If you want a sporty car and aren't into muscle-car poses and smoky burnouts, there really aren't many no-frills rear-wheel-drive coupes. But two of the best possibilities left are ones you'll almost certainly want to consider: the Subaru BRZ and the Scion FR-S.
While the Hyundai Genesis Coupe and the more affordable versions of the Nissan 370Z might suffice, the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S have arguably expanded the horizons for those who want to drive, above all else, on a budget.
So which one should you drive--the FR-S, or the BRZ?
The FR-S and BRZ are near-twins, developed and designed by a joint effort between Subaru and Toyota (Scion's parent brand). Aside from some differences in design and equipment, they're functionally the same car.
Aesthetically, the BRZ and FR-S both convey a sense of friendly, sporty attitude. Low-slung, with curving roof lines and slightly flared fenders, you'd be forgiven for not noticing the differences straight away. Up front, the FR-S and BRZ wear slightly different bumpers, the primary difference being the shape of the grille opening. Of course each also gets its brand-specific badges, but beyond that, there are essentially no visible differences, even inside the cabin.
That's not a bad thing, however, as Subaru and Scion have managed to pack in a lot of value for not much money--though again, here we have a difference. The Subaru BRZ starts mere hundreds higher than the FR-S. Both models get you a six-speed manual transmission, but the BRZ adds standard voice-activated navigation, an upgraded stereo, and Bluetooth hands-free/audio support. The Scion is less expensive, but requires an upgrade to get the same equipment, raising the price to about the same as the BRZ (although the Scion does now include a touch-screen audio system). The BRZ, unlike the FR-S is also available with two pre-configured trim levels: Premium (the standard spec) and Limited. The FR-S is available in a single "mono-spec" trim, with all options available a la carte.
The FR-S and BRZ also differ slightly in available exterior colors. Both are available in various shades of black, red, gray, and blue, as well as white, but the specific hues are unique to each brand.
Now to the similarities: both come with a 2.0-liter boxer (horizontally-opposed) four-cylinder engine with combination port and direct injection. The engine is rated at 200 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 151 pound-feet of torque at 6,600 rpm. Both come standard with a six-speed manual transmission and offer an available six-speed paddle-shift automatic.
Both the BRZ and FR-S are also rated at 22/30 mpg with the manual transmission or 25/34 mpg with the automatic, a consequence of their nearly identical equipment and weight (about 2,758 pounds with the manual transmission or 2,806 pounds with the automatic).
Inside, both cars are surprisingly well-finished considering their performance and price. While there are no expanses of Nappa leather or Alcantara, there are pleasing matte-finish trim pieces, soft-touch plastics, and a simple, purposeful design theme that suits the spirit of the car: no-nonsense sporting fun. The rear seats are even somewhat useful; full-size adults won't want to go cross-country in the back, but they won't mind going across town.
There is one minor difference remaining, but it will only be picked out by the true enthusiasts. Behind the wheel, both the FR-S and BRZ feel lively, supplying just the right mix of balanced handling and rev-happy power. But as we and others have found, the FR-S will demonstrate a slightly (but noticeably to those with a nose for it) greater willingness to rotate--that is, to move around its central axis. The Subaru BRZ, on the other hand, demonstrates a very slight bias toward understeer at the limits. This fundamental difference is due to Scion's revised rear spring and bushing choices. While it may sway the true sports car fan one way or another, most people won't—and shouldn't—notice the difference.
On the highway, or cruising around town, both the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S offer surprisingly supple, comfortable ride quality, with quieter cabins than you might expect from a sports car. Again, this speaks to quality of engineering and construction, which might be expected from Toyota, but at this price point, is still impressive.
The bottom line with either the Scion FR-S or Subaru BRZ is that you can't go wrong, whichever brand you choose, as they're the two newest, and in our eyes, best, entrants to the (mostly) under-$30,000 sports car market.
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