No vehicle in recent memory has stirred up the dander at Automobile Magazine quite like our Four Seasons Toyota MR2 Spyder. Mom, apple pie, and baseball may be the most romanticized and defended icons of American life, but at this publication, it’s Jean Jennings, my wife’s molasses cookies, and the Mazda Miata’s status as a perpetual All-Star.
Indeed, despite a host of came-and-wents, including the 1993-97 Honda Civic del Sol, the 1991-94 Mercury Capri, and the 1990-92 Lotus Elan, the Miata has been without a single real competitor since its debut in the fall of 1989.
In the spring of 2000, however, Toyota set out to give Mazda a mighty wedgie by reviving its MR2 name with a cheerful little mid-engined roadster that was, in size, specification, price, and performance, aimed dead smack at the Miata. (Recall, if you will, that Toyota gave Pontiac and its Fiero a similar wedgie in 1985 with the original MR2.)
The MR2 Spyder is the first car in the long history of the Toyota Motor Corporation to be imagined from the start as a two-seat convertible, and truly, it’s a sensational effort. The MR2’s all-aluminum DOHC in-line four displaces 1.8 liters and, with the aid of Toyota’s VVT-i variable valve timing system, produces 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque–enough to prod our Four Seasons Spyder to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 15.5 seconds at 89 mph.
Common among racing cars and big-ticket exotics, the MR2’s mid-engined layout offers dynamic benefits that are immediately apparent behind the wheel. A 43/57 percent front/rear weight distribution imparts a sense that the Spyder is pivoting around a point a few inches southeast of your right shoulder. Credit for the MR2’s quick reflexes must go as well to its featherweight status: Our car tipped the scales at just 2260 pounds. Los Angeles bureau chief Michael Jordan enthused: “Two decades of fascination with autobahn speeds have brought us a generation of 180-mph cars that weigh 3500 pounds, but when it comes to the joy of driving, lightness is everything.” And the MR2’s four-wheel vented disc brakes with standard ABS contributed to exceptional stopping distances: We recorded 129 feet from 70 mph.
The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, although communicative and quick, was occasionally knocked for being a bit overboosted. Executive editor Mark Gillies, generally smitten with the Spyder’s road (and track) manners, wrote: “It’s great when you load it up, but it lacks feel on turn-in. This car is so light and deft that I suspect Toyota could have done without the power assistance.” One driver noted that an easy way to appease the more hardcore enthusiast would be to offer a power-steering delete option, as Mazda does with the base Miata.
Of course, we continued to drive our Spyder during Michigan’s long winter months, something a typical owner is unlikely to do. And, although the MR2 never seemed to be anyone’s first choice during December and January, the little Toyota proved undeniably amusing when the white stuff fell, thanks in no small part to its rearward weight bias. Associate editor Joe DeMatio scrawled: “Oh my God! What fun this is to drive in the snow!” Gillies added: “For those of us who learned the joys of winter motoring in British sports cars, the MR2 is a revelation; balance and handling in the snow are simply spectacular.” Some credit for the Spyder’s subzero surefootedness must be given to a $364 set of Pirelli’s exceptional Winter 210 SnowSport tires, which tagged out the standard Bridgestone Potenza RE040s from December through April.
Something else that may have come as a revelation to those familiar with British sports cars (but not to those familiar with Toyota products) was the MR2’s bulletproof reliability; unlike its spiritual forebears, our Spyder spent much, much more time in our hands than in our mechanic’s. Through 28,025 miles, only scheduled maintenance stops and the warranty replacement of a faulty cable for the engine cover’s remote-release mechanism interrupted the fun. And, despite some admittedly zealous use–including romps around the Waterford Hills race circuit–our car’s structure was still acceptably rigid at the end of its year (something we can’t always say of outgoing Four Seasons convertibles).
The Spyder’s chunky looks were regularly endorsed in the logbook. Most of us found an appealing minimalism in the roadster’s shape that neatly recalled the first-generation MR2, the Porsche 914, and even the Lotus Europa. The cockpit’s hard plastics and hodgepodge of surface textures drew some flak, but, in true Toyota fashion, durability and functionality were above reproach. We loved the big central tachometer, the fat-rimmed wheel, the drilled pedals, and the handy dash-top compartment.
