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Dancing with a Spyder across high desert. Arizona Highway 260 wends its way through the Prescott Valley, roughly halfway between Flagstaff and Phoenix, rarely tightening up enough to put a decent set of tires near the limit of adhesion. In late January the air is almost cold--just about perfect for motoring top-down in a little roadster with the heater blowing full-bore.  Legs warm, face cold, high clouds muting the sun's intensity, it's easy to forget the wickedly searing heat of an Arizona summer. The 2000 Toyota MR2 Spyder is a little roadster--a couple of inches shorter than a Mazda Miata. Along the wide-open stretches of 260, where speeds quickly creep toward triple digits, the Spyder's front end lightens a hint, demanding tiny bits of steering adjustment as the car gobbles asphalt. Yet the MR2 Spyder's wheelbase is nearly seven inches longer than the Miata's, leaving a bit more room in the cockpit for human beings. Truly large people can drive this Spyder without feeling terribly constricted.

A lot of small roadsters have debuted in the last five years, but by specification and price, the Miata is the MR2 Spyder's only direct competitor in the U.S. market (Europeans might cite the MGF and Fiat Barchetta, too). On the road, the urge to compare the two comes instinctively. The Toyota's shifter snicks quickly and precisely between gears, as gratifying to operate as the Mazda's, even though it's mounted remotely from the transmission. The Miata seems more eager in the classic British roadster style--to slide, to drift, to forgive. Can we dance, fella? The MR2 Spyder grounds itself with a techno-solid feel, clearly mid-engine in character. The center mass of the car anchors it to the pavement, and its ends more or less rotate around the anchor.

As for styling, the Miata is, well--we'll call it more mature. The MR2 Spyder's mid-engine proportions resemble those of the Porsche Boxster. But the Spyder has its odd styling cues, like bulging, bug-eye headlights that create a Pokémon cartoon-character look, almost ugly in a cute way. It's likely to inspire love or hatred, with less latitude for indifference than the Miata. But with only 5000 MR2 Spyders to sell per year at a suggested retail price of $23,095, the biggest worry for Toyota Motor Sales USA may be dealers packing the sticker excessively.

Toyota may have come late to the current small sports-car craze, but it doesn't plan on screwing up this time.

Simple, Not simplistic. The 1985-89 MR2, sometimes called the MR2 Mk 1, was inexpensive, direct, basic without being cheap and a whole lot of fun. Today there are still some 40,000 MR2s on the road, and dozens of MR2-dedicated Internet sites created by and for loyalists. The first MR2 was as close as Toyota has come to a cult car.

Then the MR2 changed, and it wasn't only Toyota that was shifting. From the RX-7 to the 300ZX to the Mitsubishi 3000GT, the emphasis for Japanese sports cars shifted in the early 1990s to world-beating horsepower, high-tech gizmos like four-wheel steering and luxury GT appointments. They were fast, but they were also complex and expensive, just as a hyper-strong Japanese yen was making Japanese cars generally more pricey in North America. The second-generation MR2 was more powerful and more comfortable than the first, but it was also fatter and a lot more costly to own and maintain. The car's original appeal got lost. By 1995, demand for the MR2 had dried up to the point where Toyota quietly euthanized the car in the States.

``Obviously we didn't think we were doing it at the time, but we made some mistakes with the sports cars in the early 1990s,'' says Don Esmond, general manager of Toyota ision.

Now, six years after the demise of the second-generation MR2 and two years after the disappearance of the mighty 300-horsepower, twin-turbo Supra, Toyota will again offer a car aimed primarily at enthusiast drivers. The MR2 Spyder is affordable and uncluttered in concept, just like the Mk 1. Toyota expects its new roadster to have influence beyond its 5000 annual sales by helping revitalize the brand's stodgy image. Advertising will be concentrated on the Web and in cutting-edge magazines such as Wired and Premiere.

The Spyder is the first Toyota built first, only and always as a drop-top two-seater. It is simple and youthful, with no pretense of competing directly with more expensive Euro-roadsters like the Boxster or Mercedes SLK. It seems Toyota has learned something from its mistakes.

Basics.

The MR2 Spyder's 1.8-liter twin-cam four is borrowed from the base 2000 Celica coupe, with Toyota's varoughly comparable to the Miata's 1.8 four (138 hp at 6400 rpm, 124 lb-ft of torque at 5400 for the Toyota, vs. 14riable valve timing to help fatten the torque curve without sacrificing good breathing at the high end. Output is 0 hp at 6500 and 119 lb-ft at 5500 for the Mazda), but the Spyder engine starts with an aluminum rather than cast-iron block to trim weight. The Spyder also has a new electric power-steering pump, controlled by the engine electronics to match boost with road speed. This pump trims more weight and eliminates the parasitic power loss of a belt-driven steering pump.in front of the rear axle. Its five-speed gearbox is a front-drive-style transaxle taken from the higher-output Celic

The Spyder's engine is installed in the same transverse fashion as the Celica's--albeit behind the seats and a GT-S, with a slightly lower final drive ratio.

The suspension uses struts at all four corners, with semi-trailing arms in the rear. The MR2 Spyder has more brake than the Miata: 14-inch ventilated discs at all four wheels, compared to 10-inch vented discs in front and 9.9-inch solid discs rear.

Toyota's effort to stiffen its new roadster's frame began with unusually thick box sections along the rocker panels and tubular steel through the A-pillars. There's a tall bulkhead behind the seats and a frame-width crossmember behind the engine. After body assembly, braces are bolted between the strut towers front and rear, and the MR2 Spyder still has a substantial weight advantage over the Miata. Its published curb weight is 2195 pounds, compared to 2381 for the similarly equipped Miata LS. To reduce the cost of ownership and increase the Spyder's youthful appeal, all four quarter-panels bolt to the Spyder's unibody. That's supposed to make the car cheaper to repair (and by extension, to insure), while allowing aftermarket suppliers to develop custom body panels.

The MR2 Spyder's exaggerated styling themes carry through to the cockpit, yet in a purely functional sense there isn't much to gripe about. The three-gauge cluster features a big, white-faced tach in the center, with the speedo to the left and fuel, water temp and idiot lights to the right. From the radial climate control dials to the stereo buttons, the switches are almost all well placed and easy to manipulate. That makes the single exception a little more aggravating. The window switches are way back on the center console and molded in the same hard, cheap plastic, making them even more difficult to distinguish.

The Spyder's long wheelbase relative to the Miata's makes room for the mid-mounted engine and leaves a little extra space for occupants, but it has its drawbacks. The Miata has a proper trunk, and space for at least a couple of small suitcases. The Spyder has enough space under its hood to forcibly squeeze in a medium-sized backpack, with a slightly larger amount of storage room split between two locking bins behind the seats.

Down the road. The MR2 Spyder is not overly powerful. Still, the horsepower at its driver's disposal is more than adequate for a good time, particularly if the driver doesn't mind shifting frequently (which in our view is a huge part of the appeal). Track tests will likely produce 0-to-60-mph times of seven seconds, give or take a tenth--good for any car in this displacement class. Thanks to its weight advantage, gearing, or the slight edge in torque, the MR2 feels livelier than the Miata when traveling in a straight line. It also behaves a little differently when it moves left or right.

The Spyder's longer wheelbase has little effect in quick transitions. Its steering actually feels quicker than the Miata's, and it turns into a corner as crisply. To go smoothly, the MR2 Spyder's sharper steering response might demand a bit more precision from the driver.

Mid- vs. front-engine dynamics create the most obvious distinction between the two cars. The Spyder pushes a little going into a corner and it can oversteer coming out, although it doesn't seem overly inclined to do so on a high-friction surface. Its powerband suits its basic handling traits. There is just enough grunt to move the back end with the accelerator, but not so much that throttle modulation and the fear of looping become overriding issues in the course of an enthusiastic drive.

The MR2 Spyder has plenty of stopping power and a direct feel in its brake pedal. Throughout our initial drive on smooth roads in central Arizona, there was no vibration visible in the Spyder's rearview mirror, no apparent twist in its cowl and no flex in its windshield header. Hot or cold, sunny or overcast, a standard wind blocker limits buffeting in the cockpit.

Details.

Dropping the MR2 Spyder's manual soft-top is an easy, one-person operation from the driver's seat. The roof's front panel folds into place top side up, leaving a reasonably finished look without an add-on boot.

Toyota's roadster goes on sale in April. Options are limited to dealer-installed accessories such as a full tonneau cover and wheel locks. The $23,098 retail price includes air conditioning, power locks, a three-in-one stereo with radio, cassette and single-CD player, and a glass rear window with defroster. The MR2 Spyder's seats are covered in two kinds of cloth, with a Velcro-grade, slide-resistant material on the side bolsters.

All told, moving 5000 MR2 Spyders over the curb doesn't look like a terribly challenging assignment. Roadster sales have increased an average of 14 percent each year since 1995, and the Spyder goes into the fat part of the market with the sales-leading Miata, rather than the blue-blooded end.

Choice is almost always good. For most buyers, the choice between a Miata and an MR2 Spyder will come down to brand or styling preference. A smaller share will choose between the waltz of a front-engine roadster and the jazz steps of mid-engine runabout. Either way, it can be one hell of a dance.

 

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Bottom Line:

Serious contender to far more costly mid-engine sports cars.

The affordable new 130-mph Toyota MR2 Spyder sports car gives the Mazda MX-5 Miata its first serious competition since it debuted about a decade ago. The MR2 is even a viable rival to the costlier Porsche Boxster.

Like the Boxster, the $23,098 MR2 Spyder convertible has the mid-engine, rear-drive design found on Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 race cars—and costly production sports cars such as the Boxster and even the Ferrari 360 Modena.

Mid-Engine Advantage

The $20,545-$25,055 Miata is a nifty copy of the 1960s British Lotus Elan and has a front-engine design that doesn't allow the catlike handling characteristics provided by a mid-engine design. Such a design allows putting a car's heavy pieces amidships, which reduces inertia at the front and back to let an auto change direction more easily.

This is the third-generation MR2. The first-generation MR2 was introduced in 1985 and was a genuine, affordable fun car. But the second-generation model was killed after 1995 because it became too complicated and expensive.

Toyota learned its lesson about making overweight, overpriced sports cars. It thus is making the 2000 MR2 Spyder a fairly light, simple 2-seater that costs about $18,000 less than the Boxster—its closest mid-engine rival. For instance, there's no power top—although the snug-fitting soft-top can be quickly lowered or raised by one person and deftly folds entirely out of sight.

Fairly Well Equipped

However, the MR2 Spyder is no hair-shirt sports car. That top has a glass—not cheap plastic—rear window with a defroster. Standard are air conditioning, power windows and door locks, AM/FM/cassette/CD, tilt steering wheel, low-profile tires on fairly wide 15-inch alloy wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob—and even a pop-up wind deflector to help produce fairly draft-free top-down driving even on highways.

But no lift-off hardtop is offered, and no side airbags are available. There are no factory options. Dealer-installed accessories include wheel locks, a front-end mask and an interior tonneau cover.

Affordable mid-engine sports cars from Fiat and Porsche were offered in the 1970s, but the Fiat was junky and the Porsche had too much Volkswagen input to be accepted as a genuine Porsche.

Granted, the MR2 Spyder lacks an exotic nameplate, but the Toyota name is associated with high quality. And a fast drive on curvy roads will convince even hardened auto buffs that this car is exceptional.

No Automatic Transmission (added SMT for 2001)

Most car buffs won't mind, but the MR2 Spyder is offered only with a 5-speed manual transmission. It generally shifts well, but gets notchy when rushed. It works with a clutch that has a long throw—but also a light action.

The MR2 Spyder is mostly aimed at 25-35-year-olds, but Toyota spokesman John McCandless said people in their 30s and 40s also should be attracted to the car. No doubt some dealers will charge at least list price because Toyota only is offering 5,000 MR2 Spyders here this year—although the automaker said that number may jump to 6,000 next year.

 

Lower Insurance Rates

Insurance rates should be reasonable because the MR2 Spyder has only a small 1.8-liter 138-horsepower 4-cylinder from the new Toyota Celica. There are no current plans to offer the MR2 Spyder with the Celica's available 180-horsepower 4-cylinder because that would both raise the price and insurance premiums. And that would defeat the MR2 Spyder's "affordable" status.

 

Lively Acceleration

Not that the 138-horsepower MR2 Spyder doesn't have lively performance. It weighs only 2,195 pounds, so the sophisticated dual-overhead-camshaft 16-valve aluminum engine can whisk it to 60 mph in about 7.0 seconds. Moreover, the transversely mounted engine's variable-valve timing system allows it to be responsive at low-range to midrange speeds—although it loves to rev high.

