2016 Scion FR-S Review: A Rear-Wheel Drive Retirement Party

wheel-to-wheel new car reviews

Scion FR-S

Scion FR-S | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

For many enthusiasts, the FR-S/BRZ platform turned out to be the most underwhelming invention since the advent of the New Coke. It’s a car that showed great potential on paper, and after the demise of the high-revving S2000, it quickly became a tuner go-to due to its rear-wheel drive layout, six-speed gearbox, and the immense number of available aftermarket parts that flooded SEMA after its debut.

But after a while, the honeymoon ended and despite showing substantial amounts of potential, the American market’s interest in the little coupe began to wane. Everyone had rushed in expecting this to be the answer to all of their rear-wheel drive prayers, only to find out that every other kid on the block had the same idea. While the STI variant from the Subaru side continued to tease and deny us our animalistic urges, Scion watched its sales slip as even limited edition releases and mild TRD upgrades couldn’t move more units.

Dual port exhaust

Dual port exhaust | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

So with less torque than a tC, styling that’s no longer new, and a 200-horsepower engine that begs to be boosted, we can see why the collaborating automakers are refreshing the twins for 2017. But let’s revisit the FR-S one last time, because for as much as people have bitched about its underwhelming powerplant, it’s still one of the most entertaining entry-level cars to come out of the past decade.

 Exterior

2-door sports coupe

2016 Scion FR-S | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

As sporty as it may appear, the FR-S is starting to grow long in the tooth. The jury’s still out on the refreshed vehicles, but the outgoing model is a mixed bag for most buyers. It has the snazzy dual port exhaust, fender badging, LED lighting, and tight proportions that we want in a small sports car, but it also suffers from a lot of the same plastic maladies that plague vehicles like the Hyundai Genesis Coupe Spec-R and its little brother, the Rally Edition Veloster.

FR-S 86 badge

FR-S 86 badge | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ This may be an older design, but it’s by no means ugly.

+ The rear lower section of the FR-S looks sharp, with its black diffuser, dual port exhaust, and center-mounted LED stoplight standing as a cornerstone.

+ Small stuff like the two-tone paint matched side mirrors, slick 86 fender badging, and a well-proportioned shark fin antenna all score cool points.

– Vents and ducts that go nowhere, faux mesh plastic trim pieces, and the use of clear altezza tail lights all seem dated.

– Those 17-inch alloys are a bit much.

2.0-liter Subaru boxer engine

2.0-liter Subaru boxer engine | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

People automatically assume that a car that looks like this deserves to have a bazillion horsepower and a transmission made out of molten magma, when in all actuality the little bugger does just fine with six gears, a Torsen limited slip diff, and 200 horsepower. Would I personally like to see some more performance out of it? Sure. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that you don’t have to be thrown back in your seat in order to get your jollies, and although it has some unrefined aspects about it, the FR-S’s powertrain still delivers a very rewarding, manually driven experience.

Gauges

Gauges | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ 151 pound-feet of torque and 200 horsepower may not sound sensational, but when you are this low to the ground in a car that weighs just over 1.5 tons, everything seems a lot faster.

+ Hitting gears in the rain allows the Torsen limited slip differential to do its job, which can be tinkered with if traction needs to be substituted for white-knuckled smiles.

+ Boxer engines are low-slung and enjoyable sounding, two things that make this driving experience that much more fun.

– You can see right away why one of the first things tuners upgrade on the FR-S are the shifter bushings and the transmission mount insert, because without them, stock throws feel kind of sloppy.

– While 200 horsepower isn’t bad, getting up to speed from a standstill requires forcing the tachometer upward, cannibalizing any fuel economy benefit from having a four-cylinder.

Leather steering wheel

Leather steering wheel | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

Pulling cards from the same deck as the Scion tC, the stripped down interior seen here is getting dated. Much like its drivetrain and styling, it’s a functional and uneventful landscape. While it does feature a swanky gauge cluster, a leather trimmed steering wheel, a slick-looking shift knob/boot combo, and a pair of accented sport seats, all of the fake carbon fiber touches, raised speaker molds, and dead space are a turn-off.