The manually operated fabric top, with its heated glass rear window, was simple enough to manipulate: Release two header buckles, and heave the structure back until it latches into place with its top side facing up–no need for a fussy soft tonneau cover. A handsome removable hard top is available in other markets, but Toyota has yet to make it available here.
We wouldn’t suggest that a car of the MR2’s tidy dimensions and sporting intentions could ever be an ideal grocery-getter, mall-hopper, or transcontinental road-tripper. But it bears mention that the Spyder seemed particularly underendowed for such work. A mere 1.9 cubic feet of cargo space, split between an underhood tub and a cabin-width bin behind the seats, complicated every journey that included the transportation or acquisition of stuff.
In a valiant effort to augment the car’s load-carrying ability, we fitted our Spyder with a custom-designed luggage rack from Classic Carriers (see In Gear, August 2001). Although it was sturdy and beautifully crafted, the chromed decklid rack was a puzzling anachronism to many of us–like sock garters or Milton Berle in a dress. No one, it seemed, ever quite understood or trusted the thing. So, aside from famously toting a pair of obscenely large pizzas (“The heat from the engine keeps the cheese bubbling!”), the $298 Classic Carriers rack pretty much just hung around looking jaunty.
Fortunately, what the MR2 lacks in cargo space it makes up for in people space. A wheelbase that’s 7.3 inches longer than a Miata’s affords the Spyder a significant three inches more leg room, which pleased our lankier staffers immeasurably. Wrote one: “A six-footer can actually fit behind the wheel without feeling like a Shriner.”
We have a history of burdening our Four Seasons cars with an FAO Schwarz store’s worth of optional toys, but the MR2 pleasantly confounded our indulgent impulses. Toyota sells its roadster “mono-spec”–that is, with one well-equipped trim level (air conditioning, ABS, and power windows and locks are standard) and only a few meaningful upgrades. In fact, for model year 2000, MR2 buyers had only one factory option to consider: leather seats (we passed). Our Four Seasons car stickered at $23,098, plus a $455 destination charge and $52 for dealer-installed wheel locks.
For the 2002 model year, Toyota introduced a clutchless sequential manual transmission (SMT) on its diminutive image car. A chrome-knobbed stick and redundant steering-wheel-mounted buttons control the five-speed SMT, a $780 option. Cruise control–not available with the regular manual gearbox–is standard with the SMT. A 2002 MR2 Spyder equipped exactly like our 2000 model would cost $24,275.
Toyota plans to bring only 5000 MR2 Spyders to the United States each year, and so far, demand has comfortably outstripped supply. At this point, the incumbent Miata outsells the MR2 three to one, and we have no reason to anticipate a reversal of fortune any time soon. But we also have no doubt that buyers in North America, Europe, and Japan are keeping the MR2 assembly line in Tokyo busy enough to make the car worthwhile for Toyota. It’s a lesson in niche marketing that other manufacturers would do well to study carefully.
In the end, the MR2 is a magnificently affordable way to experience the unique pleasures of the mid-engine layout. (Next stop is the $43,365 Porsche Boxster, followed by the $89,115 Lotus Esprit V8, the $89,995 Acura NSX, the $144,620 Ferrari 360 Modena, and the $294,900 Lamborghini Diablo.) Toyota has created a charming, stupendously entertaining plaything in the MR2 Spyder. Lightweight sports cars are thin on the ground in the United States. The list of such machines we are denied (Lotus Elise, MGF, Caterham Super 7, Fiat Barchetta, Alfa Romeo Spider, Opel Speedster) is considerably longer than the list of those we are allowed. We’re thrilled to have the Spyder; the automotive enthusiast’s world is a more interesting place for it. We’re still fond of a certain Mazda, but even the most ardent members of our Miata faithful agree that competition is healthy and that variety is the spice of life.