 

In fact, engine speed is at a high 3600 rpm at 70 mph, although estimated fuel economy with the recommended 87-octane gasoline is a decent 30 mpg on the highways—and 25 in the city. About 80 miles of moderately hard city and freeway driving only caused the car to use a quarter of a tank of gasoline.

 

Great Road Manners

The ultra-quick steering is communicative, and the taut all-independent suspension and powerful anti-lock brakes with nice pedal feel help make the MR2 Spyder a blast to drive.

 

Wheels are yanked to the extreme ends of the car, which has hardly any front/rear overhangs. That allows a 96.5-inch wheelbase that enhances handling and straight-line stability.The wheelbase is fairly long for a small sports car and contributes to a generally good ride, although it becomes jittery on patchy pavement and some highway or freeway surfaces.

 

Getting in and out of the fairly quiet interior calls for extra effort because the highly supportive bucket seats sit low, doorsills are high and door openings aren't especially wide.Once inside, a tall driver will wish his seat moved back farther, although a tall passenger should have no complaints in that regard.

 

Nice Interior

There is decent room to stay comfortable on fairly long drives in the no-nonsense cockpit, and the well-designed dashboard has large, smooth controls. There are handy twin pullout cupholders, and the race-style aluminum pedals and tubular door pulls are nifty auto-show-car touches.

 

Scant Cargo Room

A big drawback is the lack of cargo space. There are only two shallow compartments behind the seats to put, say, a few small briefcases. And the spare tire is up front, leaving room for only a small piece of soft luggage—at best. The glove compartment, door map pockets and a storage compartment in the center top dashboard hold only a few small objects.

Don't bring a passenger if you want to do serious grocery shopping with the MR2 Spyder. And two people who want to pack enough items for an extended trip can only look at each other and shake their heads.   The MR2 Spyder has steel panels bolted onto a highly rigid unit body to make repairs simpler. And my fairly low mileage test car had none of the rattles and shakes found with some convertibles when driven top down.   Granted, the limited cargo room makes the MR2 Spyder mostly a warm-weather toy or commuter car. But it's the best affordable genuine sports car to come along since the Miata.


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Special Car Journal 

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A dry Texas summer morphed unexpectedly into a week of non-stop rain. With the Texas hill country's fabulous roads waiting for me, I took delivery of a brand new MR2 Spyder. However, the week of rain prevented me from lowering the MR2's top and giving the rear-wheel drive car a workout around some of these great Texas roads. Luckily, the kind folks taking care of Toyota's test cars agreed to give me more time with their hot new convertible.   When the sun finally came out and I got behind the wheel, I began to really get a sense of the MR2's purpose and driving dynamics, I asked an automotive enthusiast friend for a second opinion. "Wow!" he said "This is a Toyota? It looks just like my Porsche Boxster." Like the Boxster, the MR2 has big, beady headlights, side air intake ducts behind the doors, and an engine in back. After two weeks and nearly 300 miles of driving, I think it does a faithful but not exact impersonation of the famed mid-engined German import. 

 

While it's not as potent as the 214-hp, $41,000 Porsche, the MR2 costs about $18,000 less and delivers huge grins when the sun is shinning and the top is down.   Priced well under a Porsche, the MR2 is by no means a stripped-down economy car with a fancy-looking body. Believe in this statement: The MR2 is a sports car, not a toy. It's not a poseur. And it's not classifiable with that most unkind expression: a "chick car." This is a mid-engined, 2,200-lb. SPORTS car. It makes minimal concessions to everyday comfort and conveniences-heated seats, cruise control, and a power-operated top aren't available-and with the engine only inches from your ears, you hear everything that goes on in that space where you'd normally find a trunk. It makes all the right noises and its five-speed manual transmission shifts with sufficient precision to remind you that, yes, you are driving a sports car.   

 

Carving the corners  

The MR2 excels in hunkering down on the road and eating it up. You sit low in the MR2, which gives a feel for what it's like to drive a racecar. The drilled aluminum pedals also lend to the car's racecar-like aspirations. The steering makes such a positive connection to the road that you can't help but feel incredibly involved in driving this car. The independent MacPherson strut suspension won't give you the sensation of riding in a Cadillac, but on a day-to-day driving basis, the ride was never unbearable. The mid-engine design means that the majority of the car's weight is toward the middle and rear of the vehicle. It also means that you have to be careful driving the MR2 with too much verve, as the car's rear end can swing around if you go into a corner with too much passion. Driven sanely, however, the MR2 is unlikely to twirl you 180-degrees as you say hello to the drivers behind you.   

 

The cult of coolness  

Looking at the MR2, it doesn't seem intent on making a statement or exclaiming that "you've arrived." Although it borrows some styling elements from the Boxster, it doesn't really look like anything else on the road. (You could say the same about some newer GM designs, but that's going in the other direction.) I like the looks of the MR2, especially with the top down.   Its interior has a simple but sporty feel. Expect comfortable seats and easy-to-use controls. The one design snafu is with the radio and cupholder placement: If you're a morning coffee drinker (like me), placing a travel mug in one of the cup holders blocks access to the radio's preset buttons. Steering wheel-mounted audio controls would solve that problem, but might detract from the straightforward MR2 interior. There is no imitation wood, no pop-up display screens, and no on-board computer to tell you the outside temperature, how many miles until you run out of gas, or connect you to the Internet. None of that belongs in a real sports car, and certainly isn't found in the MR2 Spyder. Combine this design simplicity with its sporty profile, and it's very easy to see why this model will likely be fully embraced by the numerous MR2 owners' clubs-of which there are 14 chapters in the United States alone, and 184 web sites solely devoted to Toyota's mid-engine sports car. Owner loyalty is strong with the MR2, and this Spyder is going to find a place in many enthusiasts' hearts, mainly because it's cool, different, and limited (only 5,000 units are for sale this year).   

 

Drive it like you mean it  

The MR2 obviously isn't going to hold as much stuff as an SUV or carry as many people as a minivan. But while it is limited in terms of its practicality (you can barely fit more than a loaf of bread in the front storage compartment), the MR2 is very good at what it was designed to do: Be driven by people who love to drive. Some convertibles look the part of a high-strung roadster but are built on platforms designed for mainstream driving tastes. Other convertibles come equipped only with an automatic transmission and are so weighted down with creature comforts that there are no performance features to speak of. The MR2 Spyder doesn't fit into those classifications. Instead, it begs you to crank it up. Its light-weight means that the 138-hp, four-cylinder engine- featuring VVT-i cylinder head technology, a variable-valve timing system similar to the design currently used in Lexus engines-doesn't feel overmatched. Torque maxes out at 127 lb. -ft. at 4,400 rpm. Toyota says the MR2 will get to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds, and I believe it. My first drive in the new MR2 reminded me of taking the wheel of a first-generation Mazda Miata-you didn't feel as if you could win a drag race, but the car's minimal poundage and frisky engine never made you long for more power.   

 

New features for 2001  

For possible appeal to an even greater audience, the 2001 MR2 will be offered with an automatic transmission. This will allow clutchless manual shifting like higher-performance cars and Formula One racers. Also, leather seats are a new option, and "Electric Green Mica" is added to the color choices. Keyless entry has also become standard.   The MR2 Spyder, priced at $24,070, comes equipped with anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, an AM/FM cassette and CD player, power windows and door locks, aluminum wheels, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. The easy to operate convertible top also comes with a glass rear window (many convertibles only have plastic ones) and an integrated defroster. These features make daily commuting more bearable, but they certainly don't detract from the MR2's overall fun factor. If you prefer driving a car that takes its mission in life seriously, then you'll love this MR2.

 

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USA Today 

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Toyota is rolling out hipper, sportier models aimed at younger buyers in an attempt to ensure its future and modernize its stodgy image.   Latest move: reintroduction of the MR2 Spyder sports car after a five-year U.S. absence.   The latest iteration, which looks nothing like the Ferrari-esque MR2 you might remember from 1995 and earlier, has an impressive portfolio: engine mounted near the middle for good balance and handling; exotic engine technology that yields muscle-car acceleration from an economy-car power plant; folding top that doesn't need a cover; snappy-shifting transmission. And it's a Toyota, which many buyers equate with high quality and long life.   The formula produces a car dandy to drive but aggravating to use.   

The dandy parts:   

Balance.  

Putting the engine near the middle - behind the passenger compartment but in front of the rear wheels, in MR2's case - lightens the ends of the car. That means Spyder snaps to smartly when the wheel is turned. It's a wonderful feeling of responsive control that is pretty much what defines the appeal of a sports car.

   

Power.  

The numbers aren't big - 138 horsepower and a scant 125 foot-pounds of torque - but somehow deliver the goods. Toyota says the sprite will roar to 60 mph from rest in about seven seconds, quick enough to be exhilarating. And Toyota's variable valve timing magic makes sufficient torque available around town so the car is easy to drive in the stop-and-go grinder that turns higher-strung sports machines into balky, fussy annoyances. Plus, when the road's clear and beckoning for a top-speed blast, Spyder has more than enough pep to aggravate even the most tolerant speed cops.

   

Transmission.  

The manual gearbox shifts with a satisfying, mechanical feel. A beefy shift lever with a fat knob strokes pleasantly through the gears, which seem to have the proper ratios to keep the engine spinning in its power band. Spyder's gearbox isn't the snick-snick delight of the Mazda Miata's, but it needs to make no apologies for its feel and function.

   

Top.  

The rear window is glass instead of the plastic still favored by some expensive convertibles from other makers. Glass won't scratch the way plastic does, and it allows defroster wires to be embedded for fast winter visibility. The top folds down to become its own cover, stacking so that the last fold has an exterior top panel showing. That eliminates the need to tackle a separate cover.  

 

Airflow.  

The wind is well managed, even without the wind erter deployed at the rear of the cockpit. It was easy to nap at triple-digit speeds while lolling in the passenger's seat. Hairdos come out nicely windblown, instead of like the aftermath of an explosion in a spaghetti factory. Conversation is easy with the top down.

   

Brakes and steering.  

Both feel just dandy, neither over-boosted nor numb. You get from the car just about what your hands and feet ask for.

   

Safety.  

Anti-lock brakes - usually an expensive option on Toyotas - are standard. And the passenger's air bag can be shut off, so you can take along Junior without fear of death by safety device.   For the time you're behind the wheel, MR2 Spyder is a delight. But the car is a flop otherwise. 

 

The aggravating parts:   

Storage space.  

There's almost none, and what there is is awkward to reach.  Because the engine's in back, the trunk's in front. But so are the spare tire, steering and other intrusive hardware. The only trunk room is an angled cubby atop the spare. It will accept a laptop computer and a pair of socks. To reach it, you must open the glove compartment, yank a T handle there to release the latch, go to the front and fish for the nearly hidden safety catch, and stretch too far to reach the short prop rod that holds open the trunk lid. Then you're confronted with a two-latch cover over the tiny cargo hole. Unsnap those latches, lift the lid, free a strap, hook it somewhere to hold up the cover, then put in or take out your goods.   

Toyota acknowledges the inconvenience but says the trunk lid's prop rod is sited to be out of the way when removing the spare tire. And the strap that holds up the cargo cover is light, an advantage in a sports car.   Bins behind the seats hold perhaps a briefcase and change of clothes. But the seats must be folded forward to open those bins. And the seats don't go back where they were. You have to readjust the backrest angle. Other Toyotas have a simple, mechanical system that remembers the backrest angle, but that was deemed too fancy and too heavy for MR2.   Nowhere in the Spyder is there space for groceries, dry cleaning or the golf clubs, balls and bats, scuba gear and other paraphernalia associated with the active lifestyles of those hip, young consumers Toyota seeks - unless the Spyder owner is a loner and uses the passenger seat for cargo.  The rival Mazda Miata at least has a conventional, handy trunk for most of what's usually carried by a single or couple.   

Styling.  

Huge headlights and overbearing taillights are out of proportion and give the small car a cartoonish appearance.   Slabbed styling is a disappointment after the previous model's voluptuousness. The look is one of contrivance rather than creativity. Reasonable people disagree on matters of taste, of course, and Spyder did draw admiration. Children seemed to love the look. Adults who liked it used words such as ''cute'' and ''darling'' - perhaps not what red-blooded sports-car buffs want to hear. Interestingly, the body panels are essentially cosmetic trim. An understructure provides the rigidity. Toyota says the body pieces remove easily so owners can customize with accessory fenders, bumpers, etc.   

 

Details.  

