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.