When Magnum P.I. met Mister Two: Ferrari 308 vs. Toyota MR2

Revisiting our first cover story test

Rory JurneckawriterJulia LaPalmephotographer

Thirty years ago, when Automobile's first subscribers received the long-awaited debut issue in their mailboxes, these are the two cars they saw first. As disparate as they were similar, the 1985 Ferrari 308 QV and 1986 Toyota MR2 both strove for the same goal: to deliver driving excitement. The difference was how they went about it.

For the cover story, David E. Davis Jr. wanted to know how a cut-rate Japanese sports car built almost entirely from econobox parts-bin bits competed against a thoroughbred Italian with an engine drawing from Formula 1 experience. It was a valid question, especially if you couldn't swing the near-$60,000 price tag for the latter, and it remains interesting today.

We see these cars together for the first time at Chateau Julien, the photo location and a picturesque winery in the heart of California's Carmel Valley. Each vehicle boasts fascinating design details. Sure, the word "pretty" isn't often used to describe the little Toyota, but its box-meets-wedge, origami-esque styling is difficult to stop ogling. Then there's that air intake, found only on the passenger side of the car and sure to drive OCD types to frenzy: More than one enthusiast has fitted their MR2 with a matching driver's-side intake, a modification made somewhat difficult by the fuel filler's placement.

"God help the Italians if the Japanese ever decide to build supercars. "

There are two rear spoilers, one on the trunklid and a nifty clear plastic wing on the roof's trailing edge. When viewed from the rear while catching the sun properly, the MR2's "Toyota" script reflects down into the rear window—a cool trick.

The Ferrari, meanwhile, couldn't look more Italian if it tried. The 308 is draped in classic Pininfarina-penned genius. Hard angles meeting flowing curves with enough grilles, vents, and scoops thrown in to fill a Trapper Keeper with childhood doodles. The earliest 308s wore fiberglass body panels, but by the 1980s, composites gave way to good, old-fashioned steel for a slight disadvantage in weight. Pininfarina resisted the temptation to add a flashy trunk-mounted spoiler to such an elegant design, opting instead for a vinyl-covered wing that hangs subtly between the rear buttresses, just aft of the targa-style roof. The only awkward styling elements are the black U.S.-spec bumpers dangling precariously off both ends of the car. Flush-fitting

 

The 308's roots trace back to the Dino series of road cars that began production in 1969 with the 206 GT. Designed as a smaller, cheaper sub-brand, the Dino boasted a six-cylinder engine with a real racing pedigree. Enzo Ferrari decreed that only his late son's name would grace the tiny Dino, but halfway through the life cycle of the succeeding Dino 308 GT4 with its new 3.0-liter V-8 engine, 2+2 seating, and controversial Bertone styling, Ferrari slapped his own name on the rear and a prancing horse badge on the front to boost sales.

By the time the new 308 GTB launched in 1976 in Europe, the styling contract was back to Pininfarina and a modern classic was born, to be later immortalized in the U.S. for its prominent role in the "Magnum, P.I." television series, driven by Tom Selleck's title character. Ferrari's mid-engine lineage continues to this day with the 488 GTB.

The MR2's origins are much more humble, beginning as mainly a collection of parts from various Corollas. The engine is a terrific little dual-overhead-cam 1.6-liter four-banger with fuel-injection and a then-state-of-the-art 16-valve cylinder head courtesy of Yamaha. The engine bowed in the AE86 sport coupe, where it was loved for its free-revving nature and then-stratospheric redline of 7,500 rpm. Toyota developed the strut-type suspension front and rear, a Lotus engineer fine-tuned it, and none other than American ex-F1 ace Dan Gurney track-tested it. Disc brakes all around and a quick-shifting five-speed gearbox completed the package.

It's not by chance I elect to drive the MR2 first. It's fairly obvious the Toyota is at a moderate performance disadvantage to the Ferrari, and I want to be able to savor the little sports car with a clean palate. Inside, the Toyota's cabin is spacious compared with, say, a Mazda Miata. My shoulders don't press against the doors as they do in many newer small sports cars, and the A-pillars are thin, which, combined with plenty of glass area including a pop-out sunroof, gives the interior an airy, spacious feel. The center console sits tall enough that it doubles as an armrest (underneath is the fuel tank), and the shifter sprouts from a vinyl boot at the top end. The driving position is nearly perfect, allowing good leg extension for taller drivers without placing the steering wheel too far away. Plastic abounds, but it's largely good-quality stuff, as attested to by its absence of wear over the course of more than 100,000 miles.