Un-Toyota-like flaws showed up in both test cars, one driven in Arizona, the other for daily life in Virginia.   Both had stereo speakers that distorted and buzzed when the audio system was loud enough to enjoy with the top down. At lower levels, the sound was OK. The Virginia commuter buzzed from the glove compartment. Reaching in and pushing up firmly quieted the noise, suggesting the glove box lining was loose. Toyota says it hasn't heard such complaints before.   The Virginia car also vibrated annoyingly at idle - but not always. When it happened, it appeared the engine had suddenly, subtly begun to idle more slowly, unmasking the natural shaking of any engine running too slowly to smooth out its inherent vibrations.   The verdict? If you value automotive agility and Toyota's good name more than handiness, practicality and gorgeous looks, MR2 Spyder should be a delight.   Overall: Nice to drive, maddening to use.

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The Car Connection

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Forget the Viagra. Ditch the Grecian 2000. If you want to look and feel 10 years younger, you could do worse than buying yourself an MR2. Just half an hour behind the wheel of Toyota’s brand new, mid-engined road-rocket, and you’ll feel like a new person (no promises specifically for your hair or other anatomy, though).   Top down, listening to the zing of its twin cam motor, feeling the snick-snick of its five-speed shifter, and you’ll have a grin on your face as wide as Texas. Guaranteed. This is a four-wheeled motorcycle, a 138-horsepower go-kart, a ride on Space Mountain, and a six-pack of adrenaline, all rolled into one.   

That’s the good news. Wanna hear the great news? The cost of all this sensory overload is just $24,583. Or you could buy a minivan instead.   This is the successor to the last "Mister Two," which was canned back in 1995 after becoming too expensive, too flabby, too out of touch with the market. Toyota designers went back to the drawing board, went back to basics. They came up with a slimmed-down, two-seat roadster with an affordable sticker and an emphasis firmly on the fun factor.   And boy, is this car a blast to drive. Every Interstate on-ramp becomes Turn Two at Daytona; every rush-hour snarl-up becomes a moving chicane.   

Small wonder  

You don’t so much drive the MR2 as wear it. Climb in, buckle-up and the car wraps around you like a t-shirt that’s shrunk in the wash.   Yep, it’s small. Small as in around three inches shorter than a Mazda Miata. And lower than a Miata. Which makes it about as low as lawn weeds. Drive alongside an 18-wheeler and all you see are lug nuts. Full-size pick-ups look like moving skyscrapers. School buses seem like small Caribbean islands.   Of course, there are advantages to the Toyota’s Mini-Me proportions. For example, there’s no parking space in the Continental USA that the MR2 won’t slot into. And if the tollbooth attendant on the Golden Gate Bridge is snoozing (dream of driving down Highway 1 in an MR2), you could theoretically cruise right under the barrier.   Power comes from a 1.8-liter, 138-hp twin-cam four-cylinder that’s mounted behind the driver’s right ear and drives the rear wheels, just like a Porsche Boxster. 

It’s the same motor that motivates the heavier Celica GT and features Toyota’s variable-valve timing cylinder head technology.   The advantage of mid-mounting the motor is that it gives the car perfect weight balance, which in turn means perfect handling. Now if you’re thinking that 138 horses and four cylinders doesn’t seem much like a power fest, remember that the MR2 weighs roughly the same as the average supermodel. Against the stopwatch, it’ll slingshot its way to 60 mph from standstill in an impressive seven seconds, and keep on running till it hits 130 mph.   Stomp on the gas and the sewing machine-smooth four-cylinder delivers just the right amount of ear-tingling excitement. It feels enthusiastic, lively and as eager as a four year-old on caffeine.   

Surgical romp  

But the MR2’s real forte is tackling the twisty bits. Surgically precise steering, together with racecar-like suspension and all-disc braking, gives the Toyota the feel of a pumped-up go-kart.   Find a nice, twisty country road — California wine country will do — and the MR2 will excite, delight, please and tease. And the Toyota’s cockpit has all the look and feel of a racecar’s, but with carpeting. Those pinch-tight bucket seats support you in all the right places, all the controls fall easily to hand, and the big instruments couldn’t be easier to read. It’s well equipped too, with standard fixtures including air conditioning, power locks and windows, aluminum sports pedals, cassette and CD with four speakers, tilt steering, and a top with a glass window and de-fogger.   Toyota’s designers have also done a fine job channeling the airflow around the car. It means that with the top folded and the tiny Plexiglas rear screen raised, you can cruise at 75 mph plus without your hair looking like you’ve just been hit by lightning. Pity that the Plexiglas screen is dark-tinted as it cuts down visibility in that all-important, look-over-the-should-before-lane-changing maneuver.  

The top itself couldn’t be easier to operate. Release two clips on the windshield header, and simply flip it back. Push down on the center catch and the top locks neatly in place. Ten seconds max. Reversing the process takes a little longer as stepping out of the car is required — unless you have Rambo-esque forearm muscles.   The only downside of making a car small and compact is that you’re not left with much space for luggage. In the MR2’s case, there’s, er, no space. The rear is filled with engine, while at the front, a small compartment houses the spare wheel. Yes, there are two small, lockable compartments behind the seats, but they’re just about big enough to hold a toothbrush and a clean pair of socks.  

 

But that’s a teeny, teeny price to pay for a car that provides so much pure, unadulterated fun, so much excitement, so many smiles per mile. We’ll take ours in red, please.


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Car and Driver 

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There are some very good reasons for building a mid-engined sports car. By situating all the heavy bits amidships, you reduce inertia at the car's nose and tail, making it a lot easier for the car to change direction. That's what produces the responsive and nimble handling characteristics typical of mid-engined cars.   Unfortunately, it's also responsible for some notably spooky handling at the limit from some examples of the genre. Highly responsive vehicles occasionally verge into outright instability. And having had that accusation hurled at earlier MR2s, Toyota took no chances with the new Spyder. At no time during our first stint behind the wheel did the car ever display anything other than progressive understeer in corners, and it tracked as straight as a laser at triple-digit velocities with genuine hands-off-the-wheel balance.   

The new MR2 Spyder is so confidence inspiring that it might almost be the reason Toyota chose the mid-engine format. You know, to prove once and for all that it can be done with none of the quirks found in other examples of the type. Certainly, there are numerous reasons why Toyota might have moved away from the concept with its new Miata fighter.   First, the layout does not facilitate much luggage space. In fact, the MR2 Spyder -- having to accommodate space for a folding top -- is worse than the old MR2 coupes in this regard, offering only a couple of shallow compartments behind the seats (the suspension, the radiators, and the spare tire fill the front compartment).   Dropping the engine immediately behind the occupants puts it, and the energetic noises of its exertions, mere inches away from their ears. With the top up and the tachometer a-winding, there's ample aural evidence broadcast into the cabin of multivalve four-cylinder activities.  

Those, in a nutshell, are the up- and downsides of the argument about the MR2 Spyder, but there is no doubt that Toyota's execution of the concept was approached with its usual systematic diligence. Chief engineer Harunori Shiratori remarked that the resurgence of the sports car, particularly the roadster, is well under way, but that the trend to overweight, overpriced examples has to be avoided, as they were the primary contributors to the demise of the segment in the recent past.   Also, since Toyota is on a crusade to drive its owner demographics toward younger customers, the price and the styling had to be in line with their resources. As part of a three-pronged initiative to lure younger buyers (co-starring the Echo and the Celica), the MR2 Spyder was masterminded by Toyota's youth-oriented "genesis group."   

According to Toyota officials, the MR2 Spyder will be available in restricted numbers -- about 5000 a year in the U.S. This sounds like more of the paradoxical reasoning we considered for the adoption of the mid-engine layout. A low-priced, small-volume product flies in the face of common-sense economics. And then Toyota's managers mention the 40,000 existing MR2 owners and the many MR2 owners' clubs and Web sites already extant. None of which, surely, encompasses the NetGen target market. But hey, they know what they're doing. With the new Celica, the median age of owners has already dropped nine years!   

Although the MR2 measures a mere 153.0 inches long -- 2.3 inches shorter than a Miata -- its wheelbase stretches 96.5 inches, 7.3 inches longer than the little Mazda's. This reduces any short-coupled snappishness in the car's handling. Positioning the wheels right at the corners also provides more space for occupants and allows even large drivers to feel comfortably enclosed -- unlike their experience in a Miata, where taller ones feel a part of the car's rollover apparatus.   The footwells are not very roomy, particularly on the passenger side, where ducting impinges on foot space, but there's nonetheless room for six-foot-something drivers to nestle in, and visibility is quite good. Also, the manual softtop (with glass backlight) turns out to be slightly hump-backed, and it provides surprisingly good headroom.   

The wheel tilts but does not telescope, and the space between it and the pedals is a bit limited. Still, none of the space constraints is bad enough to obscure the little car's many charms. Chief among these is that the MR2 does a lot with what it has. Weighing just 2200 pounds, the Spyder is well served by its 138-horsepower, 1.8-liter twin-cam four (the new 1ZZ-FE motor that powers the Celica GT), and the sprint from standstill to 60 mph is reported to take seven seconds.   The Spyder's low weight can also be appreciated when the driver's foot is firmly on the brake pedal and the standard-equipment ABS is helping slow the car. Toyota claims a credible 167-foot stopping distance from 70 mph. Despite its low weight, the Spyder's structure turns out to be extremely stiff and is resistant to the shivers and quakes that afflict many other convertibles. 

The body is also endowed with remarkably good aerodynamics. The drag coefficient is 0.35 with the top up, according to Toyota, but what owners will notice more is the lack of buffeting and turbulence inside the car when the top's down.   There's a small air blocker on the top of the rear bulkhead, but we think it's really a question of overall airflow management that makes the cabin so tranquil. At 90 mph, our baseball caps stayed securely in place. At that speed in most of the competitors, they would have been long gone.   On the admittedly good roads in Arizona where we sampled the Spyder's repertoire, the ride from the all-strut suspension was astonishingly good, with ride-motion control you wouldn't believe in a car this small. Actually, low mass is easier to control, but you hardly ever see it done well in cheaper cars. 

The Spyder permits a little more roll than we expected, but it's well damped, and the car takes a firm set in corners. Despite modestly sized tires (185/55VR-15 in front and 205/50VR-15 in the rear), the car hangs on tenaciously, and its transition into understeer is easily modulated with the throttle.   The only criticism we can level at the Spyder's handling is that the steering (although accurate and well isolated from road shock) is a touch lacking in feedback. In truth, the whole car is much more civilized than we'd expected. For $23,558, the levels of refinement come as a real surprise.   

So, is the new MR2 Spyder a tad too civilized for a small roadster? Depends on your needs. Is it an admirable engineering achievement? You bet.   In real money that fun goes for a list price of only $23,098, with no significant options. Dealer extras include an interior tonneau cover, front-end mask, and wheel locks. With only 5,000 Spyders this year, expect demand, and dealer markups, to be high.   For, the 2001 Toyota MR2 Spyder is a very desirable little roadster for summer, and all seasons. We concede that its few flaws do make it less than the perfect roadster pick. But then, perfection is boring. And, boring is one thing you will never be able to call the 2001 Toyota MR2 Spyder.   

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Automobile Magazine 

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For some time now, there has only been one truly affordable roadster on the U.S. market, and that’s the Mazda Miata. We’re talking here about cars that can be bought for less than $25,000, which is precisely the price point Toyota has aimed to beat with its new MR2 Spyder.   For $24,598, you can have a mid-engined roadster that is a blast to drive, stylish, and goes about as well as you can expect for a car endowed with a 138- horsepower four-cylinder engine.   

The all-new MR2 is Toyota’s first car designed from the ground up as a convertible. The chassis has a long wheelbase for stability and uses high- strength steel extensively to keep the weight as low as possible—-in this case, to 2195 pounds. Since weight is the enemy of all performance, whether it’s under braking, acceleration, or through the turns, this can only be good.   The MR2 Spyder uses Toyota’s all-aluminum 1ZZ-FE four-cylinder DOHC 16-valve 1.8-liter engine, which is mounted behind the driver in a mid-engined location, driving the rear wheels. With the aid of VVT-1 variable intake cam timing, the engine makes 138 horsepower at 6400 rpm and 125 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. The car has a five-speed manual transmission. Other technical features include electro-hydraulic assistance for its rack and pinion steering, all around strut-type independent suspension, and four-wheel disc brakes with a standard anti-lock system.   

Whatever one thinks of the quirky exterior styling—it ranges from “cute” to “yuk”—the MR2 scores high for its interior. The door inserts and seats are jazzy and there are plenty of cool, modern finishes that include the rubbery top for the instrument panel, perforated leather on the door grabs, steering wheel and parking brake, and silver dials and heater controls. Pretty much everything one needs in an open roadster is included in the base price, with air conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, and a CD/cassette/radio as standard.   The top is easy to use and looks finished when it’s down, in contrast to some roadsters, which need a top boot to hide the furled canvas. However, the worst aspect of the MR2 becomes apparent when you try storing luggage: there’s virtually no front trunk space, so your belongings have to be fitted in two tiny bins behind the seats. Frankly, they’re worthless for anything but a change of light clothing and a toothbrush.   

