Return of the Toyota MR2 cars
The Toyota MR2 brings back one of the company's most fun cars in a bid for younger drivers. Our bright yellow convertible attracted a great deal of attention, with everyone from toddlers to teenagers wanting to touch it when they thought nobody was looking (that is, when the top was down; when the top was up, it didn't seem to attract as much attention). The styling makes it look sporty but fun, not aggressive but exciting, inside and out, and the MR2 itself did not disappoint us.
Driving the MR2 is a bit like driving a go-cart: you're close to the ground, tiny changes to the steering yield big changes in your direction, and the engine feels directly linked to the throttle. Handling is remarkably un-Toyota-like, sticking to the road like glue with no appreciable body lean, and steering that is incredibly tight. On the highway this makes it skittish, in regular driving very sporty and enjoyable. Sensible power assist makes it easy to steer, but it still requires enough effort to feel sporty and enjoyable. The other side is a jittery ride, but one which is not bone-jarring, as there is still some cushioning.
The little four-cylinder engine puts out a surprisingly high amount of power (138 horses), especially impressive because it isn't all at the high end. It gives a good start and rapidly builds power, with the variable valve timing changing programs more gracefully than on Toyota's own Matrix XRS. The downside is fuel economy lower than one might expect from such a small car, but to be fair, convertibles are heavier than similarly-sized sedans, and the MR2 still does well compared with other sports cars. Acceleration is just over 7 seconds, certainly respectable, with strong and immediate acceleration on tap if you're in the right gear.
The "Mr. 2" was one of the more distinctive and lovable cars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, combining a rear-engine, two-seater design with Toyota reliability. No longer did drivers have to live with European standards of build quality or, worse, British electronics, when choosing an impractical, sporty mid-engined coupe. The MR2 was about as fun as a car could get, combining a nimble suspension with a powerful engine, whether you chose the turbocharger or not. The MR2 was easy to drive so even inexperienced drivers could get away with fast turns, unlike many other sports cars of the time. It was also wildly impractical, without any storage space to speak of, and somewhat expensive at $15,000 without a turbo. Only two years later, the Neon would appear with better acceleration and gas mileage, along with four seats and exemplary handling, albeit with less "driving excitement," at a lower price. But it would take a while - until 2003 - to match the turbo's performance.
The rejuvenated MR2 carries forward the tradition: excellent handling, an engine with lots of go-power, an engine mounted behind the driver, two seats, and very little room. Fortunately, the current MR2 has a capacious glove compartment, on-dash storage bin, and two decently-sized compartments behind the seats, making it more practical in that way than the original. Acceleration is also considerably better than the old non-turbo models. The price is still in roughly the place, compared with other cars, and considering that convertibles are generally more costly than coupes.
Sure, other companies could have done the same; Mazda has their Miata, Chrysler had their Razor and Jazz concepts, and every car show seems filled with fun-looking, high-performing roadsters. But the MR2 was actually produced...just as other companies showed hybrid-electric and fuel cell concepts, but Toyota actually mass-produced them...
The engine noise comes from behind, though the sound isn't as performance-tuned as it was with the previous generation. Under hard acceleration, shifts are rough. This is a sports car that really feels like a sports car, and invites hard driving. Fortunately, it won't punish you for it with bad gas mileage in the way, say, a Mustang or turbocar will.
The MR2 is, in general, much more fun on local streets and country lanes than on expressways, where the steering becomes twitchy, the engine is always revving high, and the wind noise gets loud with the top up. As with most convertibles, a scarf is handy even in moderate weather at higher speeds with the top down, as wind blows at the back of the driver's neck, but that's a trifle.
One of the MR2's more interesting features is the clutchless manual transmission. This is a true manual, with a friction-based clutch, but the actual clutch-out-change-gear-clutch-in operation is handled by the car itself, while the driver tells it to shift up or down via steering wheel pushbuttons or a pretty chrome shifter knob in the usual place. This knob is clearly not for an automatic, because it has no Park or Drive positions - reverse, neutral, plus, and minus are the choices. You start out in neutral, move to S, and then pull to move up a gear or push to move down. Since this is the opposite of every manumatic, we found it easier to simply use the steering wheel controls, which are mounted on both sides of the wheel. We found the transmission much easier to use after discovering that it downshifts automatically when you come to a stop, but have to note that it does not upshift automatically; you hit the rev limiter instead. This is probably to avoid having drivers use the performance trick of simply flooring it with the transmission in first, and letting the computer upshift at each redline.
