EXPERT REVIEW

washingtonpost.com's view

Some auto-buff magazine writers live in Wacko Land. Need proof? Look at their treatment of the 1988 Supercharged Toyota MR2.

The MR2 is a mid-engine (M), rear-wheel-drive (R), two-seater (2), first sold in the United States in 1985. It’s a tiny car, a superb commuter, and a pretty darned decent companion on longer trips, too.

Many buff books criticized the original MR2 because its power didn’t match its speed-happy looks. Too slow, they said. Hmph. Think about that: The first MR2 cranked out 112 horsepower max, got you into highway traffic with acceptable competence, and got you a speeding ticket if you really acted silly.

But you gotta play to your critics, right? So, Toyota went to the tool shed, put together a supercharger and boosted its already excellent 1.6-liter engine to 145 hp. The thing can get up to 130 mph, according to Toyota engineers. I’ll take their word for it, because I can’t afford a second mortgage to support my local police.

The buffies agree that the new MR2 is faster. But guess what? Lots of those recalcitrant throttle jockeys are whining that the MR2’s suspension is too soft and that the car’s handling, as a result, is squishy.

What junk! The test-model supercharged MR2 I drove did fine around curves at slightly higher-than-legal speeds. I did slip the rear end once on gravel-covered road, but that was my fault, not the car’s. And I’ll take the new MR2’s “soft suspension” any time over a harder system that bumps and groans all over the place.

Certainly, anything can be improved. And if the Toyota people find a way to make an even better MR2, let ’em do it. But let ’em do it with the needs and wants of normal people in mind — the people who don’t drive on test tracks and skid pads, the folks who just wanna have some fun without hiring a lawyer or spending time and money in traffic court.

Complaint: A nitpick. There was a slight, apparently heat-caused deformation on the passenger-side portion of the dashboard.

Praise: Overall excellence in craftsmanship, design and engineering. For example, you’d expect a small two-seater to have lousy luggage space. The MR2’s bag space is miniscule, but thoughtfully done. Unlike the now-moribund Pontiac Fiero, the MR2’s rear luggage compartment is completely walled off from the engine — no fumes in clothes or that sort of thing, not to mention the reduced risk of overheated cargo. There are separate hatches for the trunk and mid-placed engine. There’s also extra carrying space in the front of the vehicle, under the hood, a la VW Beetle.

Head-turning quotient: It flirts with adolescence without going overboard. A very cute show-stopper.

Ride, acceleration, handling, braking: Excellent in all four categories under normal use and in normal hands. “Normal,” in this case, means a comfortable ride over good roads and a quite decent ride over rougher stuff. It means that you’ll have absolutely no trouble moving into traffic or changing lanes. And it assumes that you understand that the MR2, like most cars sold to the general motoring public, is not designed to compete in the Indianapolis 500.

Added attraction: The supercharged MR2 has a T-top consisting of removable, key-locking glass panels on either side of a fixed center roof strip. The panels come off easily and are stored behind the seats in pouches. Great for sun. But it’s wise to replace and lock the panels if the car is going to be left unattended for awhile.

On superchargers: A supercharger performs the same work as a turbocharger, but does it differently. Both devices increase combustion pressure and power by forcing air at above atmospheric pressure into the engine. The supercharger is belt-driven by a crankshaft, and the turbocharger uses a turbine driven by recirculated exhaust gases. Supercharged engines tend to get lower fuel economy than turbocharged models; turbocharged engines tend too erate at higher temperatures than supercharged models. Talk to your mechanic about repairability and maintenance costs.

The 1.6-liter, supercharged MR2 engine is a 4-cylinder, twin-cam, 16-valve powerhouse.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette by Toyota. Excellent.

Mileage: About 25 to the gallon (10.8-gallon tank, estimated 260-mile range on usable volume), running mostly highway and driver only.

Price: Ouch! Base sticker $17,068; with $1,930 in options and a $330 destination charge in Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions, the test model topped off at $19,328. Destination charges in other regions range from $240 to $310. Dealer’s invoice price without options is $14,442.

Purse-strings note: Toyota’s prices change frequently, usually upward.

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