The car is great to drive, partially because it is so light that it’s quite quick. Toyota says that it will reach 60 mph from rest in about seven seconds, and it feels plenty zippy. The engine picks up with zest from 2500 rpms, and is both flexible in the mid range and happy to zing around to the red line. It’s allied to a sweet shift that makes you change gears just for the sake of it. On the twisting roads in Arizona where we drove the MR2, it feels very poised and faithful, changing direction swiftly yet fluently and providing excellent traction. It isn’t as much fun as a Miata, which you tend to throw around with abandon, because its chassis responses are more precise and racy than the front engined Mazda’s. More mid-engined, if you will. 

It also rides exceptionally well-—the benefit of a comparatively long 96.5-inch wheelbase—except at low speed, when there is a little choppiness.   If the car has a real dynamic weakness, it’s the steering, which is over aggressive on turn in and doesn’t communicate particularly well with you and the chassis. (It shouts at a distance rather than whispers intimately in your ear.) The brakes are excellent, however, another of those benefits of light weight.   The question everyone asks, of course, is whether this is better than a Miata. In some ways it is. It is more stylish inside, feels quicker, and handles in a more modern fashion. Purists will prefer the Miata’s more communicative nature and more spirited dynamics, but either would be a good tonic on a sunny day and a great road. The Toyota’s biggest failing is its lack of luggage space, which is going to make it more of a toy and less of a practical, everyday driver. A shame, because it’s otherwise hard to find a reason for not really liking the third incarnation of Toyota’s mid-engined two-place runabout.   

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Road and Track 

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Concept cars have a way of getting under your skin. At the Tokyo Motor Show in 1995, Toyota rolled out a gem called MRJ. This one-off, mid-engine descendent of the MR2 featured a hardtop that retracted into the trunk—an idea that Mercedes-Benz applied to its SLK230. Sadly, Toyota deemed that MRJ would be too expensive to build. Two years later, the MR-S concept made its debut at the Tokyo show. This time around, Toyota took its inspiration not from the MR2, but from the Sports 800, a tiny roadster built from 1965 through 1969 for the Japanese market. With a soft convertible top that folded manually under a hard tonneau cover, MR-S looked like a shoe-in for production.

Since the departed MR2 adopted the unwanted nickname of “Mister Two,” Toyota may have feared that Americans would label MR-S as the “Missus.” And so it was mildly reskinned and brought to the 1999 Chicago Auto Show under the more masculine moniker MR2 Spyder. Toyota said that MR2 Spyder was merely a concept vehicle, offering a “strong hint” of its future direction in the sports-car segment.

Be it positive reaction from the public, a changing market for sports cars or the realization that archrival Honda was preparing to steal the spotlight with its S2000 roadster, it appears that the wait is almost over. Toyota promises to introduce MR2 Spyder midway through the 2000 model year.   The word on the grapevine is that MR2 Spyder is expected to borrow its 140-bhp 1.8-liter dohc 4-cylinder engine from the new Celica GT. As such, it will employ Toyota’s VVT-i variable valve timing to help increase output and operating efficiency. Transversely mounted amidships behind the driver, the four-banger will power the rear wheels through a rumored 5-speed manual sport-shift transmission. With a gearshift lever on the center console and a push-button steering-wheel mounted shift mechanism, drivers will get a kick out of changing gears without a clutch pedal.   

A new electronic hydraulic power-steering unit is also in the works, saving weight while proving yet another link to the MR2. Four-wheel independent strut suspension, 4-wheel disc brakes and ABS are said to be part of the package. Don’t expect a turbocharger, supercharger or any other add-ons that would drive up the price. MR2 Spyder’s body panels, however, are bolted in place, facilitating ease of replacement, and opening up new worlds of possibilities for the custom-car crowd.   A lightweight mid-engine roadster with Toyota’s build quality at an attractive price could give Mazda a migraine. But instead of building another Miata clone, Toyota had its sights set on the likes of the Porsche Boxster. Expected to be built in much higher quantities than the more expensive Honda S2000 or Boxster, the MR2 Spyder will return Toyota to its mid-engine roots, with a thoroughly modern interpretation of a familiar sports-car theme.   

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Motorweek on PBS 

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Unless you've been living under a rock the past couple of years, it's no news that SUVs are practically ruling the roads. But with summer driving just around the corner, you may start to notice the emergence of a new, smaller road ruler. It's the roadster, and buyers wanting to join the coup d'état will find a surprising number of attractive choices. The latest offering from this convertible cornucopia being the 2001 Toyota MR2 Spyder. Now, Toyota's two-seater has been completely rethought, and it looks like the new Spyder's timing is perfect. 

But, is it a perfect roadster pick?   It certainly could be, if you're the sort of person that wants driving to be pure fun. Because this 2001 Toyota MR2 Spyder was conceived purely with youthful fun in mind. Designed from the ground up to appeal to younger buyers, the 2001 MR2 maintains the 2-seat, mid-engine, rear-drive layout of its predecessors. But opts to go the ragtop route this time around.   The MR2's look is almost unbearably cute, but auto trivia buffs will note that it bears a strong resemblance to the English-built Midas Gold Cabriolet of the 1980s, not to mention a variety of auto show concept cars since, and sits on a comparably short wheelbase of 96.5-inches. Overall length is only 153-inches.   

This tiny, 2,200-pound package is propelled by the same 1.8-liter, twin cam, 16-valve 4- cylinder engine with variable valve timing, found in the Celica GT. In the MR2, it sits above the rear axle and makes a slightly reduced 138 horsepower and the same 125 pound-feet of torque. Which is then fed through a firm-but-accurate 5-speed manual shifter. An automatic is available for model year 2001.   With a true sports car manual shifter in hand, we launched the MR2 to 60 in a spirited 7.1 seconds, and through the 1/4 mile in 15.3-seconds at a respectable 90 miles-per-hour. But we felt a rather tall 4th gear slowed our 1/4 mile runs. Still, it's a lot more exciting off the line than its main soft-top rival, the Mazda Miata.   Though the MR2 Spyder is not quite the Mazda's equal when it comes to balanced handling. 

The powertrain's rearward weight bias does allow the car to unhook when pushed hard. But the quick, crisp electric-hydraulic power steering allows you to easily bring it back into line, so the fun quotient is high.   That goes for braking too, where the lightweight MR2 is clearly superior to the Miata, stopping from 60 in an amazingly short average of 94-feet. The ABS-equipped discs bit hard, while the chassis remained straight as an arrow. Pedal feel was also first rate. When we took to regular roads, we discovered a fair bit of body flex. But we also prefer the slightly taut ride to its softer roadster rivals.   

Top-up design is par for the mini-roadster class, with large blind spots, but including a heated rear glass window as standard equipment. The top down design, however, goes the competition one better. Just flip two latches on the windshield frame, and the lightweight top folds quickly. But then it latches easily in place, thus eliminating the need for a hard-to-fit tonneau cover. Very clever. A small, flip-up wind deflector helps reduce buffeting in the cockpit.   Dropping the top opens up an interior that is surprisingly wide and well-equipped for such a small two-seater. Most interior dimensions, including hip and shoulder room, are superior to Miata and as good as some small sedans.   The bucket seats are a bit on the firm side, but offer adequate back support, while the large, but not quite comprehensive, white-face gauges make for easy high speed reading. Heat and ventilation controls are clear and easy to reach. But the standard CD-and cassette-equipped stereo is set too low for easy operation, negating its well-designed controls.   

But where the MR2 really comes up short on perfection is in luggage space. There is a tiny 1.9-cubic-feet in a small compartment behind the seats, plus space for a very small soft bag in the front spare tire well. It's too tight even for a weekend getaway. Though, once behind the wheel, the lack of luggage space seems a small price to pay for so much driving fun.   In real money that fun goes for a list price of only $24,598, with no significant options. Dealer extras include an interior tonneau cover, front-end mask, and wheel locks. With only 5,000 Spyders this year, expect demand, and dealer markups, to be high.   For, the 2001 Toyota MR2 Spyder is a very desirable little roadster for summer, and all seasons. We concede that its few flaws do make it less than the perfect roadster pick. But then, perfection is boring. And, boring is one thing you will never be able to call the 2001 Toyota MR2 Spyder.   

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Road and Track Story on midengined cars

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In 1886, when Gottlieb Daimler positioned a chuffing, single-cylinder powerplant in the center of his contraption’s spindly chassis, he created not only the first car, but also the first mid-engine car. It’s true, that engine location was chosen mainly for convenience rather than any attempt to achieve superior handling characteristics, yet history was made. Little did he know that the layout was to become the standard for the modern race car and some of the most thrilling production machines ever constructed.   

You can see some of the classic benchmarks in mid-engine evolution in the nearby time line, but it’s the transition from racing hardware to road-going sports and exotic cars that concerns us here. The year 1967 was pivotal, for at the Geneva auto show there were no less than three new mid-engine road cars vying for the crowd’s attention—the Ferrari Dino 206GT, the Lotus Europa and the De Tomaso Mangusta. And a certain low-slung Italian number called the Miura, introduced there a year earlier and considered the first true mid-engine exotic, was still thrilling show-goers.   

The die was cast and, in the years that ensued, all manner of mid-engine machinery has followed from the likes of Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, De Tomaso, Lancia, Fiat, Opel, McLaren, Matra, Lotus, Toyota, Acura, Renault and, yes, even Pontiac. Does a mid-engine car handle “better” than its front- or rear-engine counterpart? Road Test Editor Patrick Hong addresses that question, examining the pros and cons of this layout, in a nearby analysis. But there’s no denying the allure of driving a car with a racing-inspired configuration, transitioning through corners like a cheetah chasing down a jinking jackrabbit, with the soundtrack whirring inches behind your shoulders. What follows is a look at every mid-engine production sports car sold in the U.S. for 2001.   

Toyota MR2 Spyder  

Well, minimalism is back with the MR2 Spyder, a $23,585, 2250-lb. 2-seat roadster that makes up in cat-quick response what it so woefully lacks—luggage space. With a measly 2.8 cu. ft. of room apportioned between two behind-the-seats lockers, the Spyder would be hard-pressed to accommodate a couple of overnight bags.   Yet row through its five tightly spaced gear ratios, transferring a peak of 138 bhp and 125 lb.-ft. of torque to its rear 205-mm Bridgestone Potenzas, and much is forgiven. The MR2 Spyder’s favorable power-to-weight ratio allows it to clip off easy 7.3-second blasts to 60 mph. And while your luggage may fidget restlessly, you won’t, as its cockpit offers noticeably more width and leg room than its marketplace arch-rival, the Mazda Miata. The Toyota’s driving environment is several shades trendier, with recessed white-face gauges (and matching white trim rings around the ventilation controls) and contrasting textures.   No one will ever call the MR2 Spyder a beautiful car, but it is an intriguingly purposeful design, playful without being too cute, with tightly clipped overhangs that help to reduce its polar moment of inertia even further. The proof is in experiencing its agility, and Toyota’s latest twirls the thrill-per-dollar needle right off the scale.

   

Porsche Boxster S  

Water has replaced air as the immediate cooling medium, but the Boxster’s 3.2-liter 4-cam 250-bhp engine is still horizontally opposed and has been tuned to generate the same hair-raising resonance as its air-cooled forebears. Rowing its 6-speed gearbox for all it’s worth, the S can clip off 5.6-sec. 0-to-60 times—within a half second of its legendary big brother, the 911.  Point the Boxster’s nose into a turn, squeeze on the power and you’ll have the heady sensation of its front tires tracking precisely where you want them to go. Few other cars give such a detailed account of every crevice, seam and nuance of the road surface, telegraphed faithfully through a 3-spoke sport steering wheel with the smallest of airbags. Jump off the throttle in virtually any situation and nothing wicked happens — 255/40ZR-17 rear tires and contact patch-friendly suspension geometries see to that. And braking is equally sublime, the Brembo-sourced “Big Red” calipers scrubbing off speed with authority. As mid-engine chassis go, the Boxster’s is as goof-proof as they come.   Inside, there’s a departure from traditional Porsche interiors—better ergonomically, no question, but tinged with a sort of Industrial/Gothic look. Still, there are excellent body-embracing high-back seats, an ideal driving position and a cable-shift 6-speed that is light-years more precise than the Boxster’s original effort. If ever a sports car could be said to be practical, it is this Porsche…combined, its deep front trunk and golf bag-swallowing rear trunk offer more than 10 cu. ft. of capacity.  

