Sequential gearbox works pretty darn well.
by Sam Moses
Base Price (MSRP) $23,735
As Tested (MSRP) $25,726
Toyota's two-seat MR2 Spyder is a modern sports car with back-to-the-roots feel. Like some Ferraris, its engine is mounted just behind the passenger compartment and ahead of the rear wheels, providing great balance and handling.
Redesigned for the 2000 model year, the big story for 2002 is the SMT model, with its new five-speed sequential manual transmission, which uses no clutch.
The MR2 hasn't changed much since its rebirth after a five-year hiatus; in 2001 leather was added as an option ($660), but virtually everything else is standard, including an AM/FM/cassette/CD sound system, air conditioning, power windows and door locks, alloy wheels, tilt steering wheel, wind deflector, leather steering wheel, and glass rear window with defroster.
Cruise control is standard with the SMT model and its sequential manual transmission, but unavailable with the manual transmission. The Spyder comes in seven colors, with either black or red cloth seats, or tan leather interior.
All MR2s come with the same engine as used in the Celica GT, a 1.8-liter, 16-valve four-cylinder, with variable valve timing and electronic management technology like that in its family-member Lexus.
Like all mid-engine cars, the MR2 has a very short hood and a slightly stretched tail. Its lines are very square, and they take some getting used to. This makes the MR2 distinctive and draws looks from curious bystanders who often look twice, and ask what it is.
MR2's wheelbase is seven inches longer than the Mazda Miata's and about an inch longer than the Porsche Boxster's and Honda S2000's. The MR2's newness and novelty are unassailable image advantages over the Miata; since relatively few MR2s are planned, owners won't see another car like theirs on every street corner, as it can seem with the Miata on a warm summer evening.
On those evenings, the manual convertible top works easily, and can be lowered from the driver's seat, although the owners manual is required reading first. The roof folds nicely into the boot as a parallelogram, instead of the usual setup that flips over and collapses. Like the much more expensive Boxster, the folded top lies low, so no boot is needed, although dealers offer them for a handsome look. Unlike the Boxster and the S2000, the MR2 features a glass rear window with a very useful defroster, although the window vibrates a lot, making images in the rearview mirror jiggle. You can't always tell if that's a cop behind you or not.
Storage space is very minimal; there are compartments behind the seats and under the front hood, but you could hardly call it a trunk up there.
An unusual aspect of the MR2 Spyder is the space frame with bolt-on fenders. The design is similar to that of the long-gone Pontiac Fiero in that damaged components are easily and thus more cheaply replaced. It also lends itself to fairly easy customization by the youthful customers Toyota covets, though it's difficult to imagine this being done to an MR2.
The 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. The leather-wrapped shift knob for manual transmissions feels neat in your hands, while the sequential gearbox uses a round chrome knob.
White-faced instruments set the MR2 apart from most of its competitors. The gauges are reminiscent of those in the Mercedes SLK, down to the use of unattractive large dots to shade the redline zone. They begin at 6800 rpm and run to 8000, but because the rev limiter also strikes at 6800, they're kind of meaningless, as is the no-man's zone from 7000 to 8000 rpm.
The pedals have a brushed metal look, peppered with black rubber nubs for grip, and there is a solid dead pedal for the left foot. We drove MR2s with both the five-speed manual gearbox and the new sequential manual; with the five speed, heel-and-toe downshifting was sometimes difficult, and with the sequential transmission (no clutch pedal), left-foot braking was impossible because the brake pedal is small and so close to the gas pedal that your heels are on top of each other if you try to brake with your left foot. This is no small flaw, as one of the significant advantages of a clutchless gearbox is to enable quicker footwork. Watch the footcam during a TV broadcast of a road race some time, especially NASCAR driver Ricky Rudd's gentle dancing feet, and you'll see what it's all about.
The tan leather upholstery looks nice, as does the black cloth. The CD/cassette produces good sound, although as with any small convertible, the sound tends to stay in the footwell area. The MR2 uses a traditional metal mast for a radio antenna, rather than a more durable rubber antenna or an antenna within the windshield.
There were two other small problems: There's nothing to deflect the rain dribbling off the roof, so prepare to get your left wrist poured-on when you roll down the window at toll booths or fast-food drive-thrus. And on top-down days, air shoots between the sideview mirror and windshield pillar. For some reason (seating position?) we noticed this on the passenger side but not the driver's side.
