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The Toyota MR2 Spyder (2001), Does it out Boxer a Porsche

SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyer's Guide

By Larry Weitzman

What is that, a Boxster? That was the most common question from nearly everyone who first laid eyes on the MR2. When I responded that it is a Toyota MR2, the answer was "no way." I said "Way" and then followed with "it's way good." Toyota should be pleased, because when people find out that it's half the price (of a Boxster), they are simply dumfounded.

The first MR2 hit the US shores in 1985. It was a small mid-engine sports car with a 1.6L 16 valve DOHC engine with 112 hp. It was an immediate success and in 1990 a second generation MR2 was introduced. It was heavier and bigger in all respects and had an available 200 hp 2.2L turbo charged four. As tastes changed so did sales and eventually the MR2 became history in 1996.

But fear not as Toyota is back with the best MR2 yet. With lines that at first glance say Boxster, it can stand on its own with sharp, hard edged styling. The front end is detailed with a large open mouth air intake and huge clear lensed light assemblies that finish off raised fenders. The hood sweeps back from the bumper/air-intake below the fender line to the windshield which has a fair amount of rake. The windshield has a nice shape with the base having more forward sweep and curvature than the top.

The wheel wells are defined, but the large engine side scoops add some real style ala Ferrari, to feed the transverse mounted mid -engines. The rear end is finished off with large tail lights and fenders lines that mimic the front styling. The overall look is clean and fresh.

At only 153 inches long, the MR2 rides on a relatively long 96.5 inch wheelbase. By comparison, a Miata is two inches longer with a wheelbase that is seven inches shorter. Width is a wide 66.7 inches with the Spyder standing only 48.8 inches tall. It is a small sports car, although it's about an inch wider than the Miata.

The manual convertible top is a snap to use with the ability to reach back and pull it up and lock in place in about 15 seconds without ever leaving the driver's seat. When folded, it forms its own boot in a very tidy manner. Slick stuff.

Under the hood is the new, all aluminum 1.8L inline DOHC 16 valve four with VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence) used in the Celica GT. In MR2 form it produces 138 hp at 6,400 rpm and 125 pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm. That's 2 hp less than the Celica with the same torque, but at 200 higher rpm. The exhaust system on the MR2 may not be as free flowing. But whatever the case may be, this thing runs as quick and smooth as a politician at a campaign fundraiser.

A short shifter activates the five-speed cog swapper. It is light and positive, but a couple of times had trouble finding the right gate which probably has more to do with the operator than the car. It is butter smooth. The ratios are the same as the Celica GT so I assume since the engine is the same, so is the tranny. It would be nice to see the six speeder from the GT-S as an option or standard. At 70 mph the engine spins 3,500 rpm, not that it's noisy, but a six gear would allow more relaxed cruising at 2,800-3,000 rpm.

Without a lot of clutch slippage, the MR2 will run from a standstill to 60 mph in just 6.78 seconds. That's very quick and much better than I expected. With only 2,195 pounds to push around, 138 hp gives the MR2 an excellent power to weight ratio. The engine makes plenty of thrust especially in the three lower gears. Stepping on the throttle hard in first and second will push you way back in the seat. But the gearing is not that short with first gear being good to 35 mph and second taking you to just shy of 60 mph.

Passing is also very quick with 50-70 mph taking less than four seconds (3.93 seconds). Passing up hill will only slow that time to only 5.85 seconds. That's flyin'. All passing times were done in third gear with no shifting. Third good to about 80 mph before the rev limiter interrupts the fun at about 6,800 rpm. Too bad, because this four is so smooth and breaths so well, it feels like it could run to 7,500 with good power.

Something else that makes the MR2 such an excellent driver is the flexibility of the engine. You can tool along is fifth gear at 2,000 rpm and step on the gas. It not only doesn't lug, but it moves away smartly. Up a hill you'll need to go down a cog or two for some real thrust, but 5th will do just fine cruising up hill. What's even better is I haven't got to the good stuff yet.

Making trips to the gas station will be less expensive than most other cars. The gas tank is a small 12.7 gallons and the EPA says the MR2 should return 25/30 mpg city/highway. In testing with plenty of time spent with the tach between 5,000 and the rev limiter, the MR2 returned 28 mpg in a mix of freeway and El Dorado County driving.

Sports cars are about top down motoring in the twisties. Blasting from apex to apex. Having the ability to see everything without obstruction. The MR2 is about as close to a four-wheel motorcycle as you can get. And since the government hasn't required helmets yet, you can feel the wind in your hair. But not as much as some other cars. Wind buffet is at a minimum and there is a small deflector behind the seats that reduces the turbulence. Listening to the radio at 70 mph with the top down is easy.

