That's what makes the 2013 Scion FR-S as refreshing as the latest concoction at your local nightclub. Unlike typical Fast-and-Furious youth cars, the Scion isn't some nerdy, Clark Kent economy car, emerging from its boxy booth with a super-powered engine and all-wheel-drive. Nor is it a Camaro-style muscle car, compensating for excess size and weight with an equally bulging engine.
Instead, the FR-S -- along with its near-identical sister car, the sassy Subaru BRZ — is that rarest of commodities: A genuine, affordable sports car. That means compact proportions, light curb weight, two adult-sized seats and the agile, balanced handling you can only get from rear-wheel-drive. And instead of costing $40,000, $50,000 or more, with the frustrating price creep of today's sports cars, the Scion starts at just $24,200 with a six-speed manual transmission, or $25,300 with a six-speed, paddle-shifting automatic.
Most unexpectedly, this 200-horsepower, 142-mph bad boy is a child of Toyota, arguably the most conservative parent among global automakers. But Akio Toyoda, the company's race-driving chairman, has vowed to inject spice into Toyota's plain-vanilla culture and cars. And at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch, a winding road course in the Nevada desert, chief engineer Tetsuya Tada said that the FR-S is exactly what Toyoda had in mind.
"It was time for a Toyota built by passion, and nothing else," Tetsuya said.
Often, that kind of catchphrase proves to be empty marketing. But passion fairly oozes from the FR-S' pores, including a striking aerodynamic body, no-nonsense interior and sparkling, agile performance.
Developed in tandem with Subaru, the FR-S sidesteps many performance compromises. A 2.0-liter, four-cylinder "boxer" engine — meaning the pistons lay flat and in opposition, like boxers jabbing gloves — helps drop the car's center of gravity to just 18.1 inches above the pavement, lower than a Porsche Cayman. That engine peaks at 7,400 rpm, and features a clever fuel delivery system: A mix of direct and port injection boosts power and efficiency, including an EPA rating of 25/34 mpg for the automatic version.
Shallow or not, sports car often live or die on looks. And the Scion has that end covered, with terrific styling that pays homage to vintage sports cars like the Toyota 2000, and to new models like the $375,000 Lexus LF-A supercar. For a car at this price, there's a plethora of fascinating details, nooks and crannies: Flowing recesses in the grille and front fenders, a Pagoda-style roof and a black diffuser at the rear to manage air. Unlike some pure-funk Scions, you don't have to be 25 or a terminal hipster to imagine yourself in this car. This FR-S is also far too good — attractive and fit, bursting with energy and vitality — to be hogged by Scion's usual fresh-faced demographic. That's not likely to happen: Jack Hollis, the excitable vice-president of Scion, said the brand expects the FR-S to attract a slightly older customer, including sports-car fans in their 40s and even 50s who've been just as eager for affordable fun.
The terrific six-speed manual is adapted from the Lexus IS-F. And the six-speed automatic version features rev-matching downshifts, a useful feature on road or track. The Scion saddles up other features you'd expect on a pricier car: Handsome, aggressively rib-crunching sport seats covered in grippy, faux-suede fabric; a Torsen limited-slip differential to help those rear wheels send power to the pavement.
The BeSpoke premium audio system is the latest industry bid to convince users that voice commands are good for you, and for fellow drivers on the easily distracted highway. In keeping with the youthful vibe, the optional BeSpoke -- powered by Pioneer's new Zypr system -- lets occupants listen to Pandora and Internet radio, send Twitter messages, even search for nearby friends and route to their location. The system's quick-start guide, explaining Tweet dictation, offers this: "I'm driving comma I will call you back later period." LOL, right?
If a pounding techno beat isn't enough, a "Sound Creator" routes pulses of engine intake into the cabin to bring the noise inside.
On the practical front, the 6.9 cubic-foot trunk is plenty big for weekend adventures. The rear seat is classic two-plus-two in the Porsche 911 vein: Barely habitable by humans, but perfect for luggage or small dogs. And Scion throws in two years of free scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance.
With 200 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque, the Scion squirts from 0-60 mph in about 6.4 seconds — sprightly, but more than a second slower than, say, a Ford Mustang V6. Yet this Scion isn't about numbers, but rather driver engagement. Like any legitimate sports car, be it a perky Mazda Miata or a steamrolling Corvette, the Scion fairly begs its owner to come out and play. And when it's time to fetch, this Asian terrier weighs just 2,758 lbs. in manual trim, roughly 500 lbs. fewer than cars such as Nissan Z's, Corvettes and Porsche 911s.
A healthy 20 laps around the course revealed the Scion as an especially benign partner for high-speed workouts. The FR-S attacks corners with pulse-quickening style, but seems expressly designed to never cause a heart attack. When the 17-inch tires finally exceed their traction limits — reasonably high limits, considering that Scion plucked these Michelin MX tires from the Euro-market Toyota Prius — the FR-S segues into a predictable four-wheel drift that even your Aunt Rose might control without freaking out
That accommodating set-up makes the Scion ideal for younger buyers. Or, for parents generous enough to foot the tab, smart enough to avoid repair and hospital bills. For people who simply must have more power, Scion engineers and executives weren't exactly denying that a turbocharged version is on the way, and perhaps a convertible as well.
The FR-S does have one major performance bummer: An extremely slow-revving engine, in the type of quicksilver car — think MG, Mazda Miata or anything Honda — that lives for a fast-spinning four-cylinder. But all told, the Scion FR-S is a potent, welcome antidote to boring crossovers and workaday sedans. It's also a hopeful sign that the malaise that settled over Toyota, like a musty beige blanket, may be lifting.