The engine's 138 horsepower moves the 2200-pound car briskly, with acceleration from 0 to 60 mph in just under 7 seconds. 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. This is good in a small engine, because it means the powerband feels broader. The maximum torque of 125 foot-pounds comes at 4400 rpm, so you have to be in the correct gear to get those revs if you want to zip away without bogging.
The game little engine feels and sounds quite willing to rev beyond 6800 rpm, where the rev limiter kicks in, but that's an illusion because the power peaks at 6400 rpm. At 70 mph, it hums along at 3500 rpm, happily and with no significant vibration. But on a grainy freeway the road noise hums as loud as the engine, apparently from the tires.
The MR2 was discontinued in 1995 because it wasn't selling well, probably because it was too expensive and heavy, using Celica components. So the reborn Spyder is based on the Corolla, employing its 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, although even the expensive Porsche Boxster uses them.
The MR2's longish wheelbase and moderate spring rates provide a smooth, solid and comfortable ride, jolted only by the ugliest of bumps. The hydraulic power steering is secure and provides good feedback and feel, while the great balance from the mid-engine design generates terrific cornering.
The brakes are sensitive yet easy to modulate, with stopping power that's more than sufficient for sporty street driving. Toyota claims the stopping distance from 70 mph to be a brief 167 feet. We had an unplanned test of the brakes on a rough gravel road that came by surprise at that speed, and we can report that the ABS works well.
The five-speed shifter is good, although it falls just short of the shifters in the Miata, Honda S2000 (exceptional), and BMW Z3, which are front-engine cars. Routing the shift cables around the MR2's mid-placed engine apparently creates just enough drag that the shifter lacks such positive click-click feedback. It is still, however, better than the Boxster's shifter.
We saved the best for last: the new sequential manual transmission. It shifts much like an automatic transmission with a manual mode, in that there is no H-pattern; to upshift you slide the lever back one notch, to downshift you slide it forward. In addition, there are twin buttons on the steering wheel, under each thumb at 3 and 9 o'clock, and in the back where an index or middle finger can click it. This way you can upshift or downshift without taking your hands off the steering wheel, which is useful when you're really really driving hard like the F1 drivers, or when you're eating a hamburger or drinking a cup of coffee or talking on a cellphone.
With the SMT, you can lift off the throttle or keep your foot down when shifting, because electronic management will control the throttle appropriately, if not always smoothly. As a result, upshifts are not nearly as smooth as with a manually controlled automatic because of the snap in deceleration and re-acceleration. In many situations (throttle positions), you can shift more smoothly if you back off the gas and re-accelerate with your own foot, assuming you do a good job of it.
Upshifts aren't particularly fast, either; MR2 racers will never go for this racing-inspired system because it's possible to shift a manual transmission, even with an H-pattern, more quickly. When you shift this sequential very quickly and get back on the gas, the programmed throttle response lags behind your foot.
But downshifts are terrific. The engagement is super smooth, with throttle blips programmed in; sometimes it even blips twice, as if double-clutching. And it won't let you downshift too early, thus preventing over-revving; from third to second, we found that threshold at about 5600 rpm. Nothing happens if you downshift at 5600, not even after the revs drop (there's a small “beep” to signal that you're overdoing it), but it will accept the gear if you try at 5500.
Unlike a manual automatic, this transmission won't change any gears for you, with one exception; if you forget to downshift when you come to a stop it will automatically drop into first gear at a couple miles per hour, to prevent stalling.
Reverse was problematic. It didn't always engage on the first try, and when it is engaged, there's a continuous beep-beep-beep warning in the cabin, like some utility company truck, which is annoying and maybe even infuriating.
With no clutch pedal, the MR2 will only start when it's in neutral and your foot is on the brake, and it will only go in neutral with the key on, so starting the engine is a three-step affair: key on, right hand moves to gear lever to engage neutral, right hand moves back up to the column to start. Or you could leave it parked in neutral to save time, but woe is you and Mistertwo if you get hasty and don't set the emergency brake tightly enough.
Our conclusion? There may be some refinements needed in this seminal system, but the technology is the future. The handwriting is on the wall, and it's calling the clutch pedal a dinosaur.
The MR2 Spyder is a great little sports car with impressive technology in the engine, chassis and gearbox. Its acceleration is exciting thanks to its light weight, yet the ride is solid and admirable. It is comfortable and convenient, but its mission is not misguided by luxury. The convertible top lowers in a flash so you can fully enjoy top-down motoring, or suddenly enjoy protection from thunderstorms. And it does it all this for a reasonable price.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.