  

Acura NSX  

There have been aluminum cars before; our Engineering Editor Dennis Simanaitis will quickly point to his personal favorite—the Dellow, a 1950s British trials car with recycled rocket-launcher tubes for frame rails. Yet it was Acura that first used the material in unit-body form for a series-produced sports car…and what a car.   Introduced for the 1991 model year, the NSX offered levels of docility, quietness and refinement approaching those of its luxury-sedan brethren…that is, until you unleashed the full fury of its transversely mounted 90-degree V-6. With its intake tract a foot behind your head, the NSX remains the champion of delivering the most bone-chilling induction noise, a sound so pure that you’d swear it was synthesized and not the result of pressure waves hammering around inside ducting.   Seeing out of mid-engine cars has often been problematic, yet the NSX’s wraparound rear window and slim B-pillars make changing lanes and reversing a pleasure, while its forward-raked cockpit and deep windshield offer a view of the road rushing up at you that’s unparalleled by anything short of a motorcycle. The NSX’s interior trappings uphold Acura’s commitment to luxury—with a proper level of sportiness. Enormous gauges set in a Ferrari-esque hooded pod, seats with side bolsters that generously extend up to shoulder level and spacious footwells (a rare commodity in mid-engine machines) uphold the serious side of the equation.  

Though it’s been criticized for a lack of front roll stiffness and perhaps a bit too much high-speed understeer, the NSX remains one of the world’s best-handling cars, with forgiving at-the-limit behavior that’s approached in a very linear way. It’s also pivotal for Honda enthusiasts everywhere, as the NSX’s engine first showcased the VTEC (variable valve timing and lift) system that is found throughout the Honda and Acura lines, in both performance and economy applications.   

 

Lotus Esprit V8  

It seems Q had outdone himself with the ultimate James Bond gizmo in the 1977 thriller, The Spy Who Loved Me. Pursued by villains (isn’t he always?), Bond drove his low-slung, exotic sports car off a cliff into the ocean, where it promptly folded its wheels into the bodywork, sprouted e planes and became a submarine.   That car, of course, was the Lotus Esprit, a Giugiaro-designed, 4-cylinder doorstop whose folded-paper sliver of a shape ushered in a new era of design. Fast-forward nearly a quarter-century, and the Esprit’s Type 907 inline-4 has been replaced by a compact twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-8. Though its shape was softened somewhat in 1988 by an in-house restyle by Peter Stevens, the bodywork still proudly displays the essence of Giugiaro’s work. The chassis remains largely as it was in 1975, with engineer Colin Chapman’s favored backbone chassis and pure race-car suspension: double wishbones in front, with rear uprights located by lateral and trailing links.   

 

There is nothing dated about the Esprit V8’s performance, though. Turbos at full shriek, the Esprit can blister off 0–60 times of 4.4 sec., approaching the rarefied realm of the 911 Turbo’s 4.0-sec. posting. The Esprit’s driver will experience that acceleration in the classic semi-reclined position, separated from the passenger by a tall, wide sill, inhaling the opulent aroma of leather… and working around significant intrusion from the left front wheel well.   Perhaps it’s in the area of handling where the Esprit shows its crow’s feet. Driven by no less than Mario Andretti in our story, “The Best-Handling Cars in America” (June 1999), the racing legend commented that at the limit, “the rear begins hiking up, disrupting the feeling and balance of the car, and the inside rear tire lifts off the ground…only if you hold back a little does the car reward you with good cornering feel and response.”   

 

Ferrari 360 Modena  

While Ferrari’s current flagship, the 550 Maranello, pays homage to the classic front-engine/rear-drive layout, the 360 Modena proudly carries on the mid-engine lineage of its road cars that started with the Dino 206GT. And what a work of art it is, with much of that artistry beneath the lovely Pininfarina-penned, Scaglietti-formed aluminum body. Take the chassis, for example, an extremely rigid space frame formed of aluminum extrusions and castings. Or kneel beside it, and take a look at the undertray whose carefully shaped tunnels can generate 397 lb. of total downforce at 180 mph.   Yet the heart of any Ferrari is its engine, and the Modena’s flat-crank 3.6-liter V-8 rips out 395 bhp at 8500 rpm, its breathing assisted by five valves per cylinder, plus both intake and exhaust systems whose lengths can be varied to widen the torque band—and create some of the most unearthly shrieks this side of a Formula 1 car. Zero-to-60 sprints require just 4.3 sec.   

 

Inside, there is tradition (the seats’ shapes and stitch patterns could belong to virtually any Ferrari of the past 10 years) and progress, in the form of the optional F1 paddle-shift 6-speed transmission that will even blip the throttle on downshifts for perfectly matched revs. There’s also a nod to modern ergonomics, with a center-dash bulge that positions vents and climate controls closer to the occupants. Aluminum trim abounds, from the center console to the door panels to the instrument panel, which presents a 10,000-rpm tach at its center.   Roadholding has always been a Ferrari strength, and the 360 Modena’s suspension—upper and lower A-arms all around, expertly tuned—does not disappoint. Neither do the brakes, which feature 13.0-in., cross-drilled, radially vented rotors at all four corners. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the 360 Modena holds two production-car records in our Road Test Summary: braking from 60 and 80 mph (110 and 188 ft., respectively).   

 

Lamborghini Diablo 6.0  

Its basic blueprint was cast with the LP 500 Countach, the very car that coined the term “exotic” when it was introduced at the Geneva Auto Salon of 1971. It has since evolved from that razor-edged prototype into the Countach production car and then, in 1990, into the Diablo. Despite creative differences between the Countach’s original designer Marcello Gandini and stylists at Chrysler (at that time, Lamborghini’s owner), the Diablo emerged as a less radical, more cohesive shape—though one that retains an incredibly powerful presence. The 2001 Countach 6.0 is even more arresting, with a wider stance and a menacing pair of air scoops in the nose that cool the front brakes.   The Diablo still retains the Countach’s “backward” mounting of its V-12 engine, where power is fed forward to a 5-speed transmission, then routed via transfer gears and a shaft back to the final-drive gears beneath the engine’s sump. The engine itself, now a full 6.0 liters, makes 550 bhp under control of a 32-bit microprocessor and variable intake valve timing. Though its welded tubular-steel frame remains, the Diablo’s skin is now primarily of carbon fiber. Its suspension, though of the classic double A-arm configuration, is damped by electronically controlled shocks. And a viscous-coupling all-wheel-drive system not only brings the Diablo into the new millennium, it catapults it to 60 mph in a breathless 3.6 sec.—quicker than a 911 Turbo, and a sneeze away from the McLaren F1.

 

Entering through its signature scissor-doors, the lucky Diablo pilot is instantly aware of that enormous transmission between the seats, its tunnel cloaked in richly finished carbon fiber—ditto for the instrument panel—with suede and smooth leather covering every other inch of interior surface. The dash seems far, far away, requiring an awkwardly long steering column to put the fat 3-spoke wheel comfortably in your hands.   Brutal, visually mesmerizing and relatively nimble considering its 3740-lb. curb weight, the Diablo is a survivor, and remains arguably the most attention-getting car on the planet.  

 

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Motor Mouth 

Motor Mouth Senor Dos by Ted Wehr (From Sports Car International, No. 142, Jan. 2001)   Praise be. Monday Night Football is back again. (I never thought I could miss Howard Cosell!) "Frazier" is back to Tuesday, where God meant it to be. The Natural Order is restored. Praise be.   You wonder at this hymn to autumnal contentment, but don't. Life can't be too bad--no matter who is President--as long as we have genuine sports cars to drive. I'm driving one right now--or in about ten minutes. It's black, weighs just 2200 pounds and goes like a moderate stench. Since you ask, I speak of the third-generation Toyota Mister Two. (MR2, to you.)   The first time I drove it, three months or so back, I was only slightly plussed. It was interesting to find that, like Mazda's similar anachronism, here was a nouveau rendering of what the British once called the "light car." 

Gilbert & Sullivanishly, Mister Two is the very model of a modern minimalist sporting car. It has only one concession to we-do-it-better-than-you design--anti-lock brakes. Probably not a bad idea, either. (Yes, yes, I can beat it too, but only when I'm ready.) But no traction control, no dynamic-stability control, no smart cruise control nor even any dumb cruise control. If this car is to behave well, you'll have to make it behave well.   I like that. I like that very much. Driving should be more than changing the CD every second county.   Of course, the classic light car had it shortcomings. A fitful, buzzy little four cylinder was one, and the present Toyota Lite is no exception. But variable valve timing ameliorates the little noise-maker, maximizing its four-valve boisterousness at the top end, while giving it torquey two-valve guts down below. This 138-hp four is no neck-sprainer, but with the skimpy 2200-pound backpack it's hauling, the burden is obviously quite bearable. Even locked in fifth, which is to say top gear, at 65, Mister Two pulls straight up to 90 with joyous disregard for tact and statute. If you envision a fine-handling-but-toothless lightster in the Mazda mold, get back. Mister Two evinces get-it-on willingness that doesn't require hunting around in the gearbox for the 6800-rpm redline. What's more, this engine has none of the non-linear (though exciting) two-stage gushers of Honda's VTEC system. It's a vigorous, vinegary little engine that gives you better than you expect for just $23,000.   

Yebbut...I've just always disliked the sound and feel of fours. Can't help feeling like I'm in an early-'80s Isuzu econobox--which is, to me, a little like Michael Jackson's house on Halloween.   There's another thing. To me, with rare exceptions (say an Austin-Healey 100-4), light cars always looked a little cheesy. Here Senor Dos is guilt by association. The front is actually kind of swell, but it's as though the design guy ran out of ink at the A-pillar. Like green wine, Mister Two does not finish well. No surprise. The Japanese build utterly remarkable mechanical systems, but their stylists (yes, even the Californians) have the artistic equivalent of a "tin ear."   Clannnk!   Or, at least that's pretty much what I thought of Mister Two after my first exposure thre months ago. It's amazing how much smarter Toyota has gotten in the intervening weeks. I know, people in the pontification trade should never admit to being flatfoot wrong. Bad for business.   But note my shoes. No arch.   I still harbor all the same discomforts towards the light-car genre mentioned above. And three months ago, like any serious critic, I saw the MR2 glass as half empty--with sediment and suspicious dark bits floating on the surface. Yet now, miraculously, the glass is extremely half full, and the liquid inside is clear, pure and on this broiling hot day, ready to drink.   

But life is cruel for an automotive journalist, and I have to give up the Toyota Monday--my time is up. But I don't wanna. Its awkward buttocks and fizzy little four and gimmicky Audi TT-like inside door handles have utterly hornswoggled me. This weekend I put 500 miles on the car, and they were 500 of the most satisfying miles I've done in years. After decades of knowing better, I've sunk back into light car-ism up to the neck. The MR2 is a right-now rendering of all that made the MGA and Porsche 356 and, God help me, the Bugeye Sprite--cars to beg your parents to buy you.   But Mister Two has none of the shameful British Leyland sins that made us try to unload our MGAs the next Monday morning. Further, Mister Two is structurally as rock-solid a light roadster as was ever built. Everything fits like Madonna's bodice. The watertight manual top can be opened by one moron in less than 20 seconds, while seated and scratching his nose with the other hand. It's a scandal.   

I don't know what light cars will look and feel like in 20 years--electric golf carts come to mind--but I'm delighted to be living in a day when the light car is defined by this one. If I was 22 again, and I'm working on it, I could not stand to be without this car. And having acquired it, I could not resist going to sports-car races as often as possible in order to twig how to drive it better. In other words, Mister Two would've worked the same magic on me that a certain Porsche 1500S Cabriolet did too many decades ago to count on the fingers.   It takes me back, not to 1966, but to why people in any time submit to the joy of driving well. Buzzy little four-banger that is is, this car--not some grumpy big stock car with '60s technology--is the reason young drivers become young enthusiasts. No wonder. You can't have a bad time in Mister Two, unless you're hit by a cellphone mom in a Chevy Suburban. You're on your own there.   Monday is fast approaching and I'm back-pedaling full speed. If  I figure out how to be 22 again by then, I've got four four-valve cylinders that say, move aside, deadass, I'm in a hurry.   

