Three feet of shrubs separated the raven black 2013 Scion FR-S from an 80-foot drop into a ravine. In the heart of the California wilderness, I had pulled off the two-lane M-99 Highway to examine the sports car, far away from its racetrack roots.
At 7:00 am, the FR-S had already been caked in a layer of dirt, and as the sun rose over Sequoia National Forest I looked down into a valley of felled giants and trickling streams and thought, “This is what the entire state used to look like. Los Angeles, Newport Beach—all of it. Now I have to drive 200 miles from home to see it.”
You know what? Thank the driving gods for that. I’ll accept any excuse for a road trip, and this one is a dandy. Every Labor Day weekend, my wife Nikol and I head out for a 3-day camping trip outside of Bakersfield. I told Toyota that, and they graciously provided me with the hottest sports car on the market today.
I didn’t tell them that the annual gathering involves 100 of my closest fraternity brothers, floating down the Kern River in truck tires, canteens hanging from our necks like gold medallions. It’s a chance for us old alumni to share memories over the campfire, bestow our wisdom upon the young guns, and generally just act like we’re in college again—which is what made the Scion FR-S a perfect fit.
Nikol, however, was less than thrilled. We aren’t particularly thrifty packers, and had quite a bit of gear to stuff into the smallest coupe in the U.S. A 70-gallon cooler is a lot bigger than I’d anticipated; a trunk with 6.9 cubic feet is a lot less than I’d expected. But when you fold down the rear row, it actually creates a fair amount of space behind the two front seats. Is it roomy? No. But can you camp for three days with it? Yes. Especially if you have a friend take your tent.
So after a little Trunk Tetris, we set off, settling into Sixth gear up the 5 Freeway, out of Los Angeles County, east through Bakersfield and into the river-carved canyons.
We all know that the 2013 Scion FR-S is a track star, because that’s what every single review raves about. It’s true—the FR-S winds between 80-foot drops and falling rock warnings with the greatest of ease. Gabby Douglas on wheels. It’s not like your hands and feet are attached to the steering wheel and pedals; it’s like they are the steering wheel and pedals. Good sports cars make you feel like you’ve got somewhere to go; in the Scion FR-S, you’re already there.
A low center of gravity and stiff chassis keep it breezing around blind corners without a trace of body roll, so it’s actually more comfortable than your run-of-the-mill sedan that hees and haws with every sharp 25 mph corner. Standard sport seats pinch you into place, and everything works in tandem to make the handling so good that, often, braking just isn’t necessary—now that’s my kind of fuel efficiency. Even Nikol, notoriously carsick and terrified of this very road, has no complaints. If she must, the FR-S ranks only 5 out of 10 on the Sleepability Scale.
We finally arrive at the hallowed fraternity camp, unload our mountain of equipment and join in the festivities. In the FR-S, I’m in complete control, but I gladly relinquish my fate to the river as I hop into a tube. The day melts away in a haze of hot links, Miller High Life and mountain air.
The next day, my friend and longtime photo-partner Russell and I are up before the sun and head north onto M-99. Finally unburdened by backpacks and coolers and other Camp Crap, the FR-S darts further north into the frontier. I press the Sport Mode button, which simultaneously deactivates Traction Control, and set to challenging the limits of grip.
Driving by blue moonlight, the stars begin to fade; the air is so fresh that we don’t mind its chill. Without any other cars on the 2-lane highway, the 8-speaker Pioneer system is off, and dawn passes in silence. The only sounds for miles around are the clunk of the transmission, stress from the tires and the 2.0L Subaru boxer engine. Aesthetically speaking, the straight-four isn’t exactly an aural pleasure. It rattles through the revs and downshifts elicit wails rather than throttle blips. That said, it’s an absolute joy. The criticism that it’s underpowered might be true for the track, but not the real world—or this empty canyon road.
You can order the Scion with all kinds of goodies like semi-automatic transmission, power moonroof or 7-inch touchscreen navigation, but all of those things cost money and add weight. Our test car has no optional equipment, costs exactly $25,092 (with $730 destination) and weighs 2,600 lbs.—plus two groggy campers. Our FR-S test car was perfect.
From behind the wheel, seating position is nice and low; grip on the leather-wrapped wheel is great and the shifter is light and within reach. A day earlier, I slammed my knee against a rock on my second run down the river—the demands of the drive actually worried me a little bit—but the clutch is smooth enough to avoid further inflammation.
Scion FR-S drivers are firmly aware of the car and its size at all times. Up front, enlarged fenders act as scope sights, while the rear haunches bulge out into view through your view mirrors. You’re boxed in by the four best design features on the whole car—I checked my mirrors as much as possible.
Camping sites still asleep in the early light, separated by miles of adolescent redwoods, the hairpins and kickbacks flatten out and send us toward sunbathing mountains of granite. We aren’t barreling down the road—I’m focused on absorbing the surroundings, inhaling the handling like incense and powering down midway through exit. Treasures abound: One small turnout hides a bridge that leads to a logging trail, or Bigfoot’s house or something. Another reveals a giant dirt parking lot without a soul in sight. Donuts? Donuts. We came for the camping, but that drive has made me a Kern River lifer.
After a lot of floating and another fun night, we pack up and head for home. The FR-S melts around me and I settle into Sixth, averaging 28.8 mpg on the entire 440-mile round trip. The efficiency from direct injection and variable valve timing even manages to mask all that spirited carving. On the way back to L.A., Nikol and I will pass four cars (and two motorcycles) pulled over for speeding. After dancing through the redwoods, freeway speed isn’t much appealing to me.
I’m much more pleased by the pre-teen in the McDonald’s parking lot during lunch, who passes up sparkling Mustangs and Camaros to gawk at our dust-smeared FR-S. It may be billed as a track athlete, but this is a car for inspiring a new generation of canyon carvers.
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