In a lot of ways, Toyota and Subaru’s shared sports car is both a blessing and a curse. Besides the Mazda Miata, no car on the road can compete to the Scion FR-S and BRZ’s connected driving feel and innate tossability for under $30K. What’s more, the ToyoBaru twins’ fastback body make year-round driving easy, something the Mazda can’t compete with until the targa-topped Miata RF arrives next year.
And yet, compared to the Miata’s decades-long popularity, the Toyota-Subaru cars barely register outside the enthusiast community. In 2015, Subaru sold just over 5,200 BRZs, and Scion sold a shade over 10,000 FR-Ses. In comparison, Subaru sold over 33,000 of its rally-bred WRXs, and Toyota sold, um, 430,000 Camrys. Neither have changed much since their 2012 debut, and both are powered by Subaru’s rev-happy 2.0 liter boxer-four, which makes 200 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. But despite sublime road manners, gearheads have been screaming for a more powerful turbocharged model for years, even though there isn’t much chance that it’s going to happen in this generation.
So the FR-S/BRZ is a niche car, and they’re virtually identical. But what makes buyers flock to Toyota’s lame-duck Scion brand nearly two-to-one over Subaru, a company that can’t build cars fast enough to keep up with demand? On the surface, not much. But if you’re willing to split hairs, the differences begin to show, and that’s just enough for us to pick a favorite.
It’s a close call, but it almost needs to be, because the FR-S/86-BRZ connection is more than a one-off partnership. Toyota owns a 16.5% stake in Subaru; not enough to bring it under its control, but certainly enough to bring it into its orbit. The FR-S/BRZ is the first car to come from the partnership, and it’s a hell of a way to start things off. The FR-S starts at $27,200. The BRZ starts a little bit lower at $25,395 – but that may change very soon.
For starters, Scion is dead after 2016, and the FR-S has become the Toyota 86. With that comes a neat five horsepower and six pound-feet torque bump. Perhaps most importantly, the 86 benefits from a new front and rear fascia, making a noticeable break from its past. While you’d think that would be enough alone to differentiate these two cars, think again: The week of Toyota’s big announcement, spy photos appeared showing similar revisions to the Subbie. But there is more daylight between the cars’ appearances now than ever before; the BRZ’s new look is far more evolutionary, while the 86’s new duck-bill front end is already proving to be divisive among the faithful. The BRZ also got Toyota’s power bump, too.
The BRZ and 86 share the same engine, suspension, body, and mechanicals, so the big difference here comes down to the trim and interior. In both cars, you get the traditional Japanese acres of black plastic, but on the Scion, you get a big white tachometer front and center, while the BRZ’s is black. But while the current FR-S has a little higher entrance fee, the BRZ is the only one that offers dual-zone climate control, leather seats, and heated seats. That may not matter much to you, but if amenities like that are a must-have for your better half, you might have better luck getting a “yes” with the Subaru than the Scion, though it remains to be seen if the refreshed 86 will close that gap too.
On the one hand, we love that the car is now the Toyota 86, the name the rest of the world knows it as, and a clever reference to the AE86 Corolla, one of the most legendary Toyotas ever built. Plus, the slight power bump should make the already intuitive driving experience that much more so. But given its low entry price, Blue Pearl paint that looks great with those legendary gold STI rims, and interior amenities that make it a more comfortable year-round driver, we’d give the Subaru BRZ the slight edge. To us, the 86 has the potential to be an even better FR-S. The BRZ is already there.