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).