A quarter of a century has passed since the first issue of AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE arrived on newsstands. It seems like only yesterday to many of us, but surely that cannot be so, since the 1986 Toyota MR2 that graced the cover of our premiere issue has migrated to the back of the book. Once a cover model, the first-generation MR2 is now a Collectible Classic.
Not that the AW11-chassis MR2 was brand-new in April of 1986. It had already been on the market for more than a year, but that made it a spring chicken compared with the Ferrari 308 parked next to it, which was in its twelfth year. In that first issue, we did the unthinkable, pitting a $14,778 Toyota against a $54,300 Ferrari. Then, we lost our minds and declared the cheap Japanese car the winner.
"God help the Italians if the Japanese ever decide to build supercars," wrote David E. Davis, Jr. Time, the Acura NSX, and the Lexus LFA would prove that divine assistance is not yet required for Ferrari, but it's still true that the MR2 was a very special car. Special because of its looks, performance, mid-engine layout, and, above all, because it was so unexpected, coming from a conservative company like Toyota.
Still, the MR2 was very much a Toyota. Whereas the cabins of other mid-engine cars were crammed with more compromises than cubic feet, the MR2's cockpit was a model of ergonomic perfection, if somewhat less than aesthetically perfect. The dashboard's multiple pods and appendages appear, in retrospect, to be an attempt to torture interior designers, but all of the important controls are placed within easy reach. To describe the cabin as minuscule would be an understatement, but with a greenhouse interrupted only by the thinnest of pillars, the view out is better than that from a modern convertible with its top down.
Despite the MR2's microscopic dimensions, the cabin feels quite spacious. Highly adjustable seats are so supremely comfortable that you've no choice but to forgive the oh-so-1980s scrunchie-accordion-rubber doohickeys on the headrest uprights. The pedals are placed properly in front of the driver (rather than pushed toward the right because of wheel-well intrusion, as in many mid-engine cars). The two-spoke steering wheel was not pretty back then, and time hasn't helped its cause, but it's attached to something we seldom see in cars today: a manual steering rack. With fewer than 1100 pounds on the front axle, the steering isn't unduly heavy, even at parking-lot speeds, but flick the wheel on a back road and the MR2 reacts with notable aplomb. That is no surprise, since Toyota recruited Dan Gurney to help with the final chassis tuning.