The Scion FR-S Is a Modern Classic

By automotive-mag.com 8 Min Read

Is it possible to beat anything harder than a rented mule? You can, of course. It’s called a rental car. But far beyond the Hertz counter sits a class of ultimate whipping boys: the cars at a racing school. These are a herd of beat-down hard-up chariots, doomed by the slings and arrows of a thousand outrageous downshifts. 

We must kneel at the altar of their saintly suffering.

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These cars were on my mind last weekend, when I ran a two-day race licensing course at Pacific Raceways. Entropy has dulled my talents behind the wheel, meaning it was high time to re-up my SCCA card and register for “Conference,” the PNW’s local club-racing authority.

The licensing class itself was run by the folks at Proformance Racing School. You can tell the place has its priorities straight because there’s a Rolex Daytona jangling against the school founder’s wrist and he didn’t pay a dime for it. 

The Proformance course itself was fantastic, designed to short track its students directly onto a club racing grid. But throughout the weekend, I couldn’t shake the school’s cars from my mind.

The Scion FR-S was borne into fanfare. Finally, it seemed, Toyota had built a new car for us. It was rear-drive. Two doors. Compact. Toyota’s (nee Scion’s) marketing material teased a reasonable MSRP, plus a penchant for doing things sideways. This was Sport Compact redux. 

Toyota delivered on many of its promises, but nevertheless the car arrived with a twinge of disappointment. Thanks to its partnership with Subaru, the Scion FR-S and its BRZ sibling rumbled off the factory floor under boxer-four power, making the 86 siblings arguably less desirable than if Toyota had plugged in its own inline mill.

The reliability and maintenance concerns attached to Subaru ownership dampened a bit of the FR-S’s fizz, and so did the numbers; With just 200 horses right at the top of the tach and just 151 lb-ft lower down, this was not a vehicle for spec-sheet racers. 

Indeed, even in hindsight, the FR-S engine is devoid of charisma. 

2013 Scion FR-S Proformance Racing School Cars

The 2.0-liter four trills like a flatulent trombone at idle. Nowhere along the rev counter would you call the stock exhaust note engaging, or even agreeable, but especially at the 7,500 rpm rev limit, where the power lives. 

I’m told by Motor1’s resident BRZ expert that the right exhaust wakes up the whole experience, but the “right exhaust” didn’t come from the factory, and Subaru’s burble has always reminded me of the offputting flat-brim types who offer your girlfriend molly at music festivals.

The gearbox is a bit balky, too. Into Pacific Raceway’s turn two, a huge fourth-gear left-hand sweeper following the track’s biggest braking zone, the shift from 5th to 4th gear felt awkward more often than not. Even after two full days to acclimate to the rental Scions, I found the shift lever catching into the 4th gear downshifts fairly often. A Honda six-speed this is not. 

But those gripes about the grinding engine note and somewhat awkward transmission pale against the glory; the FR-S reveals itself to be one of the great drivers’ chassis of all time. 

One instructor said the school’s FR-S carry a slightly thicker rear sway bar and a different set of brake pads. Other than that, plus some safety equipment, they’re bone stock. Even after 17,000 miles run past the limits of sanity, my school car felt taut as a bowstring. 

Even better, on the rain-soaked aggregate that paves Pacific Raceways’s every curve, the FR-S reveals a handling neutrality we speak of only in reverent whispers. The Lotus Elan, the E30 M3, the Cayman GT4. With just a hint of rear bar, this car is putty in your hands. 

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The FR-S’s traction control and stability management systems were quick to clamp rear brake in soggy conditions, reining in lift-off or power-on oversteer, or helping the car rotate into an apex when the front end pushes. At first blush, the system is stifling, even frustrating.

But these safety bumpers can become fabulous instructors, if only you’re willing to leave them on. In the driving rain, run right up to the edge of the traction control’s bite, and you’ll find harmony at the edge of the tires’ limits. Overstep, and the brakes bite hard. Get it right, and inch-perfect yaw through Pacific’s long sweepers is your reward.

The FR-S’s steering makes that balance easy to find. There’s plenty of information rumbling up from the tires and with a racing seat under your haunches, the rear tires send updates to your brain as if by conduit. 

More than one class participant who drives hi-po GT Porsches to the track marveled at just how communicative the FR-S felt by comparison. The Scion’s skinny tires and stock suspension help, springs and geometry allowing enough body roll to tell your lizard brain exactly how weight transfers between the FR-S’s four corners. 

That slow and progressive weight transfer is useful for reinforcing lessons about trail braking, too. After a weekend with the FR-S, I’ve never felt more confident in my ability to keep weight on the nose of a car, using that grip on the outside front to wrestle into an apex.

First Scion FR-S In US For Sale Passenger Interior

Toyota and Subaru’s partnership indeed produced a vehicle for the true believers. I think even more importantly, the 86 siblings fostered new adherents, offering a fresh generation of enthusiasts the sort of sport compact their parents loved for generations; With a $26,000 base price, nearly anyone with a salary could finance an FR-S in 2013. Same goes for the car a decade later. 

Of course, you could find a BMW E36 shitbox on craigslist to teach you the same lessons about balance and patience, but one student who stuffed their FR-S’s nose into a barrier just after Pacific’s 120 mph right-hander returned with only a sore neck. Thank modern crumple zones and the HANS device.

Moments like that get you thinking about modern safety standards, and every year, those old track-day stalwarts get just a bit greyer behind the ears.  

Our performance cars get faster and heavier and duller by the year. As such FR-S is a standout, a car for those who value communication and connection above all else; a modern classic. 

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