When people started referring to the new Scion FR-S as the "Second Coming" we couldn't ignore the little upstart any longer. Eventually Alex jumped on the bandwagon and kept asking why Europe doesn't have anything to rival this 200hp, 2800 lb, RWD coupe for $24200.
To be honest, it's a good question. So we set about trying to find a suitable competitor. The closest we got was the BMW 128i, but it starts at $31k so was eliminated early. It also weighs 3200 lb and doesn't have an LSD option, although its 240hp 2.0L turbo motor might have compensated.
However, we were left with few other options. The Mini Cooper is the right price but its 181hp would be outgunned. And moving to the $31k JCW didn't make sense.
All this was avoiding the inevitable because the definitive European performance car with 200hp starting at $24200 has to be the VW GTI. It's been the benchmark for the hot-hatch market since its inception and would be a valiant opponent for the FR-S.
Additionally, we brought along an E30 BMW M3. This is the car that still defines the concept of a lightweight, RWD sports car, even if its original purchase price put it in a different league. However, along with the E36 and E46 M3s, these cars represent cross-shopping options for anybody looking for a fun, affordable alternative to the Scion.
First impressions were good. It's an attractive sports car with tight proportions. You sit low in supportive seats and the manual transmission has a positive short-shift feel. The steering is also communicative and the brakes do the job well.
The engine is a 2.0L Subaru Boxer 16v unit producing 200hp at 7000rpm thanks to variable vale timing and direct injection. It makes 151 lb-ft at 6600rpm, which means it needs to be revved hard to get the most from it. However, power delivery is predictable and easily measured.
Claiming 25mpg combined (22 city, 30 highway), it comes with a decent stereo, USB port, Bluetooth phone and music streaming as well as a digital speedo plus large tachometer.
From our perspective, it's an appealing package. The dash is a little cheesy with its fake carbon finish and the stereo stopped working during our time with it. However, it's easy to drive. Rear visibility is acceptable and the controls were well weighted.
The FR-S was supplied with 215/45 R17 Michelin Primacy tires - a sportier compound of the product used on the Prius. These are key to the car's handling because although they have a relatively low 240 treadwear rating, they let go fairly easily. This allows the car to be thrown around once the traction control is disabled. And this happens at relatively low speed, keeping the car controllable.
The first thing we'd want to do is fit grippier rubber to reduce lap times but then the car will let go at higher speed...
Our colleagues at Motor Trend suggested the otherwise identical but more expensive Subaru BRZ has slightly softer suspension settings and transitions to oversteer less readily on the same tires, making it 0.9sec faster around the same track than the FR-S during their testing.
That said, if you want a stylish, affordable car that will oversteer and drift the rear-end, the FR-S is a good starting point. In the right hands, it's easily controlled at low speed and enormous fun if you have sufficient room.
Our slight concern is that as an entry-level car, where the traction control can be disabled, inexperienced drivers will have their hands full.
On the track we saw several spins (no names) as the car becomes rather twitchy to steering input on the limit. There was always a touch of stability control to intervene, but on a wet country road, you better know what you're doing.
This is the same of any RWD car and one reason why front-wheel drive became so popular for affordable performance cars, not only for packaging reasons but because you simply scrub excess speed with understeer.
Fortunately, the FR-S has a very capable Sport mode that allows more transgression before intervening. It permits some sliding but won't let it get out of control. Used in this mode the car was pretty stable.
Let's not be our parents. We all enjoy a light, responsive car and the Scion FR-S represents everything we want. It's the answer to many people's prayers and is deservedly receiving accolades and strong sales
So how would our Volkswagen GTI stack up? Unfortunately, we weren't able to get a two-door manual version for the test - the spec that would match the $24200 Scion. Instead, we had a four-door with DSG in Autobahn specification that rocketed the price to $32500.
On the track, the DSG paddle shifters should give the GTI a slight advantage against the clock, except the car was 130 lb heavier than a two-door manual, leveling the playing field.
The remarkable thing about the latest Mk6 GTI is how well it transfers all that torque. With 207 lb-ft at 1700rpm, it had the Scion beaten both on paper and the track. With its XDS cross differential and EDL electronic diff lock, the car was transformed over the previous generations.
Where poor traction used to cut the ignition until you were going slow enough to find grip, the new electronics allow the car to spin its wheels and maintain momentum. And since this was FWD, extinguishing the traction control simply brought more wheelspin out of corners, with nobody spinning the GTI all day (partially thanks to stability control that can't be removed).
Slow-in, fast-out is the secret to fast lap times in any FWD car and the GTI wrote the rule book. Yes, it will understeer at the limit, but getting on the power and driving out of the turn makes it a quick car - and this despite being handicapped by all-season tires that exaggerated the understeer.
