Look out, Miata.

The little Mazda roadster that requires a shoehorn for entry or exit now has a worthy rival that you can slip into or out of without taking a deep breath, cinching the belt two notches tighter and leaving one leg hanging out the door to get the remainder of the torso inside.

After a five-year absence, the Toyota MR2 is back for 2000--still a two-seater, but this time an open-top roadster.

Since MR2 last appeared, just about everybody--BMW, Honda, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, yadda, yadda, yadda--has brought a roadster to market to compete against the Miata.

The five-year wait for MR2 was worth it. We've often said if you can't be first in the market with something, you have to be best to make up for the lapse. Toyota obviously did its homework.

It's also been said that the Japanese are experts at copying the works of others. Depending on whether you view it from front, side or rear, the MR2 has the look of a Porsche Boxster, BMW Z3, Mercedes-Benz SLK or Honda S2000, with a hint of Miata added to the recipe--sort of a roadster stir fry.

Price is where Toyota has chosen to stick it to its rivals, primarily Miata. MR2 costs $23,098 fully equipped, with the only options being those added by the dealer, such as wheel locks, ski rack or vinyl bra. Price is just about dead-on with the little Miata, and we emphasize "little" because Toyota obviously set out to play up the size-versus-price comparison between MR2 and its Mazda rival.

Unfortunately, there already have been reports of a dealer tacking on $4,000 to the sticker to pad his profit. In fairness, there also has been a report of a dealer adding a $2,500 "environment fee" to the new high-demand Chrysler PT Cruiser, with the "environment fee" translating into undercoating, seat fabric treatment and exterior paint treatment, a trio of items that might run $300 if applied to a Chrysler Cirrus.

But we digress. MR2 has been here before, bowing in 1985 as an "affordable" two-seater for youth and the young at heart--a cute little plaything brought out to cast aspersions on the Pontiac Fiero that preceded it to market by a year.

MR2 arrived as a sporty-looking economy car with a base price just under $11,000. Not satisfied with success, Toyota added a supercharged engine so MR2 would be a sporty-looking sports coupe. The supercharger was replaced by a turbocharger but the intent remained the same, making it a performance-oriented sports coupe.

The sporty-looking 4-cylinder economy car was transformed into a very expensive sports coupe that few youth could afford, especially with insurance premium penalties associated with a performance car. MR2 faded from the market after the 1995 model year, when what started life as an $11,000 toy had become a nearly $40,000 object of art.

If the rebirth of the MR2 has any drawbacks, it's that it will be offered in very limited numbers--only 5,000 for 2000--and only with a 5-speed manual. At 5,000 units, MR2 will take a nick out of Miata, but it won't cause permanent damage.

However, John Kramer, corporate manager of national sales, said an electronic clutchless manual transmission, somewhat akin to Autostick at DaimlerChrysler and Tiptronic at Porsche, will be a dded next year at the earliest.

Toyota isn't going to offer two transmissions for only 5,000 cars. Production will increase. Kramer said there's talk about adding 3,000 to 5,000 more very soon. Still not up to Miata sales numbers of around 25,000, but when 10,000 MR2s are available, you aren't going to see 25,000 Miatas go out the door either, unless Mazda wakes up and comes up with a wider, longer, roomier roadster.

"This is an image car, designed to attract people into a Toyota showroom who may never have been in one before," Kramer said at the media preview here.

MR2 is one member of Toyota's trio of affordable cars for youth, the others being the Echo for the mileage-minded, and the Celica for those wanting sporty looks and a rear seat for the kids.

And before you ask--since we did--Kramer insists there are no plans for a Celica convertible.

The MR2 is a mid-engine roadster. The 1.8-liter, 138-horsepower 4-cylinder rests directly behind the occupants over the rear axle, where normally you'd find a trunk. Toyota wanted the setup for optimum weight distribution, which means optimum handling and performance for a roadster.

