Toyota launched its two-passenger, rear-wheel drive sport convertible as a late 2000 model, reviving a name used in the 1990s for a similar mid-engine coupe. Last year, a new model of the MR2 Spyder with a five-speed sequentially shifted manual transmission (SMT) became available.
For 2003, the sequential manual gearbox in the SMT version gets a sixth ratio, and cruise control is newly available. Fog lamps are now standard, the front fascia has been restyled, and a larger exhaust tip is installed. Side air intakes are now color keyed, and instrument-panel graphics have finer gauge gradations.
Similar in size and price to the Mazda MX-5 Miata, which uses a front-mounted engine, the MR2 Spyder has a soft-top that folds manually and includes a glass rear window. The clutch and gear operations in the SMT model are computer operated, and electronic throttle control permits the system to reduce torque during shifts. Upshifts and downshifts are achieved by moving the selector to plus or minus positions or by using steering-wheel buttons.
Boldly massive air scoops run along the body’s sides ahead of the rear wheels of the MR2 Spyder. A wide, gaping grille opening dominates the low-slung front end. Large, round headlights are encased in elongated, clear-plastic housings. Front and rear overhangs are minimal, and the MR2’s 96.5-inch wheelbase is 7 inches longer than the Miata’s.
The top folds flat into a well, and a wind deflector mounts behind the seats. Alloy wheels hold 15-inch tires in front, but new 16-inch tires are used at the rear.
Seating is cozy for two occupants on bucket seats. Standard features include drilled aluminum pedals, a leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel, a cassette/CD stereo, air conditioning, and power windows, door locks and mirrors. A large, center tachometer dominates the three-pod gauge cluster.
Tall folks can stretch out, but cargo space is virtually nonexistent - it is officially listed at a minuscule 1.9 cubic feet. The sole factory option is a leather-trimmed seat package.
The MR2’s 138-horsepower, 1.8-liter, dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder engine is adapted from the one used in the Celica; it teams with a five-speed-manual transmission. The sequentially shifting manual gearbox replaces the clutch pedal and gear selector with a single shifter, but it has no fully automatic mode. Toyota claims the MR2 Spyder can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds.
All-disc antilock brakes and daytime running lights are standard. Side-impact airbags are not available.
The MR2 Spyder is a sweetheart on the road, and it is among the more fun-filled two-passenger models around. It is tight inside, and slipping into the driver’s seat demands a few gyrations that culminate in an abrupt drop-into position. The prospect of controlling almost Boxster-like highway moves on a tight budget makes up for a few imperfections.
Equipped with a capable engine, the MR2 Spyder zips through challenging situations, gripping the pavement tautly through curves. On good pavement surfaces, the ride is surprisingly smooth. The manual gearbox works with easy motion but demands some effort.
The wind deflector can be distracting, but visibility is otherwise good. Faults come mainly in the area of storage space.