I've always maintained that a well-driven GTI will keep up with any supercar on a twisty road, especially in poor conditions. And on the track the GTI was clearly quicker than the FR-S.
My doubting colleagues took it in turns to either stay ahead or try to catch the GTI but neither was successful. Despite its understeer and wheelspin, the GTI was able to open a gap on the FR-S, using its torque to haul it out of the turns.
In some of the tighter sections, the FR-S was equally as quick, but when the road opened up, the GTI showed a clean pair of heels.
Put against the clock, the GTI was on average 2.3sec per lap faster than the Scion. That's a significant difference and proof that the GTI remains a potent performance car.
We should point out that Randy Pobst managed to lap the same track 0.3sec quicker in the FR-S than the GTI for Motor Trend (which is why they use him!). However, all three of us were quicker in the VW, proving it's an easier car for mortals to drive fast. (Pobst was 1.15sec quicker in the BRZ than the GTI.)
The criticism is that the GTI's understeer is less fun, and that's undeniable. While it will exhibit some lift-off oversteer, and can be made to rotate into turns, it doesn't have the fluidity of a RWD chassis. However, against the FR-S it was mighty impressive and the more stable when the electronic aids were removed from both cars.
With its practicality, versatility and performance, the VW GTI still represents the benchmark for the hot-hatch market, and long may it continue.
As soon as you closed the door, the M3's quality was apparent by its heavy thud. Even though the US got a watered-down version, the US-spec cars still look and feel very special. Unfortunately, this 24 year-old example had 209000 miles on the clock and although in great condition, couldn't represent the best of the breed.
With the S14 2.3-liter four-cylinder 16v motor developing 192hp at 6750rpm and 170 lb-ft of torque at 4750rpm, it would be an uphill battle for the BMW. Yet it weighed less than 2900 lb, which was definitely in its favor.
In addition to the quality feel of this car, the overriding impression was the neutral cornering. Utterly neutral. You turn the wheel and the car went in that direction. Even on all-season tires, the level of grip was astonishing.
Without a traction control button to press, the M3 relied on mechanical grip and made the other two seem like amateurs in comparison. It was composed and poised in a way few other cars are able to match, even today.
In deference to its age, mileage and spectating owner, we didn't explore the upper reaches of the rev band, nor did we hammer the brakes or tires. Even so, the M3 lapped within 1.5sec of the FR-S and, in its day, we suspect it would have comfortably seen off both. But while it wasn't going to set any new lap records, our laps did confirm the E30 M3 remains the RWD benchmark and can still teach the young'uns a few tricks.
At the end of the day, the Scion FR-S might be the answer to many enthusiasts' wishes. At the very least, it will hopefully prod a few other manufacturers to explore the concept of an affordable RWD car.
If you don't want to join the dark side, the VW GTI is still a great option. And an older M3, whether it's an E30, E36 or E46, might still be the best way to go. Whatever your preference, it's good to know there are some great cars available to us.
In Favor of the FR-S
Say what you will about practicality, economy or space but you're missing the point. The GTI wins in each of these categories but, frankly, it doesn't matter. The single area the FR-S dominates is a three-letter word all enthusiasts understand: fun.
Hands down, you can have more of it in the FR-S thanks to a truly exciting - and sometimes scary - driving experience.
The GTI is safe, predictable and comfortable, where the FR-S is rigid, communicative and twitchy. On a racetrack or the road, the Scion gives driving pleasure. It epitomizes what you want in a sports car.
The FR-S has supportive seats in durable upholstery and a central tacho with integrated shift light. The transmission is direct, the gears short enough to keep the two-liter in its sweet spot. The rear-end is where the power goes and all 200hp is distributed through a stout limited-slip diff.
You can drive it as hard as you like; the brakes don't fade, the water doesn't boil and the oil doesn't burn. It's a punching bag, taking hits like a champ and taunting you for more. It wants to have fun too.
In stock form, the FR-S can be driven on the limit anywhere and can feel like a video game. You want to drift that next turn? Turn off the traction control, turn-in hard and floor it. Counter-steer, giggle, straighten and transition to the next apex. This thing is just awesome.
Now, hop back in the GTI... The equivalent is understeer, an awful trait afflicting FWD cars. Can it be driven quickly and swiftly? Can a less experienced driver go faster? Sure, but that's not the point.
The Scion FR-S is a godsend. The automotive industry has lost sight of fun, affordable, tuneable sports cars. The last one from Germany was the E30 M3 and that was 28 years ago.
Germany currently offers the E9X M3: a V8-powered musclecar that's more than twice the price and weighs 1000 lb more. And there's the GTI: it isn't in the same category, but it's all we've got - a FWD hatchback. I'll take the FR-S and have fun!