As actual stick-shift drivers, we were not in love with the system, but eventually got used to it. A real clutch is more flexible and in some ways easier, but the clutchless system may prove popular with American drivers, many of whom do not know how to drive a stick. Part of the problem is Toyota's choice of gear ratios, where sixth gear is actually useful when cruising at a mere 40 mph. With so many gears we'd have hoped they'd spread them out more, so that sixth would be a good highway cruising gear, instead of feeling like an ordinary car's third or fourth. Achieving a normal suburban cruising speed required more shifts than it should, and the shifts could be jarring under moderate acceleration as the computer shut off the gas, went to neutral, shifted, engaged again, and restored fuel. We did appreciate the way it downshifts, blipping the pedal to match engine rpms. But it was still strange after a week of driving to lose so much time to shifting when accelerating, and to have to hold the car on hills.
It took a long time to get the hang of the transmission, and we kept discovering tricks that made it easier. Going to 40 was uncomfortable the conventional way, making six shifts along the way; far better to rev high in first, then skip two or three years by pressing the button several times. When braking, simply staying in gear and letting the car downshift worked well, though if only yielding or turning, it could remain in fifth or fourth, requiring a manual shift to get any power. Dealing with the loss of engine braking while downshifting also took time and practice, but it eventually came to us. As a safety feature, incidentally, the transmission stays in gear when you shut the engine (you have to move it back to N to start) and will automatically stop the car if left rolling in first for too long. In short, while we would have preferred the five-speed manual, it is possible to get used to the six-speed sequential clutchless transmission, and even to enjoy how easy it is to shift under hard acceleration, and how it's impossible to screw up a shift when a machine is doing it for you.
In a car like the MR2, the key question is, "Is it fun?" The answer is "definitely!," much more fun than many other sports cars, including those like the Mustang and Camaro which have higher performance. A lot of that is due to being a convertible, but there's also the size factor. It's just more fun to drive a miniature car than a monster, and that's not just because parking suddenly becomes incredibly easy. It feels more nimble, more willing to dive in and out of lanes, better able to be tossed around curves. Larger convertibles are more refined and, yes, can be used to ferry more than one passenger at a time, or even to get groceries, but the MR2 seems to like being thrown around while larger cars can be wrenched around turns without squeals, but don't seem to like it as much. There's also the matter of gas mileage - with 25 mpg city, 33 highway, the MR2 is hardly the gas mileage king, but it also does better than most cars with this kind of performance, and far better than its German counterparts. We'd expect reliability to be far and away the best in its class.
The MR2's convertible top is easy to take down or put back on, taking only seconds, partly because there's no power feature to slow things down. To remove the top, one lowers the windows, releases two latches (which takes less effort than on many competitors), and then simply pushes the top back and into its compartment; push down and it easily locks in place, with no separate cover required. Putting it back up is also easy, though the windows have to be lowered first. (Either operation can be done from the driver's seat without getting up.) Pull on the latch, then bring the roof over and into place, and snap the latches back on - very carefully, because it's easy to get them just a little out of line, so they look attached but will separate on the highway (fortunately, in our case, not leading to any damage; the problem was obvious and we pulled over immediately, and the roof never came all the way off). We found it very easy to accidentally "partly-latch" the roof, but once we were aware of it, it was also easy to fix each time before we got moving.
It's good that the roof is so easy to take down, because visibility is, as with most convertibles, bad with the roof up. The rear glass window, with electric defroster, is a strong improvement over many older ragtops, but the rear corners are very thick and hard to see around. That, combined with the low driving position, makes backing up and making lane changes difficult. The side mirrors become essential on the highway, and we wish they were larger. On the lighter side, during good weather, visibility is excellent, with essentially no obstructions in any direction. Not all drivers saw us (or maybe some pretended not to), even with the standard daytime running lights, a risk in today's big-SUV-addled society. Fortunately, the MR2's horn loudness is out of proportion to its size, and its acceleration and nimble handling make accidents more avoidable.
