This was a good day. Bright spring weather, two lanes of desert blacktop and a tiny, midengine convertible with a raspy exhaust note. A winning combination, any way you cut it. Add to that a good companion with whom to share it all. In this case, my dad, who was in the passenger seat as we took a brisk, top-down cruise alongside the Salt River in a little Toyota MR2 sports car. He was grinning broadly as his white hair rose in the wind, and the desert scenery zipped past. The Toyota MR2 Spyder is designed for one thing and one thing only: to be a kick to drive. Which it is with its fast steering, agile handling and the sound of that little four-banger behind your right ear.

MR2 (also known as Mister Two) is back, reappearing after a hiatus of five years. During that time, it morphed from a hot little wedge into a stylish, accommodating machine that goes straight up against the original retro roadster, Mazda Miata, in price and customer base. The Toyota has sharper handling and a surprisingly roomy interior, considering its small exterior dimensions. This is much appreciated by those of us who feel crammed into a Miata. The MR2 is commodious in comparison.

The styling falls right in line with today's popular two-seater sports cars: Porsche Boxster, mainly, but also Audi TT, BMW Z3, Mercedes-Benz SLK and Honda S2000. The Toyota undercuts them all in pricing, but there are limitations here. In the hedonistic sports-car world, MR2 is certainly not the fastest nor the most macho toy on the playground.

Mainly, it could use more engine pull, though the 138 horsepower does provide a fair amount of motivation for a car that weighs just over a ton. Too bad the current MR2 does not include a turbo option, as did the previous version. But for the $23,000 price tag, MR2 is a sophisticated little critter with good performance and decent looks, plus Toyota's reputation for quality.

Just don't go calling MR2 a poor man's Boxster, because it really is a different sort of being. Diminutive and playful, it reminds me more of another entry-level Porsche of long ago, the midengine 914.

The Toyota is a bit too cute and cuddly for my middle-age taste with its big, adoring headlight "eyes" and stubby profile. But for the young target market, especially young women, this look should be right on the button.

While the edgy handling and exhaust note make MR2 a blast to drive on back roads, the stiff suspension and loud engine roar make it less pleasurable on the freeway. A taller fifth gear would help tone things down a bit. But the little car also feels skittish on the cement superslab, shuddering over expansion joints and rumbling over rough surfaces. That, and the fact that you feel decidedly like a small bit of prey among the looming trucks and SUVs.

But even if you still were planning a road trip in the MR2, there's another glaring problem: This car has no luggage spa ce. Engine and suspension take up all the room in back, while running gear and a spare tire use it all up front. Two small compartments behind the seats are about it.

MR2 Spyder comes fully equipped at its base price, including a stereo cassette/CD system, air conditioning, antilock brakes, alloy wheels and performance tires, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Also included is something several of the big boys don't include in their convertible tops: a glass rear window with defroster. BMW take note. The only available options are full-leather interior and an automatic transmission with a sequential shift selector in case you want to pretend you're driving a stick shift.

But what's the point? Mister Two's sole purpose in life is to be entertaining, so it's hard to fathom why anyone would go for one of these with automatic. Where's the fun in that?