The highway ride is very smooth on asphalt and does a reasonable job of absorbing tar strips and minor road intrusions on the freeway. Top up motoring is reasonably quiet and the seal is tight enough to keep wind noise to a minimum.

The body is a rigid unibody with steel panels. Suspension is MacPherson Struts in front and independent struts and dual links in the rear with stabilizer bars. On Ponderosa Road, the ride was firm but without harshness. I did hear what I thought was the body working, but it may just as well have been some of the stuff I carry around in the car. The top was down at the time. Some of the washboard got through, but it left all my fillings in place. In the two 90 degree bumpy corners, the MR2 now holds the title as the quickest and most controlled car yet. It felt like a slot car.

Steering is power rack and pinion and its only 2.7 turns lock to lock. You would think it would be too quick, but it's not. It's as natural and benign as any high performance car. It seems to connect you to the road as if you are driving on rails. It's that good. Off and on center feel is perfect. Toyota chose to use great looking 6X15 (6.6x15 in the rear) inch five spoke alloys shod with 185/55 in front and meaty 205/50s in the rear. Factory rubber is very high performance V rated Bridgestone Potenzas.

On some of the best roads in El Dorado County, Green Valley, Cold Springs, Latrobe and Highway 49, the MR2 was about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on. It simply goes where you point it. It's very balanced even at near it's limits, of which of course, I never came close. We are talking nimble with a capital N. Weight distribution is 44/56 front and rear even with the mid engine configuration, which in reality is mounted almost directly over the rear axle. But you could still get the rear end out if really pushed, but the MR2 is easy to control. This is about as good as it gets.

Brakes are four-wheel ventilated discs at all four corners. ABS is standard and braking is powerful. Stops from 40 mph required less than 40 feet under full control. Pedal feel is excellent.

On the inside is a cockpit that is quite large, comfortable and simple to use. The seats fit wheel and can be manually adjusted fore, aft and for seat back rake. It was not difficult to find a comfortable driving position. They are covered in a durable, monotone cloth.

The binnacle contains three holes, like the GS 400, with the large center hole containing a tach and the hole to the left holding the speedo and to the right is a split gauge giving engine temp and fuel levels. One of the few knocks on the MR2 is that there is no cruise control for highway use. Maybe Toyota figures most of the car's use will be in the twisties.

The center vertical stack holds AC vents, rotary AC controls and the fine am/fm stereo with CD/cassette. There is a pop-out cupholder that impedes some of radio operation, but at least it has cupholders that are usable. There is also a cupholder in the center console behind the shifter so I never had to use the backup system in the radio stack.

One of the failings of small cars is storage. The MR2 is an example of minimalist travel. It has door pockets and a decent glove box, but there is no real trunk. Under the front hood is a lift up plastic lid which holds the spare tire and maybe has another cubic foot of area for a duffle bag. Behind the seats are two lockable compartments which look to hold about two cubic feet, enough room for a couple of small overnight bags. That's it, except for the passenger foot well which is quite roomy. But clever packing should give you enough room for a four or five day very informal trip.

Now for the best news, the price, about half of a Porsche Boxster with a sticker of $23,553 with destination. There are no factory options except floor mats which will set you back another $62. This is bargain with plenty of value even at list price, something I rarely say. The same label could be applied to the PT Cruiser.

Toyota says they are only going to produce 5,000 units this year. Maybe they are being cautious because of the previous slow sales of the second generation MR2, but this new MR2 will generate demand far beyond those numbers.

Thompson's Toyota has received a couple of units so far which lasted on the showroom floor for about a nanosecond. Put your order in now, and be very nice to Dave.


Price                          $23,553

1.8L DOHC, 16 valve inline 4   138 hp @ 6,400 rpm
                               125 lbs-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm

5 speed manual

Transverse mid-engine
rear wheel drive

Wheelbase               96.5   inches
Length                  153.0  inches
Height                  48.8   inches
Width                   66.7   inches
Weight                  2,195  pounds
Track (f/r)             58.1/57.5 inches
Fuel Capacity           12.7   gallons
Cargo Capacity          1.9    cubic feet
Ground Clearance        4.9    inches
Coefficient of drag     0.35
Weight Distribution     (f/r)   43.4%/56.6% 

0-60                    6.78  seconds
50-70                   3.93  seconds
50-70 uphill            5.85  seconds
Top Speed               Pushing 130 mph, so now there is no
                          need to find out for yourself.
Fuel Economy            EPA 25/30 mpg city/highway. Expect
                          about 26-28 mpg in El Dorado County,
                          and 30+ mpg on the highway.