According to the industry publication Automotive News, there are 1,314 car and truck models on the market. It’s little wonder that few models truly stand out in this sea of sheetmetal.
The Toyota MR2 Spyder is one that does.
The MR2 Spyder was reintroduced to the American market for the 2000 model year after a five-year hiatus. That it is back in the market is news enough.
After all, there are few cars at any price with the MR2’s layout: a two-seat convertible with engine mounted mid-ship. By mounting the engine behind the seats, but ahead of the rear axle, the car’s weight is evenly split front-to-back. For the enthusiast driver, this perfect weight balance enhances the driving experience.
The only other cars to boast of such a layout are the Porsche Boxster, base price: $42,600, and Ferrari 360 Modena Spider, base price: $160,125. The Toyota starts at $23,735. Looking at those numbers, someone’s getting overcharged.
The MR2 is made for performance considerations only, just like its higher-priced competition. Weighing just about 2,200 pounds and measuring a scant 153 inches long, this is one small buggy. That’s why the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is all that’s needed to motivate this Toyota tidbit to 60 mph in under 7 seconds.
The engine is rated at 138 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 125 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm.
This car moves smartly.
With this available power, a manual transmission is necessary. So you’d expect a five-speed manual transmission to be standard and it is. What makes this car really surprising is Toyota’s new 5-speed Sequential Manual Transmission (SMT).
Many race cars use a form of sequential manual transmission that allows the driver to maintain control of which gear the car is in while the car takes care of the clutch work. It permits instantaneous shifts without driver error.
Similarly, many cars today have automatic transmissions that allow the driver to shift through the gears manually, but they don’t allow for true manual control.
This drivetrain takes getting used to. There is no clutch pedal. The gear selector has four positions: reverse, neutral, upshift and downshift. There is no park position, just like a manual. Take your foot off the brake on an incline and the vehicle will roll backward.
The car starts in first gear. The driver tips the center console chrome lever rearward to upshift and forward to downshift. A driver also can shift using steering-wheel-mounted buttons. Unlike a manual, you can’t feel what gear you’re in by where the shifter actually is, so you must pay attention to the gear readout on the tachometer.
The only automatic function is when you come to a complete stop. The car downshifts to first gear.
If you do a rolling stop, the car holds its gear. This is where the driver needs to be aware that the car can be in the wrong gear and the e ngine will lug.
Also, by letting up on the throttle ever so slightly, the car shifts smoother. Again this is similar to a manual transmission. Once you get used to it, speed and shifting come quickly and smoothly. The only exception is when the engine is cold; the shifts seem a bit abrupt.
Starting the car will cause fits for a valet — the car must be in neutral and your foot must be on the brake.
The engine makes all the right noises and it’s enough to warm any enthusiast’s heart. Thankfully, unlike almost every other Toyota, there’s little serenity here. You feel like a part of the machine. The engineers have allowed just enough vibration to make its way through to the driver.
The steering is instantaneous and extremely sensitive. The brakes are strong. Cornering behavior is totally flat. There’s enough twitchiness to make any enthusiast happy, yet the ultimate grip is excellent.
There’s enough noise of the good sort to ren er the radio unnecessary, but the AM/FM/cassette/CD player has excellent sound. But fear not, weekend autocross enthusiasts, it’s been designed to be removed entirely for weight-savings.
Other amenities include a tilt wheel, air-conditioning, anti-lock brakes, 15-inch alloy wheels, power windows, power mirrors and cupholders. The seats are comfortable, supportive and covered in a durable cloth fabric.
The convertible top is manually operated from the driver’s seat. Toyota designers paid attention to the looks of the top when folded. Since most convertible owners never use a tonneau cover that comes with most tops, the MR2’s top is designed so it looks good without it. Losing the tonneau cover also saves weight.
A small flip-up wind blocker helps prevent wind buffeting. The top features a glass rear window with defroster.
The downside to the MR2 in some people’s eyes will be cargo space. A small slot by the spare tire up front is offered, but this cramped, hot space is less than ideal. The rest of the space consists of a pair of door-mounted map pockets, a dash top compartment and two small lockable compartments behind each seat. That’s good for a paltry 1.9 cubic feet of cargo room.
But this is a small price to pay for a car designed as a pure sports car. It’s a lovely little plaything at a price that no other carmaker can match.
It’s a testament to Toyota’s engineering prowess and a great buy in a sports car for under $25,000.
No wonder it sticks out in my mind.