Payne: Is bargain Scion FR-S the Porsche 944 reborn?

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Oh, it's good to be in my 20s again. Auburn hair. Lightning-quick reflexes. Eyes like a hawk.

Or maybe it's just this Scion FR-S I'm driving. Dude, it's dope.

Not since my first sports car 25 years ago — Porsche's legendary 944 — has a thrifty thoroughbred felt so good in my hands. "Affordable sports car," after all, is usually an oxymoron.

But for the durable, adorable Mazda Miata roadster (25 years old this year), examples of the breed rarely survive the business bean counters.

I grew up at the track, the oil-stained son of a Porsche race jockey. But on the street, Porsches were exotics — megabuck 911 playthings for middle-aged moguls. Until the 944 broke the mold. Long before Mercedes (CLA 250) and Audi (A3) crafted down-market sedans to lure younger demographics, Stuttgart hatched a $20K, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2+2 sports car that set young motorheads' hair on fire.

At a base price of $22,000 in 1982, the 944 was a bargain. And with sexy styling, torquey four-banger, and balanced handling, it was to die for. "The most seductive combination of economy and performance money can buy," in the words of motorhead bible Road & Track.

Fresh out of college in 1984, I drove the 944 for the first time. Where my college mates celebrated graduation by traveling to Europe to sip wine and chase French skirts, I rented a 944 (the Euro lot equivalent of a Mustang) with my old man and terrorized Germany. We hit the car's top speed of 134 mph on the Autobahn. We bought laps at the epic Nurburgring (a must for every gearhead's bucket list). We chased Mercs.

I was smitten. Six years and a many saved paychecks later, I had my own, used, 1987 Porsche (a 924S, the 944's streamlined, lightweight option). We did everything together from long trips to track days. As well-behaved as the 944 chassis was on track it was also practical around town with a hatchback and rear seats big enough for little Paynes.

But Porsche would not make the 944 forever.

Margins were small and capital investments high. "When it came time to upgrade, it just wasn't worth the money," says Kelly Blue Book managing editor Matt DeLorenzo, former editor of Road & Track. The last 944 rolled off the line in 1991 and the segment withered with it. Its more-powerful 968 sequel exited in 1995. The rotary-powered Mazda RX7 — a 944 copycat — died a decade later. Nissan's Z got porky and pricey. The Miata's cuter than quick. Darkness enveloped the Earth.

In 2013, the FR-S rose from the ashes. Courtesy of Toyota's youthful Scion brand. The budget bullet was back.

Shades of 944, Scion's skin is aggressive yet timeless. Eschewing boy toy wings or flared fenders, the fastback design is purposeful, not showy. Inside the cockpit, FR-S transports pilot back to the 944's low-slung, driver-centric layout. With its long snout and rear seats, even beanpoles like yours truly fit comfortably under the squat roof (I need a giant shoe horn to get in the wee Miata).

Scion controls are light years beyond the 944, courtesy of 21st-century strides in digital audio. Scion comes with 6-inch LCD touchscreen, Bluetooth, USB connectivity, nav, apps, Pioneer AM/FM/CD, woofer, and a partridge in a pear tree. It's a veritable rolling opera house compared to my old Porsche and its radio and tape deck (Look it up, kids. You'll find one in the Smithsonian).

In truth the only audio I need in the Scion is the exhaust note.

Light the wick with the push-button starter and the FR-S comes to life like a kicked wolverine. HAWRAWRP! It'll make your tail tingle. You want a quiet car? Buy a Camry. The FR-S is loaded for bear.

At the other end of this deranged growl is a 200-horse, 2.0-liter Boxer engine. The compact power-plant is the perfect complement to the crouched Scion chassis (its center of gravity is lower than a Porsche Cayman).

With cost in mind, Scion co-developed the FR-S with Subaru (thus the twin Subaru BRZ), just as Porsche co-produced its bargain sports car with Volkswagen. But Porsche's first take, the 924, was a disaster. Porsche delivered the styling goods, but VW delivered, well, a VW drivetrain. Duh. The result was, in order: 1) the little engine that couldn't, 2) ridicule from Porschephiles, 3) an extreme makeover called the 944.

Toyota made no such mistake. The Scion chassis and Subaru drivetrain connect like Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson. The FR-S Boxer engine is a rarity — a non-turbo that spits 100 horsepower-per-liter.

Even in January on Seven Mile's Washtenaw County twisties, the Scion thrills.

While modern sports cars have put on weight (haven't we all?), the 2,770-pound FR-S weighs less than its 2,900-pound, 158-horsepower Porsche forebear (and the same as my 924S version). More remarkably, the FR-S — at $25,670 — is barely more expensive than the 944 three decades ago.

With a quarter century of materials and suspension advancements, the Scion is noticeably stiffer than the Porsche. It cuts through corners like a knife through capellini. I pine only for the optional manual transmission (though the auto tranny's rev-matching tries hard to make me forget).

Following Payne tradition, I too have a hot-shoe, young college grad. He too lusts for bargain speed. He too is eying the FR-S. But here's the thing: He has more choices than I did a generation ago.

So when he joined me for a taste of Scion, we took along a Honda Civic SI coupe as well. With its own high-revving, 200-horse, 2.0-liter chainsaw, the nimble, identically-priced SI represents a pocket rocket breed that didn't exist three decades ago. And while the front-wheel driver can't match the RWD FR-S's athleticism, it holds its own while also holding more cargo.

Tough neighborhood. Though he'll miss the FR-S on track days, my son might find the fun SI — or the VW GTI, or the Subaru WRX, or the Ford Fiesta/Focus ST — delivers more utility 24/7. If the FR-S wore the iconic Porsche badge? That might change the dynamic. The 944 undeniably benefited from the family crest. Scion lacks LeMans trophies on its mantle.

For over a decade Porsche thrilled the entry segment with 4-cylinder variations of the 944 including the 924S, 944S, Turbo, and 968 (I eventually stuffed a 3.0-liter, 240-horse 968 mill into my featherweight 924S for the ultimate 4-banger Porsche). Fingers crossed that the FR-S hangs around.

Because this budget-friendly, asphalt-chewing coupe is, like, the fountain of youth.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Scion FR-S

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger sports car

Price: $25,670 base ($29,742 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, dual-overhead cam Boxer 4-cylinder

Power: 200 horsepower, 151 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed automatic or six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 2,770 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway/28 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: A tossable treat; throaty boxer

Lows: Rugrat-sized rear seats; turbo option, please?

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

1987 Porsche 944

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger sports car

Price: $22,950 (in 1987 dollars - $47,827, inflation adjusted)

Power plant: 2.5-liter, single-overhead cam, inline-4

Power: 158 horsepower, 155 pound-feet of torque (147 hp, 140 lb-ft in my 924S)

Transmission: five-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.8 seconds (924S, Car & Driver)

Weight: 2,900 pounds (2,765 lbs for 924S)

Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway/20 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Porsche performance at a discount; timeless lines

Lows: Weak engine mounts; suicidal timing belt needs therapy every 30K miles

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★