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AMI's AutoWorld Weekly 

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We measure smiles per mile in Mazda’s Miata and Toyota’s MR2 Spyder.   Come on, you can level with us. We know there are still plenty of you fun-craving sports-car lovers out there. Drivers who wish the “sport utility” fashion-of-the-moment would be replaced with something “sport intensive.” Drivers who long for something youthful, economical, simple, and above all soul-stirring. Drivers who want some thrill-relief from the ponderous herds of SUVs clogging our highways.   The Auto World Weekly staff didn’t have to look too hard for a cure for the SUV blues. In fact, we found two natural competitors—the Mazda Miata and the Toyota MR2 Spyder—and spent a week wringing them out to see which would supply the most smiles per mile.   

Until this year, there was only one entry in this class for automotive free spirits: the Mazda Miata, a second-generation homage to 1960s two-seat, front-engined roadsters. With sales of more than 500,000 since its introduction in 1990, it’s the best-selling sports car in the world.   The challenger is the two-seat, mid-engined Toyota MR2 Spyder, the reinvented namesake of Toyota’s first mid-engined MR2, introduced in 1985 and discontinued in the U.S. 10 years later. Toyota plans to offer only 5,000 of these edgy roadsters each year.   

Outside  

There’s no denying the appeal of both roadsters. Although the Miata was completely reworked in 1999, its fine original bones remain. Our Special Edition Miata’s muscular new lines and aggressive stance still define the look of a classic soft-top roadster: long hood, simple droptop, short rear deck.   Toyota’s take is similar, but with a twist. The MR2’s design originated not as an homage to the 1960s Lotus Elan, as did the Miata’s, but as an exercise in building the lightest body structure that would allow for customization. The resulting shape is almost toylike, with plain, flat sides; a large front air intake; bulbous headlight covers; and crisp, angular lines.   

 

Luckily, our MR2’s black-on-black color scheme helped to blend those conflicting styling elements and gave its cab-forward slant a substantially more aggressive look. We liked the MR2’s brave simplicity and encouragement of customization. But our vote for the more appealing design still went to the Mahogany Mica–colored Miata for its pure presentation of the classic sports-car look—a look we love to be seen in.   Both of these sports cars address some practical concerns better than you might expect. We gave them high marks for turn-signal visibility, door handles that can be easily gripped, exterior-component quality, and paint finish. Unexpectedly, for a car constructed to have its body panels modified or replaced, the MR2 displayed terrific fit-and-finish quality; it won our vote in this category.   

 

Inside  

The interiors of both cars are stylish—as well they should be, with the MR2 presenting a colder, contemporary version of the Miata’s dashboard, gauge placement, and controls. The Miata gains a slight advantage here by virtue of the upmarket look of its Special Edition wood-trimmed steering wheel, shift knob, and parking-brake handle; beige leather seats; and wood-faced console center panel. Its interior oozes class and is set off by stainless-steel rocker-panel scuff plates. The MR2 again presents a different attitude, its look more track racer than tweed, with aluminum sports pedals and heavily bolstered seats, sporting a meshlike material that holds you in place like glue. Leather seating is not available. With weight reduction and simplicity the priorities here, the MR2’s center console is removable but flimsy.   In other respects, the MR2 scored high in interior fit and finish. Its seat trim, steering-wheel motif, and door handles and grab handles were particularly well done. The Miata’s interior finish was also first rate, but we marked it down for loose, rattling components and trim.   

 

Longer doors and higher ground clearance allow easier entry into the Miata. Once you’re settled inside, the MR2 offers slightly more shoulder room (51 inches versus the Miata’s 50), while the Miata presents a half-inch more legroom (43 inches). Headroom is virtually identical, at 37 inches.   The MR2’s seats look appealing but suffer from a lack of lumbar support. Spend an hour behind the wheel and you’re bound to feel a pronounced ache in the lower back. The longer the trip, the more the discomfort grows. The Miata’s seats are more heavily padded and cushioned. We wished for even more bolstering through the twisties, but came away from every driving stint ache-free.   Both soft tops have glass (rather than plastic) rear windows with defoggers and easily can be dropped one-handed from inside, their latches released from the top corners of the windshield. Once the tops are down, both vehicles have wind deflectors to keep turbulent air from snatching your baseball cap.   

 

From a practical point of view, the MR2’s biggest failing is its almost total lack of cargo space. The Mazda had only 5 cubic feet of cargo volume, and yet that was two and a half times the MR2’s 2 cubic feet. With just two small triangular bins behind the MR2’s seats, we were hard-pressed to carry photo gear and a laptop computer at the same time. The MR2’s only other storage compartment, over the front axle, will hold no more than a small soft briefcase. This means that grocery shopping in an MR2 with a companion is tricky, if not impossible. Lugging your worldly belongings to fall classes far from home? You’d best forget it.   The Miata’s trunk is almost cavernous in comparison, large enough to accommodate golf bags or suitcases. The Miata interior also has more cubbyholes for miscellaneous small items than the MR2.   

 

Blastoff  

Admittedly, space considerations in sport-intensive roadsters are very much secondary. The MR2 and the Miata are meant to run ridges, not to stock fridges, and both do so to perfection.   The engines of our test cars couldn’t have been more similar. Both were 1.8-liter four-cylinders with double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. The MR2’s pumped out 138 horsepower at 6,400 rpm, with 125 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm; the Miata’s delivered 140 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, and 119 pound-feet of torque at 5,500 rpm.   Despite the nearly identical specs, the MR2 proved to be faster, and by a significant amount. The Spyder pulled out its advantage not with more exotic metals or more black-magic electronic controls, but with less—less poundage, that is. Track testing made us believers in the benefits of Toyota’s fanatical efforts to produce the lightest sports car on the road. At a curb weight of 2,195 pounds, the MR2 undercuts the Miata by 137 pounds, and that advantage allowed it to smoke the Miata in our 0-to-60-mph sprint (7.1 seconds to the Miata’s 7.9). The MR2’s superiority lasted through the quarter-mile, which it covered in 15.4 seconds at 87.5 mph. The Miata turned 16 seconds flat at 84.9, more than two and a half miles per hour slower.   

 

Under hard acceleration, the MR2 reacted quickly to the throttle, and its stiff chassis stayed level as it put its torque smoothly to the pavement. With its peak torque coming in 1,100 rpm earlier, the MR2 felt much more lively and responsive. The Miata was more softly sprung and squatted under acceleration. Its slower throttle response, combined with a looser-feeling clutch, produced consistent but sluggish starts. A flat exhaust note did nothing for the Miata’s sports-car character.   While our previous experience with the Miata’s manual gearbox made us fans of its outstanding responsiveness, the test car’s Special Edition six-speed manual transmission had more buzz than brawn. Even with its wonderful short throws, the close-spaced gearing proved tiring in heavy traffic; the engine was never content in any gear, and the roar of the engine produced fatigue after a few hours.   In comparison, the MR2’s five-speed manual couldn’t have been more pleasant. Its throws were even shorter than the Miata’s and much more precise, and its clutch was light and released with only short travel.   

 

On the road  

Over the road, the contrast between the Miata’s looseness, heft, and fussy gearbox and the MR2’s precision, low weight, and ease of control became most apparent. Right off, it was obvious that the MR2’s mid-engined chassis was in a league of its own. Regardless of corner speed, the MR2 Spyder simply pointed its nose in and flew through, always in balance and under control. The Miata had to be pressed hard to keep up. With its soft shocks and springs, the Miata faltered over bumps that the more compliant MR2 Spyder took in stride.   In slow corners, the MR2’s body roll was very controlled, allowing us to mash the throttle early for higher exit speeds while the nervous Miata had plenty of body motion that had to be settled down before we could apply the gas. Put another way, the MR2 Spyder seemed to flow through corners that the Miata had to claw its way through. The bottom line was that the MR2 could leave the Miata at will in the curves. Throw in a complicated series of twisties and swoops and the Spyder simply disappeared.   The MR2 also was aided by its gearbox. 

 

You would think that the Miata’s transmission, with six closely spaced ranges, would offer a gear capable of strong acceleration out of any corner. The reality was that, due to the Miata’s peak torque coming comparatively high in the rpm range, selecting the right gear for an unfamiliar corner was difficult. Go in too high and you get a substantial power loss immediately; go in too low and the engine peters out midcorner. Not so with the Spyder. Its gear ratios were comfortably spaced, and we never seemed to be hung out with the wrong gear, no matter how unfamiliar the road.   Road feel through the MR2’s steering was outstanding, the driver receiving plenty of warning before both front and rear tires gently slid in unison as the car approached its grip limit. A skilled driver can exploit this great balance to take a variety of cornering attitudes. The Miata, which lets its front tires slide as it comes close to its cornering limits, is happier cruising just below the MR2’s pace.   

 

Braking is another Spyder victory, though the contest is much closer. The MR2 stops from 70 mph in a highly controllable 160 feet (placing it in the same territory as the much more expensive Porsche Boxster S, Corvette coupe, and Pontiac Firebird Trans Am). The Miata trails, but only by a yard, at 163 feet. Both cars show firm stability and control through repeated stops, though the Miata has more pronounced nose e.   Running in tandem on back roads, the Spyder summoned passing speeds on long straight stretches much more quickly than the Miata. Interstates were more of an equalizer, with the softer ride of the Miata cushioning us more than the stiffer Spyder’s. The Miata ignored crosswinds, holding its line firmly, while the lighter MR2 felt twitchy in big gusts and was genuinely uneasy in the wakes of heavy trucks.   While you could never call the MR2 Spyder quiet at highway speeds, the Miata’s engine-noise level seemed particularly high, and it grated on us as the miles added up.   

 

The Winner  

It ought to be clear by now that the Toyota MR2 Spyder wins this sports-intensive-roadster shootout easily. We’re not entirely happy with that result, however. While the Spyder’s responsiveness and spectacular over-the-road handling crush the Miata, the little Toyota shows an almost insulting disregard of one’s need for a modicum of cargo and stowage space. The MR2 all but defies one to travel, to head to the beach, or simply to drop by the Shop ’n’ Scram on the way home from work.   Still, the Miata Special Edition—which costs nearly $2,500 more than the Toyota—can’t match the MR2 in fulfilling a roadster’s primary mission: providing droptop thrills over undulating roads. The Miata remains handsome and sexy and loads more practical than the MR2, but it needs a beefier frame, more horsepower, and careful suspension and chassis tuning to keep up with the aggressive new kid, who is running off in the distance.   Published on: September 1, 2000  

 

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Gr8Rides 

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TOYOTA MR2 SPYDER   

For those of you who don't have much cargo to tote around, and aren't afraid to drive a little sideways, Toyota's diminutive roadster is perhaps your ideal choice for an enthusiastic romp through the twisty back roads.   Setting the MR2 apart from the crowd is in-your-face styling, super light weight and a free-revving, mid-ship-mounted, 138-hp, four-cylinder engine. The sum of all these parts add up to a spastic little sports car that feels as natural dancing upon obtuse slip angles as it does cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway at sunset. Therein lies the magnificent duality of the MR2 Spyder: one part daily driver, two parts all-out sports car.   What makes the MR2 Spyder so endearing to the enthusiast is it proves to be entertaining even when driven at five-tenths. 

Having the heaviest parts of the car, namely the engine, transmission and driver, toward the center of the car, allows for some absolutely stunning driving dynamics. First of all, the braking abilities of the Spyder are spectacular. During our track testing at Buttonwillow, I found the tiny Toyota could be trail-braked, drama-free, into turns deeper than any other car in the field. And through the turns, even at low speeds, a sudden lift-throttle maneuver can persuade the rear wheels to step sideways. But don't let that intimidate you. The same ultra-centralized weight-distribution means that every single degree of vehicle rotation is controllable and progressive--making the Spyder every bit as forgiving as it should be. I love driving it. It loves being driven. To me, this is a match made in heaven. --Shiv Pathak   

Toyota is a smart car company. It saw a market that has been occupied by only one car for the past 10 years and promptly built a competitor to the Mazda Miata. Not only did Toyota give the Miata some competition with the introduction of the MR2 Spyder, but it made the Spyder lighter, more powerful and located the engine in the only location that would allow even better weight distribution--behind the driver and in front of the rear wheels.   Our tests have shown the Toyota's new roadster is every bit the performer it needs to be to compete in its isolated market. With a very respectable zero-to-60 time of 6.9 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 15.1 seconds at 88 mph, Mister Two certainly gets the job done in a straight line. Dynamically, it's everything you'd expect in a 2,500-lb car--nimble, darty and a blast on any mountain road. With perhaps the quickest turn-in of any car on the list, the MR2 is pure joy on the track.   Daily driving in the MR2 is rewarding as well. Whether hammering around an off ramp or skipping through traffic, its chassis offers perhaps the best compromise of ride comfort and rigidity one could ask for in a small roadster--top up or down.   The bottom line with the MR2 is simple: It's a head-turning sports car with a classic mid-engine layout, decent power and incredible handling. What's not to like? --Josh Jacquot   

"Spunky," I think, best describes the demeanor of the 2001 MR2 Spyder. Spunky power, spunky handling, in a spunky package.   Sales of the MR2 were never that stellar in years past for Toyota, despite the exotic mid-engine layout and available turbo and supercharged engines. This time around, foregoing luxury, weight and complexity has yielded a package both delightful in stock form, yet boasting vast aftermarket potential.   That the car is a flyweight, tipping the scales at a mere 2,195 lbs, does wonders for every facet of an already impressive performance envelope. Most notable is braking: Not only did the Spyder put down the best numbers during our test session, but the fade-free stoppers offered superb pedal feel and modulation for the duration of our testing. The car felt wonderfully quick in any gear, especially on the street, despite only packing 138 hp under the rear hatch, with the engine tractable at any rpm.   

