Part of the attraction of real two-seat sports cars – from old British marques like MG and Triumph to such long-standing legends as Porsche and Ferrari – is the disproportionate performance-to-amenity quotient. Even as the current crop of roadsters becomes increasingly more polished and civilized, a few holdouts maintain the traditional values – nimble handling over ride comfort, functional controls over creature comforts, a throaty exhaust note over solitude and silence.
Of course, we’re talking about mainly masculine values, as Anita is quick to point out. Perhaps that’s why Paul is so drawn to the all-new Toyota MR2 Spyder – a two-place roadster that challenges the sheer over-the-road appeal of the Mazda Miata, at a fraction of the price of a Porsche Boxster or an Audi TT.
He: Before you start harping, let me get all the bad stuff out of the way. I love the MR2 Spyder, but I admit it suffers from many of the usual convertible complaints. It’s noisy, whether the top is up or down. And when it’s up, it’s difficult to see behind you. There’s limited space in the trunk and in the cockpit. And, of course, the ride seems a little harsh. Having said all that, the MR2 Spyder is a blast to drive, unless you happen to be gridlocked in bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic or stuck in a sudden mid-winter blizzard. On the open road, I think it’s more fun than a Miata.
She: I wasn’t going to harp. I’m really trying hard to understand the appeal of a $23,553 vehicle that doesn’t even hold a bag of groceries. MR2 Spyder sales are predominantly to men – 72 percent. And they’re fairly young guys – 41 is the median age. And they’re fairly affluent with a median family income of $75,000 a year. I can see that guys are going to love the styling touches like the dramatic, oversized headlights, the sporty side air scoops and tubular metal handles in the cabin. But even the name of this little roadster seems to want to ward off women. C’mon – MR and Spyder? Would any man buy a vehicle labeled MRS and Butterfly?
He: Well, I thought the MR2 Spyder was highly entertaining. The mid-engine layout provides the car with exceptional poise, even on rough roads. And the MR2’s relatively low curb weight and all-independent suspension afford a delightful agility that’s lacking in more sedate convertible conversions, including Toyota’s own Solara softtop, that are built more for comfort than dexterity. The MR2 comes with four-wheel disc brakes with antilock, but there is no provision for traction control, so those who reside in northern climates should consider this as seasonal transportation at best.
She: Let’s boil that down even further, dear. This is a toy. It’s uncomfortable for long trips. It’;s going to require a back-up vehicle that’s more sensible in the garage. Yes, it’s going to be fun on weekends, but it’s impractical. The only way to sell it to the Mrs. is by showing her comparison charts that list more expensive competitors. The Audi TT and Honda S2000 are 10 grand more than the Toyota MR2. The Porsche Boxster is almost 20 grand more.
He: I admit I was more interested in horsepower than value when I got behind the wheel of the MR2. On paper, the 138 horses put out by the tiny twin-cam 1.8-liter four-cylinder don’t seem that overwhelming. Similarly priced softtops pack considerably more wallop. But the MR2 weighs a mere 2200 pounds, and is geared aggressively to take advantage of the engine’s torque curve. As long as you keep the revs up and the go-pedal down, the car feels surprisingly quick. Even better, the car returns up to 30 miles per gallon in highway driving, according to the EPA.
She: The MR2 also comes with such goodies as power windows, locks and mirrors, plus a fancy audio system. But for my money, the Miata is more comfortable and more classy for about the same price. And isn’t that a nice nongender-specific name for a car, honey?
He: Yes, Ms. Lienert.
2000 Toyota MR2 S yder
Anita’s rating: Above average
Paul’s rating: World class
Likes: Exceptional value. Terrific handling, great poise. Decent fuel economy. Easy to operate. More fun to drive than a Miata (Paul).
Dislikes: Noisy, especially at higher engine revs. Poor visibility with top up. Limited space in cockpit and trunk. Rough ride. Cabin is rather spartan. Not as much fun to drive as a Miata (Anita).
Type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger roadster
Price: Base, $23,098; as tested, $23,553 (inc. $455 destination charge)
Engine: 1.8-liter I-4; 138-hp; 125 lb-ft torque
EPA fuel economy: 25 mpg city/30 mpg highway
12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,456 (Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)
Where built: Japan