 liter flat four
Horsepower: 200 @ 7,000 rpm
Torque: 151 pound-feet @ 6,600 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: rear wheel
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 101.2 inches
Length: 166.9 inches
Curb weight: 2,800 pounds
Turning circle: 35.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 6.9 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 34 highway, 25 city, 28 overall
0-60: 7.0 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Mini Cooper S, Ford Focus ST, Volkswagen GTI

The Good
• Well-balanced road carver
• Excellent fuel economy
• Fun to drive

The Bad
• Back seat only good for storage

The Ugly
• Modest performance