At Buttonwillow Raceway Park, I was able to carry more speed through the slow Zorro turns in the MR2 Spyder, by a good margin, than in any of the other cars. Brake late, turn in, drop the throttle (just a touch), and the car points perfectly and tracks toward the apex with such precision, you'd swear the berm was magnetized. Turn-in this good is usually reserved for cars with aftermarket pillow ball mounts, most likely a function of the light front-end of the MR2. Enter too hot into a turn and the car understeers in a very agreeable and correctable manner; take a turn perfectly and your reward is gaining on most any car in front.   That the Spyder never found itself in want of a staffer willing to dance during the track portion of our testing says much of the sheer fun to be had behind the wheel. As impressive as this car is in the slower stuff, I look forward to seeing the kind of damage it will do to the ranks of open-top autocrossing. 

The conspicuous absence of a limited slip may make itself more apparent on race tires, however.   It was perhaps with a nod to the number and popularity of aftermarket wide-body flare kits for the previous MR-2 that prompted Toyota to attach the body panels with bolts; between the Celica GT-S and the MR2 Spyder, Toyota is working very hard for our enthusiast affections.   The newly trend-savvy TRD offers a host of upgrades for the Spyder, most of them dress-up items. Not yet addressed, however, is that lovely, huge chunk of airspace between the exhaust manifold and the rear of the engine compartment that lies waiting for its gallant owner to stuff it with a large turbo. Boy-racer, parking lot brawler, stock broker or weekend vacationer, no MR2 Spyder owner will regret its purchase. --Jared Holstein  

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T3 Online

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Pros: Great fun to drive; accelerates like a bat out of Hell; corners like a jackrabbit.  

Cons: Ticket magnet; next to no storage space for luggage. 

Fighter pilots have their own unique vocabulary. Phrases like "booming and zooming," "turn and burn," "waxing his tail," and "strapping on the speed jeans" pepper their speech. It's a private language born of the speed of their chosen profession. A lot of those phrases also apply to Toyota's new 2001 MR2 Spyder. Yeah, the thing looks damn fast… and looks, in this case, are not deceiving.

The MR2 (which stands for Mid-engined, Rear-drive, 2-seater) offers as much speed, cornering, and sheer excitement as roadsters costing twice as much. Drivers who actually want to push the envelope a bit (and who maybe don't mind the occasional ticket) are going to find that this roadster is just about unbeatable in terms of driver reward.   To begin with, the Spyder looks like it might have come off of Porsche’s production line, with the Boxster’s rear and the 917’s front-end, mounted on a compact 96.5" wheelbase. With an overall length of 153" and a sleek overall height of only 48.2", the MR2’s profile is low and wide — just what you’d expect in a speed demon. With a gross vehicle weight of only 2,195lbs., there’s not much unnecessary mass to push around, something that becomes apparent the minute you take the Spyder out for a run.   

 

The MR2 accelerates briskly through its five gears, reaching 60mph in a fraction under seven seconds, but the thrills don’t stop there. Once you’re in fifth gear, the slightest touch of the accelerator will propel you into the triple digits without breaking a sweat. Passing becomes a joy; flying past moribund semi-trailers in under a second, the Spyder’s aerodynamic shape cuts through the truck’s air draft easily. In fact, one Corvette driver was amazed at the acceleration and top speed of the MR2 for at least two miles, before flexing his superior number of cylinders. And no, Toyota hasn’t forgotten the arcane law that dictates that a car capable of achieving really fast, exciting speeds must be equally adept at slowing down in a manner both safe and unexciting. The Spyder’s four-wheel ABS braking system is capable of stopping the beast in only 167'... as long as you’re not going over 70mph, that is.   

 

Of course, in these budget-conscious times, the news that the MR2 is capable of sub-light speeds wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing, if it wasn’t for the fact that the Spyder is pretty darn stingy with a tank of gas, even after Picard says "Engage." For the freeway portion of the road test, the Spyder's 12.7 gallon tank was filled in Richmond, CA, and then driven 200 miles due north at speeds only slightly higher (yeah, right… ) than the numbers painted on those little white signs that kept zipping by illegibly. Car and driver arrived in Redding, CA, two and a half hours later, with just a cup or two less than a half-tank remaining. Had it not been for a reasonable paranoia of airborne radar guns, one could have easily made it in two hours with a quarter-tank left. So don’t worry about your need for speed sinking its fangs into your pocketbook. The Spyder may be fast, but he’s also thrifty. The actual estimates given by Toyota put the gas guzzling at 25/city, 30/highway.   

 

Speed is a truly wonderful thing and the Spyder delivers it in spades. But if you can’t keep the shiny side up and the greasy side down, you don’t have squat. The folks at Toyota know this and have equipped the MR2 with a newly developed electric/ hydraulic power steering unit that was designed to save weight while providing exceptional responsiveness and road feedback. Actually, the word "exceptional" just barely covers how responsive the steering is. Depending on how you handle the wheel, you can either smoothly change lanes as if floating on air, or, with a snap of the wrist, you can damn near move the Spyder 90 degrees sideways. Spyder pilots will find themselves poring over maps, searching out the raunchiest roads and the most twisted turnpikes, all in the name of honest, high-performance fun.   

 

The Spyder’s cockpit amenities aren’t anything to sneeze at, either. The bucket seats are nicely contoured and hold the driver securely in place through the most exacting maneuvers. The tilt steering wheel and the shifter are nicely wrapped in leather and the AM-FM radio/cassette/CD audio system performs nicely (the entire center cluster console can be removed to save even more weight). Somewhat spoiling the admirable ergonomics are the controls for the cockpit heating and cooling system. Instead of some futuristic, push-button control panel or even Toyota’s standard sliding lever arrangement, the Spyder features three orbitally-spinning selector switches that look and operate like they came off an old electric oven. They just seemed out of place inside such a sleekly designed cockpit.   In terms of storage, there are compartments behind the front seats and under the hood, but these really won’t hold more than a small overnight bag at best. In fact, the spare tire takes up most of the "trunk" space.  

 

The Spyder is a convertible (you expected less?), and the manually lowered top folds completely out of sight, preserving the MR2’s clean lines.   The Spyder comes in seven colors, including Absolutely Red and Solar Yellow, both of which were carefully designed to stimulate the trigger finger of any law enforcement officer with a radar gun. There’s a choice of four interior colors: black, red, yellow, or tan leather. You can also get the convertible top in either black or tan for the 2001 model.   Of course, roadsters wouldn’t be roadsters unless you could do your own customization on them, and the MR2 is no exception. 

 

The coachwork features steel panels that are bolted onto a high-rigidity unit-body, which not only makes it easier to do that hot rod thing, but should also keep repairs in the lower cost range. Yep, the guys at Toyota have pretty much thought of everything.   With a base price of only $24,545, the Spyder is the roadster for the common man. It offers the speed, handling, and driving thrills typically found in considerably more expensive rides. Take this baby out for a test drive and you may find yourself quickly rethinking your budget to find room for the MR2… and all the thrills it can bring to your normally mundane commute.


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Autoweb.com 

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2001 Toyota MR2 Spyder by Phil Ruth Autoweb.com Senior Editor   

It'd be tough to introduce a competitor to the Mazda Miata. No other sports car can seem to match the Miata's nearly universal appeal; the Mercury Capri ragtop of the early-'90s came and went, and other manufacturers seem pleased to avoid the Miata altogether by pricing themselves above it.  

 

People love the Miata for different reasons, but most everyone agrees that it's a ball to drive. (Full disclosure: my fellow senior editor Craig has a '91 Miata, and I had a '95.) Competing with that takes guts, and Toyota's got 'em in the form of the brash new MR2 Spyder.   The MR2 is now, and always has been, a mid-engined car. The first generation was a friendly little coupe that competed with the now-defunct Pontiac Fiero. Toyota then transformed the MR2 into an aggressive Ferrari wanna-be, whose squirrelly handling landed it on the cover of England's Car magazine in mid-spin. 'How Toyota Spoilt the MR2' ran the headline, and sales tanked. This new generation has received good reviews, though. It's the first convertible MR2, and at times, it has beaten its Miata nemesis in comparison tests. Also, this car is part of Toyota's broader strategy to make its products seem edgier and more interesting. Judging from the reception my test car received on the streets of San Francisco, Toyota's plan seems to be working.   

 

I drove it through the button-down Financial District on a gray day, and its Solar Yellow paint practically glowed. People on both sides of the street turned to look. One driver slowed down in an adjacent lane to check it out, and another came to a dead stop on my street to examine it. If you like attracting attention, a yellow MR2 Spyder is one way to do it. The styling is aggressive yet pert. It's all business from the rear, with various grilles, vents and ducts helping the mid-mounted engine to breathe. From the front, though, one observer felt that its bug-eyed headlights and mouth-like front bumper resembled those cute talking cars in the gas-station ads. Bold shapes and sharp cutlines define this design, and the result is head-turning. I did agree with observers who wished it were 'smoother' or 'more aerodynamic-looking.' The heavy detailing combines with the car's short length to give the MR2's shape a bit of boxiness. One interesting detail: One can see the down the middle of the hood to the inner edges of the headlight lenses. The same is true in back with the edges of the taillights. Flip on the lights, and the illumination reveals the lenses' etched ribbing. Nice touch.   

 

The MR2 is very much a sports car when it comes to climbing in. Graceful entry and exit for my over-six foot frame took practice: the doorsill is calf-high, and the bucket seat is low. Once in, I found that the window ledge was as high as my chin. I looked directly into the exterior rear view mirrors, and my nose barely cleared the instrument cluster. I felt buried.   Fortunately, the driving position is excellent. The steering wheel and shifter are perfectly placed, there's a dead pedal for the driver's left foot, and the white-faced gauges were crystal-clear, with no reflections to muck them up. The MR2 takes a cue from the Porsche 911 and shunts the speedometer off to the left in favor of a front-and-center rev counter. This gauge also helpfully displays the engine's redline at the top of the dial, so you're always aware of when you're approaching the danger zone. The seats feel right, with plenty of lumbar, side and shoulder support. The cushions feel as if they're filled with the weight-dispersing gel found in bike seats, and the upholstery is a mesh fabric that evokes outdoorsy active wear. All controls were ergonomically responsible in their placement.   

 

The surrounding architecture reminded me of my old Miata's cheap interior, though. The new Miata's high-quality plastic panels are a vast improvement, and the MR2 has some catching-up to do in this regard. The grained plastic that covers the console is one of the biggest offenders, as it looks thin enough to have come straight from a '75 Corolla. The gray-painted plastic door pulls are unconvincing in their attempt to seem like metal, and the corresponding beams that surround the radio pod flexed against the merest of forces . There are other disappointments. Bend down low enough, and you'll see lots of hangy-downy wires behind the radio pod. The mesh fabric on the passenger seat had started to fray around the belt-loop area, and the combination of dimpled plastic and a plethora of seams gave the dashboard an Erector-set feel. In fairness, though, the MR2 probably wouldn't be such a lightweight if Toyota had stocked it with a more deluxe interior.   Or with a bigger trunk. Probably the biggest concern I had with the Spyder was its tragic lack of storage space. The engine's mid-ship placement puts the trunk in the front, and it's big enough for maybe three loaves of bread - and no long baguettes, either.

 

Interior nooks were equally tight. The lockable bins behind the seats might swallow four loaves each. The glove box could hold one, and a few slices might fit into the dash bin and the map pockets. But that's it. When commuting to work, my gym bag filled the trunk, and my passenger had to share her footwell with our satchels.   We sure did enjoy the ride, though. The Spyder is never anything less than stimulating, especially when the top is down. The engine has plenty of grunt - its 125 lb.-ft. of torque occurs at 4400 rpm, which is 1100 rpm less than the realization of the Miata's identical rating. Also, it weighs almost 200 pounds less than the Mazda, so it has plenty of right-now scoot.

