I recently had the chance to drive a Toyota MR2 Spyder, which is a little sports car Toyota sold in the early 2000s that you’ve forgotten about. OK, maybe you haven’t forgotten it, but most people have: It was a 2-seater, and it followed up on the earlier, sporty, performance-oriented MR2 models by being a bit softer and a bit less aggressive. For proof, the second-generation MR2, which was sold from 1991 to 1995, offered a 200-horsepower turbocharged version. This next generation of the MR2 Spyder only offered a 138-hp 1.8-liter 4-cylinder.
But, nonetheless, it had some unique benefits. Like in prior MR2 models, for example, the engine was in the middle. This wreaked havoc on cargo space, but it allowed for a nice weight balance to the car that other vehicles — including the Miata — can’t offer. There’s also the small size — 138 hp isn’t much, true, but the car weighs only 2,200 pounds, so it isn’t completely overmatched by the car’s heft. And then there’s the fact that it’s a rear-wheel-drive convertible sports car, a dying breed, made by Toyota, which is known for dependability.
Of course, another benefit of the MR2 Spyder is that you could get one with a manual transmission, though that wasn’t the most exciting transmission-related item in the car. That honor goes to the sequential manual transmission, which was basically a manual without a clutch. You selected the gears up or down, but the car changed gears for you, much like similar systems in Ferrari and Maserati models at the time. Unfortunately, I’ve been told this system is incredibly clunky (also like the ones in Ferrari and Maserati models of the time), and I didn’t have the chance to try it out, as the MR2 Spyder I drove had a traditional 3-pedal manual.
So what’s it like to drive Toyota’s version of a midengine Miata? Well, for starters, it’s kind of slow. The original 0-to-60 time was something like 7.5 seconds, which isn’t lightning-quick by any stretch of the imagination — and it feels it. Even with your foot on the floor and shifting at redline, you’re wishing for more power. Interestingly, Toyota had more power available: This same engine with around 190 hp was installed in the Toyota Corolla XRS, the Matrix XRS, the Pontiac Vibe GT, the Toyota Celica GT-S and even the Lotus Elise — but, for some reason, it didn’t find its way into the MR2 Spyder in any market. Apparently Toyota decided that 138 horses was enough.
And, indeed, it is enough, but it doesn’t quite make the car tremendously exciting to drive. What is exciting, however, is the handling; the car is well-balanced, courtesy of that midmounted engine, and its steering and handling are impressive. You feel like you can really position the car precisely how you want because you’re not moving all that much weight or size (it’s only 153 inches long), so it feels very easy to toss around and point in the right direction. Somehow, I don’t think it quite has the same stable, planted sports car feel as the Miata — maybe because the front end is lighter? — but it certainly feels close, which is a good thing.
So, in the end, the MR2 Spyder isn’t very fast, but it’s fun to drive. It’s sort of a weird aberration in that it’s a midengine car, but not an especially aggressive or high-performance one — unlike virtually every other midengine car in existence. It has virtually no cargo space, and it’s not quite as fun as a Miata, but it’s hard to argue with a midengine layout and Toyota reliability — especially in an engine that’s been around for ages. It is, frankly, a bit of a conundrum — and given that it was only made for 4 years (15 years ago), it’s no surprise you’ve forgotten it. But now you’ll remember, even if only briefly enough to look at one and say, “Oh yeah, that car … Doug reviewed one of those” — right before you go back to searching for Miatas on Autotrader.
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