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April 10, 2013

Scion FR-S is a legit sports car

Anyone who loves sports cars should send a thank-you note to Toyota and Subaru.

The two companies teamed up to produce the first all-new, affordable sports car the world has seen in several years.

That's a rare thing because true, hard-edged sports cars are difficult to engineer and even harder to sell. They just don't move in big numbers because, out of necessity, most drivers lean toward cars that are more practical and comfortable. At some level, sports cars are toys, after all.

But, after spending a week driving Toyota's version — which is sold as the Scion FR-S here in America — I'm pleased to learn that this sports car is legit.

It's not a semi-sporty coupe like the old Toyota Celica. It's not a comfy grand tourer like the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. It's a real, honest-to-goodness sports car designed entirely around the driving experience.

The suspension is tuned to have a far rougher, stiffer ride than most cars. You can feel every tiny pebble on the pavement, which is perfect for drivers who want to test its limits. It's all about experiencing the road and becoming one with the road, not being isolated from the road.

Handling is ideally balanced thanks to its basic, classic sports-car layout: the engine up front, with power going to the rear wheels. That gives it a slight tendency to oversteer when you turn off the traction control and apply power while cornering — exactly what a fun sports car ought to do.

Much in the spirit of my beloved Mazda Miata, this is a car that lets drivers push their limits without killing themselves.

Compare it to the Chevy Corvette, for example. While the Corvette is a faster and more expensive car, I don't enjoy driving it as much as the FR-S because it's so much harder to test its boundaries.

With the Corvette's wide, sticky tires and giant V-8 engine, you almost have to be a professional driver — or simply foolhardy — to discover where it loses grip in ultra-high-speed turns.

With the FR-S, though, ordinary drivers can have a lot more fun. Its narrower tires lose their grip through corners at lower speeds and very smoothly, not suddenly, letting a mere-mortal driver do a delicate dance with the throttle and steering wheel to keep it composed in turns.

It makes a ham-fisted driver like me feel like an Andretti.

Power comes from a 2.0-liter, naturally aspirated, horizontally opposed "boxer" four-cylinder engine that's derived from Subaru, but it's fitted with a high-tech fuel injection system called D-4S that Toyota previously used in its Lexus division.

It makes 200 horsepower, which is impressive in a car that weighs just 2,758 pounds. 

While Subaru sells a near clone of this car called the BRZ, which I haven't driven yet, my first indication is to lean toward the Scion just because of the way it looks. The Scion has a smoother, cleaner, more classic shape in my eyes. 

Still, this isn't a car for everyone. Rear visibility is limited by a thick pillar in back. The trunk is tiny, and the back seat is a total joke. It's going to be a noisy, rough riding, fairly impractical car by design. But that's what makes it a real sports car, something that's beautiful inside and out.

It's also the reason you should pick up your pen and write "thank you" to the engineers and companies that poured their hearts and souls into building a vehicle that appeals to a small but devoted cult of driving purists.

Better yet, take it for a test drive and experience it for yourself.

Derek Price is an automotive columnst for CNHI News Service. Contact him at carcolumn@gmail.com.

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