 

Handling is rock-solid. The mid-mounted engine, along with the long distance between the wheels, gives the Spyder a supremely balanced feel. It's definitively nimble around town, and it tracks down the highway with the confidence of a much heavier car. Body roll is negligible, and the nose doesn't dip during hard stops. You'd have to go some to ruffle the Spyder's feathers, which is a huge improvement over the last MR2.   I'd prefer it if the Spyder's handling revealed an occasional quirk, though. The sports cars I love the most - my woolly old Fiat Spider comes to mind here - are the ones that will give just a little, but the MR2 Spyder wouldn't have it. There wasn't a hint of tail-happiness through corners, and certainly that's an admirable trait in a vehicle so light.   I couldn't help feeling, though, that the utter competence with which the MR2 responded to my inputs was a bit isolating. To me, the Spyder ends up as a car that will cleave through landscape with a minimum of drama. And a minimum of baggage. Sounds like a good life.  

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Mr. Shift Right?


Last updated: 2002-01-29

Imagine if Toyota had an infomercial on its MR2 Spyder. Joe Fowler would be the host, and it would likely go something like this: "So how much would you pay for this mid-engine, low-production sports car? Other cars like this can cost $150,000 or more and have massive repair bills! But wait! We'll also throw in a sequential-shifting manual transmission, leather seats and floor mats! All of this can be yours for the low low price of just $25,726! Not only that, but be one of the first 20 people to call and receive a cake mold shaped like the state of Kansas, absolutely free! Now here are Christie Brinkley and Chuck Norris to talk more about their MR2s!"

Joking aside, it is nice to know that for the price of a family sedan, one can buy an alluring mid-engine roadster, a layout usually associated with exotics like the Ferrari 360 Modena and Porsche Boxster. Our last encounter with the MR2 came during our 2000 Roadster Comparison Test, in which it beat out the Mazda Miata.

For 2002, Toyota is offering an optional five-speed sequential manual transmission, or SMT. Currently, there are only four other cars sold in the United States to come with one: the BMW M3 SMG, Ferrari 360 F1, Aston Martin Vanquish and Maserati Spyder. Since Ferraris, Aston Martins, Maseratis and M3s rarely show up on our office's doorstep, we were excited about driving the MR2 and experiencing this new technology.

Similar in concept to the transmissions used in Formula One race cars, a sequentially shifting manual is a manual transmission without a clutch pedal. It is indeed a full manual transmission; there is no torque converter. Other sequentially shifting transmissions you might have heard about, such as the Porsche Tiptronic or BMW Steptronic systems, are still automatics but with enhanced shifting abilities.

An SMT does have a clutch, but it is operated by electrically controlled hydraulics. By operating paddles or buttons usually located on or near the steering wheel, a driver is able to select a desired gear and the transmission does the rest. The reason that it is called sequential is that the transmission only allows upshifting or downshifting one gear at a time; a driver cannot go from first to fifth, as would be possible with a regular manual transmission.

There are three main advantages to an SMT: 1) Since there is no torque converter, efficiency is higher than an automatic; 2) An SMT can theoretically shift faster than a human can; 3) Since it is computer-controlled, there is virtually no chance of driver-induced error. For more information on sequential manual transmissions, we recommend reading our Innovations story about this subject.

Operating the MR2 Spyder's SMT is simple after an orientation using the owner's manual. In place of the regular leather-wrapped shifter, there is a chrome-plated shifter. Though likely lifted from the Lexus IS 300, we liked how it reminded us of classic Ferrari gated shifters.

The selector has three gates: R, N and S. R is for reverse, N is for neutral and S is for sequential mode. To start the car, the gear selector must be in neutral and the brake pedal must be depressed. After that, the selector can be put in R or S to get the car moving. Moving the selector into the S position grants access to the transmission's five forward gears (the ratios are exactly the same as the regular five-speed manual's).

When the car is placed in S, first gear is automatically selected. A small LED display near the tachometer indicates gear selection. After this point, the driving experience is similar to both a regular automatic and manual. Without throttle input, the car will not creep forward. At this point, the SMT has "pushed in the clutch pedal" for the driver. It's a good idea to keep a foot on the brake. If not, the car will roll backwards if it's on a hill! Depressing the throttle makes the car drive forward as if it had an automatic, but in fact the SMT is engaging the clutch.

Once you're rolling, pulling the spring-loaded lever toward the rear of the car will execute one upshift, while pushing it forward causes a downshift. Alternately, there are four buttons on the horizontal steering wheel spokes that can be used to shift. Two buttons mounted on front are for downshifts, while two on the backside are for upshifts. Some of our drivers complained that this arrangement is counterintuitive, but at least the buttons and the shifter operate similarly. Most of us had to apply extra concentration our first time out in the SMT, but successive drives were no problem.

In normal traffic situations, the SMT works surprisingly well. The SMT's shifts are smooth and consistent. During shifts, the SMT takes control of the throttle (the throttle is electronically controlled and does not have a cable connection to the pedal). For upshifts, the SMT reduces throttle to match engine speed to wheel speed. Downshifts are even more impressive as the SMT raises the throttle to match wheel speed. A 16-year old practicing for his driver license could only wish to have shifts like this, and even the Edmunds.com editors who have mastered the technique of heel-and-toe downshifting were jealous of the SMT's downshifting prowess. It also worked well on low- to medium-grade inclines, though certainly one may want to employ the handbrake to help start out on very steep hills.

The SMT has two main faults, however. One is that there is no "automatic" mode, meaning that the driver has to shift gears continually just like a regular manual transmission. The other is that the speed of its shifts isn't adjustable. Shifts that seem fine around town become agonizingly slow during full-throttle acceleration. Plant the throttle, rev the car to redline and upshift. The MR2 acts like it has stopped to take a breather as it automatically shuts the throttle until the shift is completed.

This attribute hurts maximum acceleration, as does the impossibility to rev the engine and quickly release the clutch, as one would do with a regular manual. In our testing, the 138-hp SMT-equipped MR2 Spyder went from 0 to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds and cleared the quarter-mile in 16.5 seconds at 82.7 mph. The regular five-speed manual car we had in the comparison test was more than a second quicker; it did 0-to-60 mph in 7.4 seconds and the quarter-mile in 15.6 seconds at 87.2 mph.

From a numbers standpoint, the SMT is a disappointment. But there are advantages. During spirited driving, a driver no longer has to worry about taking his or her hands off the steering wheel in order to shift. Though the shifts are sequential in nature, ripping off two quick downshifts is very easy to do, and the owner's manual states that the SMT's accumulator stores up sufficient hydraulic pressure to make three rapid shifts in a row. Certainly the biggest advantage is that the shifts are idiot-proof. With the SMT, there are no ground gears and no herky-jerky starts. It will not make a downshift if the shift will over-rev the engine. This prevents those oh-so-embarrassing "Oops, I downshifted from fifth to second instead of fourth" moments.

Driving the MR2 Spyder with the SMT is a lot of fun. Thanks to the mid-engine design (and the subsequent reduction in polar moment of inertia), the car has sharp reflexes and a race-car feel. The steering is quick and responsive, though this electrically assisted rack doesn't provide as much road feel as other cars in this class. The car's Achilles heel is its dearth of storage and luggage space. The hard-to-access bin behind the seats holds just 1.5 cubic feet of cargo, and the "trunk" is nearly useless unless the spare tire is removed.

Best then to frequent twisty canyon roads as much as possible. With the top down, the MR2 is one of the most enjoyable cars you can buy. The SMT adds $780 to the price tag. We think it's worth the price, assuming you're willing to accept both its strengths and weaknesses. Some of our editors brought up the issue of reliability. Certainly the SMT is more complex than the regular manual. Does this mean higher repair or replacement costs down the road? We can't say, but at least the MR2 comes with a 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty and Toyota's general reputation for excellent reliability.

If you're still not sold, think of this: If you want a rear-drive mid-engine sports car with a sequential manual, your only other choices for 2002 are Ferrari, Maserati or Aston Martin. Not too shabby company to be in, is it?

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By Royal Ford, Boston Globe Staff

 

A better shift for performance enthusiasts
 

It's hard for a lot of performance enthusiasts to accept, but it has been well documented that the manual transmission is going the way of the freewheeling option that once graced the Saab.

The manual is becoming almost a quaint niche option - in 5- and 6-speed formats on high-performance cars.

So what's trickling down?

And what's trickling up?

Picture this: Snowmobile meets Formula One race car.

Two of the most interesting engineering developments I encountered this year came from Audi and, just this month, Toyota.

Audi introduced a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) and Toyota brought forth a Sequential Manual Transmission.

The Audi tranny is an advanced version of what you find in snowmobiles: a transmission with an infinite number of gear ratios (CVT).

The Toyota gearbox is a version of the paddle-shift transmissions found in Formula One race cars - and expensive Porsches and Audis.

Trickle up, trickle down.

If the manual as we know it is going away, these are two fine replacements.

Let's start with the Toyota, which has bridged the largest gap: millions of bucks to just under $25,000.

Its SMT, which gets virtually the same gasoline mileage as a manual transmission, is being offered in the MR2 Spyder, a midengine sports car likened to the Porsche Boxster but selling for half the price.

This is a true 5-speed manual, but there is no clutch pedal.

And it is not one of those automatics you see that bill themselves as having a manual option but which, in fact, shift for you (and when you don't want to) through a torque converter. An aside: these converters are hazardous to anyone who wants to push a car. I had a Buick on Pocono Raceway a couple of years ago. I came down the backstretch of the Winston Cup track, downshifted to power through a tight entry to the road course, gave it gas and, just as I'm biting the apex and want rubber grabbing, it shifted up on me, on its own. Bad, bad joujou.

The SMT won't do that. Other than shifting itself into first when you come to a complete stop, all shifting is up to you.

There are two ways to shift.

First is the standard stick, which operates on A plus and minus basis. Click up, click down.

Second is a set of buttons on the steering wheel labeled Up and Down. The down buttons face the driver and are operated with the thumbs. The up buttons are on the back of the wheel and are pushed with either the middle or index fingers.

The wonder of this transmission is that it does not cripple the car's performance (we're talking a 1.8 liter engine here) the way automatics often limit small engines.

Downshifts are smooth and seamless. Drop into third at even 75 miles per hour and the transmission flows there. Upshifts take some getting used to. If you keep constant pressure on the gas pedal, sensors cut the gas so the engine doesn't over-rev. However, it takes only a slight backing off of the pedal, while the shift is being made, to make upshifts as smooth as you want them. The smoothness comes because the electronic controls modulate the throttle to match engine speed.

This system is not like those found with the dreaded torque-sensors. It really does have a clutch. It's just that this clutch is electronically controlled and hydraulically actuated. Open the driver's door, and you can hear the pump go to work, getting ready for your shifting experience.

Drive, and your clutch action is far smoother than you could ever make it with a pedal.

The Audi CVT is a different beast altogether.

Whether automatic or manual, a transmission comprises gear ratios that have finite ranges. Deliver horsepower and torque to certain levels and it's time to shift. In an automatic, the transmission does the work for you. With a manual, you need a tachometer or a tuned ear to know when to shift.

Audi's CVT does away with all that.

Its transmission - not unlike the belts that operate snowmobiles - is based on pulleys and a chain.

In the past, the challenge for a CVT was torque. Too much torque and belts or chains would slip.

But the advantage, if torque could be overcome, would be that ''gears'' as we know them would be infinite.

And so, as the great philosopher Buzz Lightyear (rewind that ''Toy Story'' tape and watch it) once said: ''To infinity and beyond.''

Audi gets you there with two sets of ''variators'' (Buzz would love that term) - split pulleys, each with separate, moving, convex faces - that drive a multilink steel belt. The belt, nubbed on its outer edges, runs freely between the pulleys but doesn't engage them as a bicycle chain engages sprocket teeth. Instead, it runs freely between the pulleys.

The variators get their name because they do not have fixed diameters. Instead, each split pulley opens and closes depending on demand. If the sides of the pulleys are farther apart, the working diameter of each pulley is shorter. Closer together means a bigger diameter.

As the sides of one pulley compress, the sides of the other open. Voila: a transmission chain slithering on a constantly changing set of pulleys and thus, an infinitely variable drive ratio. Infinity and beyond.

To the driver, this means no sense of engine lugging, of diminishing torque, of the engine whining as it waits to be upshifted. If you drive an automatic, you are no doubt familiar with your car searching up and down for the right gear on long, steep climbs.

That doesn't happen with the CVT and is a prime example of its beauty.

If the old manual transmission is getting rare, at least we can look to the CVT and SMT as worthy successors.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 12/8/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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

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.

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