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First Drive

Toyota MR2: Racer Waiting to Happen

Despite a few shortcomings, this dashing, limited-production, drop-top roadster is an easy car to like.

September 06, 2000|ROBERT BEAMESDERFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Toyota's 2000 MR2 Spyder is a car of possibilities, some realized and some not.

To be sure, it's an easy car to like: light, quick, nimble and quite well-mannered, which is the rule with modern sports cars.

But this obvious competitor with Mazda's venerable Miata--the two are fairly close on paper--has a different character.

In some ways this is good: More torque at lower rpm means the Spyder launches more quickly. And in others it is not: You'll find even less storage space. Weekend trip? Better pack "Survivor"-light. Grocery store? Plan on going it alone if it's anything more than milk and eggs.

Toyota's answer is that the car wasn't designed to be practical. Sports car first, utility wherever it fits.

In the interest of full disclosure, my daily driver is a 1994 MX-5 Miata. This fact will inevitably inform my take on the Spyder, but because my first-generation car differs from the current Miata (less horsepower, for one thing), I don't propose a blow-by-blow, Mazda-versus-Toyota comparison.

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That said, this third generation of the "Mister Two" is an auspicious start after the model's four-year hiatus. Toyota is marketing some aspects of the car for the enthusiast who wants to take it on a racecourse, but the Spyder is still a fine driver on the street. First-year sales of the made-in-Japan roadster are projected at just 5,000 vehicles in North America, so initially there won't be a lot of them out there.

Where all three generations of the MR2 have been two-seaters, this is the first drop-top. Exterior styling is quite a departure from the previous model's soft lines. The huge headlamps look as if they came off a Le Mans prototype racer. There's a bit of Porsche and a dash of Ferrari. Aggressive without looking contrived.

Looks aside, the drive is what's important here, and the MR2 doesn't disappoint. If anything, the slight oversteer feels a little twitchy at freeway speeds, although I attribute that to the power steering's dampening of initial input.

Why the car even has power steering is a bit odd. First, the steering feel is quite light because of the mid-engine design and a 45%-55% front-to-rear weight distribution. Second, for a car Toyota is marketing as worthy of racing, why the extra weight?

During a spirited trip along Angeles Crest Highway above La Canada Flintridge, the Spyder handled well. It was predictable and responded to throttle and steering adjustments without protest.

Although it didn't feel like it could be tossed into corners, it also didn't feel like it needed to be. The chassis is quite rigid, making it stable in bumpy corners. On two turns where the exit radius decreases sharply, more steering and throttle brought some squeal from the rear tires, but the car stayed in line. MacPherson struts proved more than adequate, coupled with the Bridgestone Potenza RE040 tires, 185/55s up front and 205/50s in back, all on 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels.

I'll say more about "adequate"--versus what might have been--later. But the bottom line is that the MR2 goes where you point it and takes mid-turn course corrections, whether dodging squirrels or rocks, without unpleasant side effects.

Its all-new 1.8-liter twin-cam, 16-valve power plant, which the Spyder shares with its stablemate Celica GT, features Toyota's VVT-i system (that's variable-valve timing, with intelligence). The engine puts out 138 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 125 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm.

The MR2 launches quickly and pulls strong past the torque peak. But not much is gained by going over 6,000 rpm, and trips to redline only benefit in keeping the engine in the power band after shifting up.

The power-assisted anti-lock disc brakes do a fine job of slowing the car quickly when approaching corners and provide smooth, controlled stops from speed.

The five-speed manual gearbox has a very smooth shift linkage but a somewhat long throw for a sports car. Grasping the shifter below the shift knob to shorten the throw revealed a more familiar "notchy" feel. Most enthusiasts I know would prefer the shorter throw, so perhaps the aftermarket will come to the rescue.

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For a roadster the MR2 is quite comfortable. With the cloth top and windows raised, it is surprisingly quiet. With top down, windows up, the cockpit remains calm and conversation and music can be heard without strain.

Lower the windows with top down and there's about as much wind as one would expect in a car designed to be a roadster. Although there is a small rear wind block--about 2 1/2 inches high--it didn't make much difference. Nice of Toyota to add this, but why go halfway? A more substantial and effective device could have been put in place.

Retracting the top, which has a glass rear window, is simple. Lower the windows, release the windshield header latches and push the top back. The top latches in place and doesn't require a boot, because the interior portion isn't exposed to the sun.

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