There was a time, not so long ago, when Americans looked to Japanese car makers for fun-to-drive sports coupes: from Nissan's iconic Z-cars to Mazda's irresistibly cute MX-5 Miata.
Well, those cars never completely went away, but they got carried out to sea by the riptide of SUV popularity. Now, there's a growing feeling among car enthusiasts that we are on the cusp of another high tide for light, inexpensive, rear-wheel-drive Japanese fun-mobiles.
A completely redesigned Mazda MX-5 Miata is in the pipeline, and two relative newcomers — the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ twins — are stirring interest among young buyers.
* Model: Scion FR-S
* Exterior color: Firestorm Red
* Interior color: Black
* Engine: 2.0-liter, four-cylinder
* Horsepower: 200
* Transmission: six-speed automatic
* Fuel economy: 34 mpg highway, 25 mpg city
* Dealer: Toyota and Scion of Cleveland
* Price (as tested): $26,824
This week, we visited Toyota and Scion of Cleveland to take a spin in an FR-S, one of the sub-$30,000 coupes driving the trend. Unlike recent television spots for the new Miata, which are aimed at baby boomers and Gen Xers trying to recapture their youth, Scion's broadcast ads are focused on younger buyers. The Scion ads even feature a bit of drifting, a break-away cornering technique popularized in those "Fast and Furious" movies.
Sales consultant Daquiri Taylor gave us the key to a Firestorm Red Scion FR-S with a six-speed automatic transmission and a sticker price of $26,824. A base FR-S with manual transmission lists for $24,900. As you can see, the price range for FR-S models is refreshingly narrow. Some options are dealer-installed.
The body of the FR-S is a Toyota design, and the four-cylinder boxer engine is made by Subaru.
The FR-S makes a good first impression. It has some of the pulse-quickening visual cues that have made two-door sports cars popular through the decades. A long, shapely hood, flared wheel arches and big wheels bring to mind the old Toyota Supra, which was discontinued more than a decade ago.
But the FR-S has modern design touches too, such as split-spoke wheels and carbon fiber accents in the cockpit. A tiered roof is a nice design wrinkle, and a black honeycomb grille looks a bit like a moustache under the FR-S's button nose. Our tester has no sunroof, a good thing because they tend to intrude on headroom and some six-footers with spiky hair may already find the FR-S a bit snug.
Firestorm red is a good color choice for the FR-S. From some angles it looks like a Porsche, although its mechanicals — and price — are much more pedestrian.
Inside, the FR-S is functional without being spartan. For example the dash gauges are dominated by a white, Moon Pie-sized tachometer in the center which red lines at 7500 rpms. An analog speedometer is set off to the left, and gas and temperature gauges flank the tach on the right. The steering wheel is compact, with a small radius for adventurous driving. A 6.1-inch touch screen with tiny control dials reminds you that this is a sports car that is more concerned with driving enjoyment than plush aesthetics. Eight-speaker audio cranking out 300 watts is by Pioneer.
The cloth bucket seats are firm and supportive. Meanwhile, the back seats have room for two small kids sitting criss-cross applesauce. (Actually, that was a test. If you know what "sitting criss-cross applesauce" means you should probably be shopping for a Toyota RAV-4 or a Subaru Forester. In nobody's fantasy world is the FR-S a family vehicle.)
A small trunk can accommodate a couple of medium-sized suitcases, but the back seats flip down to make the FR-S much more functional for two-person road trips. Red stitching in our tester brightens-up the black color scheme of the interior; and there are enough interesting plastic textures and dash accents to keep things visually interesting.
So, let's stipulate that the FR-S is a real looker. But how does it drive? Specifically, does its sexy bodywork write checks that its powertrain can't cash?
In a word, no.
The FR-S is loads of fun to drive, although it's not such a beast that you are likely to sneeze at the wrong time and end up in corn field. Start with a Subaru 2.0-liter boxer engine making 200-horsepower, add a rear-wheel drive set-up and vented disc brakes and you have all the ingredients for a smile-inducing pocket rocket.
The Subaru engine, with its horizontally opposed cylinders and low center of gravity, gives the FR-S a nice, settled stance that makes carving up curves a joy. For optimum fun, you'll need to opt for the manual transmission. Our tester comes with an automatic tranny with paddle shifters so you can play around with gear changes without a clutch.
The FR-S also has a lusty exhaust note that makes you feel like you're going faster than you actually are. But that's part of the fun, and a fuel-sipping engine allows the FR-S to return 34 miles per gallon of gas highway and 25 mpg city.
For young, single guys — and gals — the FR-S is a huge step up in quality and performance from a plain vanilla compact sedan, and much more fun to drive than a small, bouncy SUV.
If you're young, the family haulers can wait. For now, you should enjoy the open road in an eager little coupe like the Scion FR-S that won't break the bank.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.