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Sports coupe easy on the wallet

Along drought is finally over for sports-car enthusiasts with the introduction of the 2013 Scion FR-S. While a frontengine, rear-wheel sports car is not unique, ones that are light and affordable are increasingly rare.
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The Scion FR-S's engine is a Subaru four-cylinder boxer with a Toyota-developed fuel-injection system.

Along drought is finally over for sports-car enthusiasts with the introduction of the 2013 Scion FR-S. While a frontengine, rear-wheel sports car is not unique, ones that are light and affordable are increasingly rare.

High-performance sports cars, like a Porsche 911, can start at $100,000. But with the introduction of the under-$26,000 FR-S, an enthusiast's dream car is now in most people's reach.

Perhaps it is a stretch to compare the FR-S to a Porsche, but after driving one for five days and seeing for myself the car's potential, I am a convert. I haven't been so excited about a lightweight sports car since Honda introduced the S2000 in 1999.

First, a bit of history. Scion is the "youth" brand of Toyota. Although the automaker produces a number of fine cars, nothing screamed fun and fast. The FR-S is meant to change all that. The car came about through a liaison with Subaru, which supplied the powerplant a 2.0-litre horizontally-opposed four cylinder and powertrain. But Toyota didn't want the allwheel-drive capability that has lately been the hallmark of every Subaru. To save money and weight, the partnership removed the frontwheel-drive components to make the FR-S a rear-wheel drive, the first for Toyota since 1987 and, if I'm not mistaken, Subaru's first.

Subaru sells the BRZ, a sister to the FR-S. They are identical mechanically but each have slightly different equipment packages.

The FR-S is the more affordable of the two, but it is no stripper (a car devoid of desirable features, in car lingo). On the contrary, it is an extremely well-equipped car for any aspiring racer.

When I was handed the keys to the car, Toyota's agent asked if I was going to take it to the track. I thought this was a trick question, meant to warn me against trashing the car. But to my surprise, he said: "This car has spent more time on the Mission Raceway than on public roads. You have to try it out."

Apart from the Porsche representative, it's generally not the advice auto manufacturers give to journalists. But after a few hours with the FR-S, I understood.

Toyota did an amazing job in eking out 200 horses from a 2.0-litre four without a turbocharger. The FR-S's closest competitor, the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, develops 10 more hp - using a turbocharger. Among rear-wheeldrive sports cars, the Mazda MX-5 trails, with 167 hp and 140 lb.-ft. of torque.

Despite the power deficit compared with the Genesis, the FR-S comes out ahead because it is more compact in size and, more importantly, a whopping 247 kilograms (545 pounds) lighter.

Scion boasts it can do 0 to 100 km/h in 7.7 seconds. But to get up to speed, a driver needs to get the revs up - way up. The car's modest 151 lb.-ft. of torque peaks at an incredibly high 6,400 r.p.m.

This makes an accelerating FR-S sound more like a sport bike than a sports car. The Genesis, for comparison, makes its 223 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,000 r.p.m. If there was one feature the FR-S could improve upon, delivering more torque at a lower r.p.m. would get my vote.

Power can be felt coming on at around 3,500 to 4,000 r.p.m., but to extract the car's full potential, one has to keep one's foot on the pedal. A driver-programmable shift indicator warns the driver (who is wisely keeping eyes on the road) with a flashing red light when redline is reached.

While lots of fun for some, in simple around-town driving, this high-revving requirement can be a bit tiring.

Because of its light weight and high gearing in the sixspeed transmission, the FR-S is still economical, using only 9.6 litres/100 km in the city, and 6.6 highway. These consumption numbers are even better than the MX-5.

With a 53 per cent front and 47 per cent rear weight balance, the FR-S is optimally set up as the car to beat for handling, on and off the track. Because of the horizontally opposed engine, the FR-S also has a very low centre of gravity - Scion boasts it is in the range of exotic sports cars.

It is also equipped with a limited-slip differential that allows a skilled driver to do controlled drifts in corners. The car's exceptional drifting ability is highly prized by some enthusiasts. This unique feature traces its roots to the last generation of rear-wheel-drive Toyota Corollas (manufactured before 1987) and made popular by a TV series in Japan.

While the car has a whole suite of safety features such as traction and stability control, these electronic nannies can be easily turned off when the driver wants to let (the rear end) all hang out.

The positioning of the hand brake contributes to the fun. Unlike a typical handbrake, the FR-S's brake is easily modulated, allowing the driver to dial in a little, or a lot, of rear-wheel-only braking. A skilled driver should be able to perform complex stunts simply by modulating the accelerator and handbrake. Of course, all these features are fun - when performed on a track or closed course.

On the road, the FR-S acts like a typical compact car. There may be a hint of trouble from the sweet-sounding exhaust, but little else attracts unwanted attention.

The seats are aggressively bolstered. Stout people may find the side bolsters uncomfortable. It is a 2+2 but the back seats are for pets or children only. The rear seatback folds to create a flat cargo floor. The trunk lid is unfinished (to save weight?) and there is no grab handle.

Visibility is so-so. The passenger-side rear quarter is a blind spot to be aware of. The tilt and telescopic steering is not speed sensitive, unlike the competition. It's optimal on the highway but not finger light for in-town operations such as parallel parking.

The manual six-speed transmission is sublime, but perhaps the track use was responsible for the sound of a damaged synchromesh whenever second gear was engaged quickly on my tester.

At $25,990, the FR-S is a steal. A comparably equipped two-seater Mazda MX-5 GS is $35,940. The Hyundai Genesis is about $1,000 less, but is heavier and larger.

The drought is over, but the rain isn't falling on the FR-S's parade.

THE SPEC SHEET

Type: Compact two-door, 2+2 sports coupe, front engine, rear-wheeldrive

Engine: 2.0-litre horizontally-opposed four-cylinder, 200 hp at 7,000 r.p.m., 151 lb.-ft. of torque at 6,400 r.p.m.

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Dimensions (mm): Length, 4,235; width, 1,775; height, 1,425; wheelbase, 2,570

Curb weight (kg): 1,251

Price (base/as tested): $25,990/$28,100 (includes $1,495 freight and PDI and $100 AC tax)

Options: Audio upgrade $515

Tires: 215/45 R17 Michelin summer performance tires

Fuel type: Premium

Fuel economy (L/100km): 9.6 city/ 6.6 highway

Warranty: Three years/60,000 km new car and roadside assistance, five years/100,000 km powertrain

PEDRO ARRAIS Plugged In

will return next week

parrais@timescolonist.com