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.