 

Setting off in the MR2, I'm struck by how light everything is. Not just the car itself but all the controls, the steering, the clutch. It's as easy to drive as, well, a Toyota, but it's purposeful at the same time. The steering wheel is thin and feels very much alive, wriggling gently over road imperfections not unlike the helm of a similar vintage Porsche 911. The gear lever has a well-broken-in, notchy feel, but the throws are fairly short and precise, requiring little effort to swipe from gear to gear. The engine is a charmer; what it lacks in horsepower (112) it makes up for in character. At low revs, it doesn't feel much different from any run-of-the-mill economy car engine, but when the car's T-VIS variable intake system comes to life above 4,500 rpm, the engine note takes on a gruff new tone and spins up smartly toward its exotic-esque redline. The changeover doesn't deliver a gain in power as much as a gain in the sense of urgency. The engine sounds so frenetic that it seems strange the trees lining the road aren't rushing by at hyperspeed. The car comes alive once it finds itself on any winding back road. There's a real delicacy to the MR2, which creates an instant rhythm as it flows in and out of turns. On its skinny, 185-mm-wide tires, it almost seems to float along the road. The ride quality is supple, though body roll is fairly minimal.

The Ferrari's door clicks open with a pull of the debonair metal latch at its top trailing edge and closes with a solid "thunk" after I settle inside. The driving position is incredibly low, with seats mounted right on the floor, putting my legs nearly perpendicular to my arms, which are outstretched toward the steering wheel. The switchgear is mostly metal stalks with plastic knobs, and whatever was covered in plastic or cloth in the Toyota is covered in vinyl or leather in the Ferrari.

The 308 ignites with a brief electric whir from the starter. In contrast to many early carbureted cars, this fuel-injected four-valver fires nearly instantly with a bark, then settles quickly into a low, thrumming idle. I give the fairly heavy clutch pedal a push, and pull the long, chrome shift lever down into the dogleg first gear with a clink from the metallic gates; this is the quintessential Ferrari experience. The car moves off smoothly and is quite easy to drive. Though steering and shifting—even the throttle action—are a little heavier than in most cars, it doesn't take long to get comfortable behind the wheel. With nearly 3,400 pounds of mass to haul around, the car feels a little heavy after driving the 2,600-pound Toyota. Still, the mid-mounted V-8 has enough torque to give the car some brio, and climbing the serpentine Laureles Grade, the Ferrari instantly feels much more potent than the MR2.

That said, everything happens a little more deliberately in the Ferrari than in the Toyota. There's an awareness of mass and a feeling of more responsibility. Driving a Ferrari is never a carefree experience, but the car seems to get better the harder it's pushed. Faster, more forceful shifts are cleaner than slower, careful ones. Firmer squeezes on the brake pedal show the strong capability of the decades-old system. And that sound … only Ferrari could make a V-8 with such a sophisticated exhaust note. At low revs it's all mumbling bass, but wind the thing out and the symphony starts. It never approaches the haunting howl of Ferrari's V-12s or the shriek of the Dino V-6, but the 3.0-liter eight has a muscular grunt all its own.

Wrapping up his assessment all those years ago, Davis was enamored with the Ferrari's mystique—the way it performed and the way it sounded. "At 80 mph, the Ferrari's V-8 with its four belt-driven cams has drowned out the radio, your radar detector, and your girlfriend's voice," he wrote. But he foretold the future with his take on the Toyota.

"The MR2 is a source of pure, un­alloyed driving fun and is infinitely superior to anything remotely like it. God help the Italians if the Japanese ever decide to build supercars."

1986 Toyota MR2 Specifications

Price when new: $14,778
Engine: 1.6L DOHC 16-valve I-4 /112 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 97 lb- @ 4,800 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine RWD coupe
L x W x H: 154.5 x 65.6 x 48.6 in
EPA Mileage: 26 mpg (city)
Wheelbase: 91.3 in
Weight: 2,600 lb
0-60 MPH: 8.7 sec
Top Speed: 120 mph

 

1985 Ferrari 308 GTSi QV Specifications

Price when new: $59,500
Engine: 3.0L DOHC 32-valve V-8/230 hp @ 6,800 rpm, 188 lb- @ 5,500 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine RWD coupe
L x W x H: 174.2 x 67.7 x 44.1 in
EPA Mileage: 11 mpg (city)
Wheelbase: 92.1 in
Weight: 3,350 lb
0-60 MPH: 7.1 sec
Top Speed: 151 mph