2013 Scion FR-S

LAS VEGAS — Scion is reinventing itself in the wake of declining sales over the past few years. After hitting its peak in 2006 with sales of 173,034, the little Scion boxes lost favor in the U.S. slumping to 49,000 in 2011. One of the cars coming to the rescue is an amazingly well balanced and extremely fun-to-drive rear-wheel 2+2 sports car for 25 grand called the FR-S.

The FR-S is a totally new direction for the Scion brand as is the tiny iQ, billed as the smallest four-seat car in the world. (See the iQ First Drive on MotorwayAmerica).

The FR-S is 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.

The idea was to create a stiff, lightweight, affordable sports car with an extremely low center of gravity with handling traits that belie its relatively low price. Scion says the car was inspired by the 1983-87 Corolla coupe, known in Toyota circles as the AE86, the last of the rear-driven small Toyotas.

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.

A Scion spokesman said when production is running at full speed, about two-thirds of the vehicles will be Scions, a third Subarus. The FR-S will go on sale nationwide in June.

The FR-S is powered by the aforementioned 2-0-liter boxer 4-cylinder engine making 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.

Transmission choices are a slick-shifting six-speed manual and a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Driving enthusiasts of course will choose the manual and the first customers will be mostly shift-for-yourself buyers. But as sales reach the mainstream, probably more automatics will be sold.

Perhaps that's sacrilege to the road racers of America, but in the real world of every day driving the automatic is the more practical consideration especially with a manual shift feature that won't change gears unless the driver tells it to even when it hits the rev limiter.

It's the sports car's 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 fast and hard. We can't wait to get it on our favorite stretch of rural law-enforcement-deprived back road curves. It will be a morning of grins and giggles.

The FR-S is offered in a single trim level beginning at $24,930 with a manual transmission, $26,030 with the automatic. For that price the buyer gets air conditioning, cruise control, a 160-watt Pioneer sound system, a full compliment of safety equipment, and two years or 25,000 miles worth of free servicing. There are a lot of accessories available, many of them dealer add-ons, that can take the price into 30 grand range.

The FR-S brings head-turning styling, enough performance to keep it interesting in normal driving, and a handling dimension for weekend entertainment. And for a relatively modest price.

We like the new face of Scion.

— Jim Meachen