Sport seats

Sport seats | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ This is very much a driver’s cockpit, and the way in which the shifter, wheel, e-brake, and pedal positions all fit snugly together make a major difference.

+ Props to any automaker that designs door cupholders that will accommodate the average water bottle.

+ Small touches like door sill scuff plates, aluminum sport pedals and a matching dead pedal, and accented floor mats with “FR-S” plaques are nice additions.

– Fake carbon fiber makes the dash look cheap, and being that there’s a lot of it, ignoring it is basically out of question.

– Headroom is limited as is shoulder and hip space within the sport seats up front, so if you are over six-foot, this car might not be for you.

– The front seats will only lock in place when the back rest is snapped into an upright position, which means you will have to constantly fight with them in order to pull things like groceries, canines, or children out of the back.

Pioneer touchscreen

Pioneer touchscreen | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

While the FR-S does have an overall five-star government crash rating and features a handful of useful safety features, in base trim it’s very simple and relatively tech-free. Luckily, it still has things like Bluetooth connectivity, an Aha app, iPod connections, a USB port, that 7-inch Pioneer touchscreen, and remote keyless entry, but that’s about it in the tech department.

Traction control

Traction control | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech pros and cons

+ Bluetooth hands-free connectivity for streaming is great, as is the nicely sized 7-inch Pioneer touchscreen.

+ Eight speakers, remote keyless entry, backup camera, and a programmable rev indicator all come standard.

+ Stability-wise, the FR-S feels pretty controlled due to the vehicle stability control settings on it, but those can be easily turned off along with the traction control if you feel the need to get sideways.

– Aren’t we at the point where push button start is a relatively inexpensive addition to the manufacturing process?

– For those of you wanting the basics like a tricky MID, navi, and things like steering wheel controls, you might want to consider something other than the base model.

6-speed manual

FR-S’s six-speed manual | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

You can butter me up all you want with talk of high horsepower and all-wheel drive, but the FR-S still stands as a prime example of what entry-level sportiness should be. Does it ride a bit tight and sport a tolerably crude approach to driving? Yes. But it also does what it says it will on paper, and can bring you far closer to your inner enthusiast than you might have thought.

It brakes sharply and has vented rotors all around, the independent MacPherson front and double wishbone rear suspension are taut and well-tuned, and while highway cruising can be noisy and sometimes bumpy, it isn’t obnoxious either. While there were a few times that I was left pondering how nice a turbocharged TRD/STI model would be, I did not find myself lamenting the modest powerband too much due to the commendable engagement the car offered.

Scion FR-S wheels

2016 Scion FR-S | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

This is a bare bones bottle rocket of a driver’s car. If you don’t like what you see on paper, chances are you won’t like it in person. Personally, outside of the disjointed feel from the gearbox, I felt that the wheel/tire combo was the vehicle’s biggest weakness, as they incessantly chattered for grip, even on some fairly basic corners. Fortunately, opting for some wider, well-constructed aftermarket wheel options with some stickier rubber can easily mend this issue.

So at $26,075 would I call the FR-S a good bargain? As of now, surprisingly, it isn’t. My suggestion is wait until the overhauled version comes out and dealers put this outgoing model on clearance, because while the new FR-S may feature some nice interior upgrades, a fresh fascia, and an all-around tighter handling chassis, it only gets five more torques and horsepower.

Take the money saved by buying a steeply discounted Scion, and drop it into some TRD go-fast goods in order to bring it up to speed. The FR-S is just about there — it’s a worthy dealer floor competitor for the Volkswagen GTI, Mazda Miata, or Fiat 124; but the FR-S occupies the empty rear-wheel space between the 155-horsepower Mazda and the 300-horsepower base-trim Ford Mustang. The first-gen FR-S lays a solid foundation for Toyota to work with — let’s see what it can build with generation No. 2.

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