2000 Toyota MR2 Spyder
Toyota returns to its roadster roots.
By Dan Carney
IntroductionThe MR2 Spyder is Toyota's attempt to return to the lightweight, reasonably priced roots of the original sports car market. The MR2 Spyder represents a fun, comfortable roadster for a decent price.
Model LineupThe beauty of Toyota's strategy with the MR2 Spyder is apparent in its model lineup: one car, no options, for $23,098. Toyota calls this "mono-spec," which is perhaps a suspect word. Regardless, this single-model strategy makes the MR2 less costly to build and distribute. Customers need only choose colors. Dealers provide wheel locks and an unnecessary cover that can be used when the convertible top is folded.
WalkaroundMR2 styling is a current interpretation of the classic mid-engined proportions with a very short hood and a stretched tail. The MR2 rides on a wheelbase that is 7 inches longer than the Mazda Miata wheelbase. It is even an inch or so longer than the Porsche Boxster and Honda S2000 wheelbase. Despite the obviously different nose, the MR2 Spyder looks a little like a Boxster, especially in black, because the dark color camouflages the surface differences.
The manual convertible top works easily, and can be lowered from the driver's seat. A nice detail is that the roof collapses into the boot as a parallelogram, instead of the usual flip-over and collapse setup. That means that, like the Boxster, the roof settles into place exposing only the top section, which rests flush with the body so no boot is needed to cover it. Unlike the Boxster and the S2000, the MR2 features a glass rear window with an embedded defroster, so the car should be easier to live with in the winter.
An unusual aspect of the MR2 Spyder is Toyota's use of a space frame with bolt-on fenders. The design is similar to that of the Pontiac Fiero; it lets customers easily replace damaged components. It also lends itself to customization by the companies providing parts for the import drag racing scene.
Interior FeaturesThe interior is roomy and comfortable for a two-seat roadster. Controls fall readily to hand and provide positive feedback. The three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel has perforations in the areas most likely to be used, and the leather-wrapped shift knob feels similarly luxurious. The white-faced instruments appear to be lifted from the Celica and set the MR2 apart from most of its competitors. The gauges are reminiscent of those in the Mercedes SLK, down to the use of large dots to shade the redline zone.
The pedals are brushed metal look, peppered with black rubber nubs for grip. They are comfortable pedals and Toyota provides a dead pedal for the left foot. We found heel-and-toe downshifting a bit more difficult than on its competitors. (Heel-and-toe is a bit of a misnomer; you actually use the ball of your right foot on the brake pedal, while blipping the throttle with the side of the foot.)
The black upholstery matches all of the paint schemes well and looks nice. One exception: The yellow interior leans toward the red end of the spectrum, while the yellow paint reflects with the high frequency of the blue end. Result: The yellow inside clashes with the yellow outside, but works with some of the other colors.
Toyota includes a CD/cassette stereo as standard equipment. The system produced good sound, though it probably won't deceive anyone into thinking it is a custom stereo. Like most convertibles, the sound tends to stay down in the footwell area. That problem seems to be solved only by use of headrest-mounted speakers like those used on the optional Mazda Miata stereo. The MR2 uses a traditional metal mast for an antenna, rather than a more durable rubber antenna or an antenna embedded in the windshield, but it seemed to get good reception.
Driving ImpressionsThe MR2 Spyder employs the same engine used in the Toyota Corolla and Celica GT. The engine is rated at 138 horsepower, which should, on paper, move the 2,200-pound car briskly. But the engine's performance doesn't quite live up to the car's appearance. While some small-displacement engines scream encouragement to rev them past redline, the sound of the MR2 Spyder's engine doesn't encourage high-revving. Toyota's VVT-i engine uses variable valve timing, but it doesn't generate a big surge of power when it switches to the high-power cam profile. And it doesn't feel as quick as a Mazda Miata. Still, Toyota claims a 0- to 60-mph time of just under 7 seconds.
The five-speed shifter is good. It falls just short of the outstanding shifters in the Mazda Miata, Honda S2000 and BMW Z3, which are all front-engine cars. Routing the shift cables around the MR2's mid-placed engine apparently creates just enough drag that the shifter lacks the positive click-click feedback of sliding in and out of gears. Instead, there is a continuous light drag that masks much of the feedback from the gearbox. It is still better than the Porsche Boxster's shifter.
Toyota decided the reason its second-generation MR2 was less popular than the first was that it was more expensive and heavier as a result of using Celica components instead of Corolla components as a foundation. So the MR2 Spyder is based on prosaic Corolla components, such as MacPherson strut suspension front and rear. This is more than adequate for typical street driving, but hard driving over uneven surfaces tends to expose the limitations of struts. (Even the much more expensive Porsche Boxster, which also uses struts, has problems under such conditions.)
The MR2 Spyder enjoys a smooth, comfortable ride, courtesy of its long wheelbase and moderate spring rates. The steering is light, nicely balanced and provides good information about the road. The mid-engine design gives the car excellent balance that will give showroom stock racers an edge over the front-engine Miata, but the MacPherson strut suspension may offset that benefit.
The brakes are light and sensitive and feel easy to modulate. Only track testing will reveal how they respond when pushed hard, but they are more than sufficient for sporty street driving.
A problem in the passenger's seat is the blast of air that shoots between the outside mirror and the windshield pillar when driving al fresco. It doesn't have the problem on the driver's side for some reason. You could drive with the window up, but that seems self-defeating.
The Spyder is one of Toyota's three new models (Celica and Echo are the others) that seek to rebuild the company's image with young customers. Toyota has been sort of the unofficial car company of the baby boom generation, but that means the average age of Toyota buyers has gotten higher than the company would like. Toyota has created a separate multimedia web site (www.isthistoyota.com) to promote these cars to younger buyers who have been gravitating to Honda.
The Toyota MR2 Spyder's one unassailable advantage over the Mazda Miata is its newness. MR2 buyers will not see another car like theirs on every street corner, as it can seem with the Miata on a warm summer evening.
SummaryThose who miss mid-engine sports cars like the Porsche 914 can rejoice. Toyota has introduced a roadster that puts the engine back where it belongs, in the middle. It may not come with the most powerful engine in its price class, but the MR2 should appeal to people who want to put the top down and enjoy the sun in a stylish sports car.
The MR2 Spyder is a fun car that's easy to live with for a good price. The convertible top is easy to operate and features an innovative design that results in a tidy look when it's down.
Toyota has simplified the buying process by selling only one well-equipped version of the car at one price. But taking delivery of one for the list price may be a challenge initially, because the company plans to sell just 5,000 MR2 Spyders a year.