- Alex Bernstein
Having studied transportation design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Steve Eastwood has worked for design studios across the globe. His passion for design goes beyond the automobile, having worked on everything from Alpine Electronics to various tools and even toys. Currently, Steve's an instructor at the Art Center College of Design Public Programs.
His E30 M3 was purchased about five years ago and with each passing year his devotion deepens. He purchased it with a few aftermarket additions, including 16x7.5/8.5" BBS RS with 225/45 BFG KDW rubber all round. The suspension was upgraded before Steve took ownership, and it has a VSR exhaust center section mated to a Stromung muffler. Inside, you'll find mostly the original interior except for Sparco seats.
Under the hood, the original S14 engine is passing 209000 miles and still runs sweetly. Steve intends to keep the car in its current state for as long as he owns it and has no plans to sell, especially since the 2013 Hagerty Price Guide shows M3 values are rising for good examples.
A Balanced View
I'm perhaps the second biggest GTI fan-boy in the United States. I fall right behind Greg Emmerson, who'll come to blows over the superiority of the original hot-hatch to anything else on four-wheels. Ask me how I know.
I won't argue that the GTI is faster in the hands of all but the fastest pro drivers, or that the GTI is immeasurably more usable. I do, however, hold to the assertion that the small, lithe, RWD FR-S is more fun.
While the GTI might match or beat the FR-S in quantitative measurements, it's the touchy-feely things that make the difference. The GTI turns in with authority, chases apexes and, until you overpower the front-wheels with the copious torque, the front-end responds dutifully. The GTI changes direction well, but it's front-axle first with the rear following along.
The FR-S doesn't so much turn-in as rotate. Every saw of the wheel results in a yawing motion, the kind you get from old sports cars and current exotics. The front wheels determine direction while the rears (via your right foot) control the rate of rotation. The FR-S dances around a turn, where the GTI head-butts the apex.
Everything about the FR-S feels lighter and easier. The gear-change is quick, short and accurate. The steering is well balanced and linear. The naturally aspirated flat-four feels equally light in the way it revs. Heel-toe throttle blips between shifts result in perfectly matched downshifts. Spinning the needle past the blinking shift-light fills the cabin with intake howl and nostalgia. This isn't about lap-times, it's about turning a guy in an entry-level car into Sir Stirling Moss.
At the end of the day, I was asked which car I'd take home. "I'll take a four-door DSG GTI Driver's Edition in Candy White please," was my response. Unfortunately, I can't spend everyday at the racetrack; I have a wife and kid who require their own doors. Although 200hp fills the spec boxes on both cars, the extra torque from the GTI's 2.0T makes a difference in daily commuting. For a second car, the FR-S would be the obvious choice. If it's going to be your only car, the GTI is a no-brainer, just don't tell Emmerson I admitted it!
|VW GTI||Scion FR-S||BMW M3|
2013 Scion FR-S
Layout longitudinal front engine, RWD
Engine 1998cc four-cylinder Boxer 16v, dual variable valve timing, D-4S direct and sequential port injection
Drivetrain six-speed manual transmission with Torsen limited-slip diff
Brakes 11.6" f, 11.4" r, ABS
Wheels & Tires 17x7", 215/45 R17 Michelin Primacy HP
MSRP from $24200 ($25092 inc D&D as tested)
Peak Power 200hp at 7000rpm
Peak Torque 151 lb-ft at 6600rpm
Top Speed n/a
Weight 2758 lb
Economy 22/30mpg (city/highway)
(*figure from Motor Trend Magazine]
2012 VW GTI
Layout transverse front engine, front-wheel drive
Engine 1984cc four-cylinder 16v, TSI direct injection, turbo, intercooler
Drivetrain six-speed DSG automatic with Tiptronic and Sport mode
Brakes 12.3" f, 10.7" r, ABS
Wheels & Tires 18x7.5", 225/40 R18 Dunlop SP Sport 01 A/S
MSRP from $24200 ($32465 inc D&D as tested)
Peak Power 200hp at 5100rpm
Top Speed 130mph
Weight 3160 lb
Economy 24/33mpg (city/highway)
[*figure from Motor Trend Magazine]
1989 BMW M3
Layout longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
Engine 2302cc four-cylinder 16v
Drivetrain five-speed Getrag manual transmission
Brakes11.2" f & r, ABS
Wheels & Tires 16x7.5" f, 16x8.5" r, BBS RS wheels, 225/45 R16 BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDW tires
MSRP $35295 (as sold in 1989)
Peak Power 192hp at 6750rpm
Peak Torque 170 lb-ft at 4750rpm
Top speed 146mph
Weight 2866 lb
Economy 17/21mpg (city/highway)
[figures from Automobile Magazine]