The formula works, especially when it comes to stable lateral control, though it leaves the MR2 with no trunk, and only enough space upfront under what you might call the hood to hold the spare tire and maybe a sleeve of golf balls. There's no place to store golf clubs or a suit carrier, though there are a pair of lockable compartments behind the seats that will hold a couple of small duffel bags and a sport coat. If you're willing to travel light, space is tolerable. The golf clubs will have to ride on the front floor resting against the passenger seat.

We tested the MR2 with top up and down. The top is a manual unit. Release the latches along the windshield header, grab the holder and let it slip into its compartment in back. Fairly easy procedure. But be advised that while the rear window is glass and comes with a defroster, it isn't very big for rearward vision. And the convertible top wraps around with no side rear windows, limiting vision when passing or backing out of a parking space.

MR2 is easy to slip into or out of, even with the top up. No having to duck to avoid head contact with the soft vinyl cover, as in the Miata. Inside, you find the seats are wide and cozy, very unlike Miata, whose seats fit like a glove that's one size too small. Also, the footwell with the pedals is wide open, unlike Miata, which is way too narrow and requires you to sit about 10 degrees out of plumb to reach the pedals.

Roomy and comfortable. An 80-mile jaunt through the Alabama and Florida countryside without fidgeting or squirming to relieve fatigue. Well done.

The 1.8-liter 4 provides ample power. The short-throw 5-speed manual is smooth through every gear. Just don't expect a Boxster in terms of performance. Good off-the-line pep, bu t not a car that requires you to keep one eye on the road, the other on the red line on the tachometer. It delivers 25 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway, which is better than many cars with four doors and a metal top.

Mileage over macho, by design.

"One reason the MR2 disappeared was that as performance was increased with supercharging or turbocharging, insurance premiums increased too," Kramer said. "The youth who wanted to buy the MR2 found that the insurance premium was more than the monthly car payment. And as the car got more powerful, it got heavier; and as it got heavier, it got more expensive."

Insurance costs also were considered in the design of the car. The front and rear quarter panels are individually bolted on, so in the event of a dent, just the damaged panel needs to be removed and repaired and then bolted back on. Kramer said the bolt-on panels will allow owners to customize the car by substituting unique panels of their own.

What un ique panels, you ask?

Kramer said to stay tuned for the Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas this fall, where automakers unveil performance derivatives and customized versions of existing cars in conjunction with aftermarket parts and component suppliers. Some tricked-out MR2s will be prominently displayed, he said.

Base price is $23,098. Add $455 freight and drive away, unless the dealer holds the car hostage with an add-on profit fee until the highest bidder comes along.

The list of standard equipment is impressive--anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, power windows/locks, AM-FM stereo with cassette and CD, glass rear window with defroster and 15-inch radial tires. They are "summer" tires, however, meaning you'll need to attach a set of all-seasons for the snow months or garage the MR2 over the winter.

Dual air bags are standard. A cutoff switch in the glove box disables the passenger-side bag when a child is in that spot. When disabled, a light in the instrument panel flashes on. The light was nearly impossible to see with the top down and the sun shining. A revise is needed.

Neat touches include huge, easy-to-see and very decorative headlamps and taillamps, non-slip metal gas/clutch/brake pedal covers and a massive glove box.

>> 2000 Toyota MR2 Wheelbase: 96.5 inches Length: 153 inches Engine: 1.8-liter, 138-h.p., 16-valve 4-cylinder Transmission: 5-speed manual Fuel economy: 25 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway Base price: $23,098 Price as tested: $23,197. Includes color-keyed carpeted mats with MR2 logo for $99. Add $455 for freight. (Other options will be dealer-installed accessories such as front-end mask, or bra, and wheel locks.) Pluses: Returns after nearly five-year absence. Bows to compete with Miata and is roomier, peppier more user-friendly than that Mazda. Lots of storage compartments for a two-seater. Soft-top for open-air motoring. Loaded with standard equipment, such as ABS, air, power windows/locks, AM/M stereo with cassette and CD and glass rear window with defroster. Minuses: Available only with 5-speed manual. Outside mirrors too close to driver. Absence of rear side window causes a blind spot. Only 5,000 to be shipped here. >>