The MR2 has a moderately crowded interior, with all the functions of a modern car compressed into a small space. Behind the seats (which must be folded forward for access) are two locking cabinets which can stow relatively large items, while a spacious locking glove compartment and sizable dashtop console can hold smaller things. There is also a pullout cupholder set, which seems fairly sturdy for its type. There are also map pockets on each door, a coin holder which is lots of fun if you like to hear the jingle of coins as you drive, and an ashtray. Under the hood, there is actually a good amount of space on top of the spare tire. There is no space in the trunk, which is filled by an engine borrwed from the Corolla.
Most controls are logical and in sensible positions, including a well placed cruise stalk. The climate control system is very well designed, with a separate button for air conditioning (which should, but does not, light up when you choose the defrost mode). The system is easy to use and very intuitive. The stereo is standard Toyota, with a very large face and excellent, clear sound. It is easy to operate, though the audio control knob does require either memorization (to know how many pushes gets you to a particular control) or the driver's attention. A dual cassette/CD player is standard. The power window controls are a bit awkward, placed a distance away from each other between the seats, and there is no power door control, though to be fair the doors lock and unlock automatically, and there are only two of them.
The instrument panel is clear and easy to read, with the tachometer taking the prize position in center, and a 140 mph speedometer putting implication over substance, since all legal speeds are crowded together into a small space. The gauges are black on silver, easy to read in all types of light, sunk deep into their pods to avoid reflection.
The seats include high backs to protect against neck injury in an accident, with the driver's seat having a manual height control. If you flip the seats forward to get to the cargo bins, they return to a default position, not where you set them.
Concessions to the MR2's unusual design are scattered here and there. The remote gas cap and trunk release are in the usual place, with a lock by the trunk release since thieves could otherwise simply tear the top to get at the release. Inside the locking glove compartment is a simple pull handle for the hood, and the key-operated passenger airbag shutoff - very useful if you want to transport children, or even if you mostly drive alone and don't want to replace both airbags after an accident. Amusingly, the Toyota MR2 is the best car we've tested so far for installing our child seat, which fit as snugly as it could using the LATCH system. This is actually a great car for kids, who love sitting up next to their parents, being able to see out the windshield, and even, if they are old enough and you are adventurous enough, to shift. Kids also like riding in a car that has no roof, and if you have an infant or toddler to put into a child seat, it's easier to drop them down into it from above than to lean through a door. Still, surviving an accident in an MR2, despite the safety features, may be somewhat harder than in a minivan, even if avoiding an accident is easier.
There is good headroom, especially with the top down, but legroom is limited for the passenger, especially if they have big feet - there's little room above the floor as you move forward. The seat belts are positioned low, and are hard to reach unless you use the opposite arm to bring them out. There is no roll bar, though to be fair, the MR2 has a low center of gravity and is unlikely to roll in most conditions.
It's hard to get a simple overview of a car like this, which is so unusual and in so many ways paradoxical. The MR2 is lots of fun, but would be even more fun with a real stickshift. It certainly attracts attention, and makes everyday jaunts into exciting adventures. Yet, it's easy to live with.
To a degree, our old review still holds: The MR2 is a wonderful toy, but for most people, the constraints of any MR2 (MR2=Mid-engined Runabout, 2 seats) make it impractical as a primary car. It's good for commuting, if you don't do a lot of highway miles, and it's a fun second car. Selling in the mid-$20,000s, including lots of options (air conditioning, stereo, remote, etc.), it's reasonably priced for its class, far cheaper than, say, a Porsche Boxter - and, unlike a German "cachet" car, a Toyota MR2 is likely to be very well-made and easy to find parts for if it does fail. While the engine bay is cramped and the engine itself is hard to reach, there aren't many maintenance items, and Toyotas have been consistently well-made, with no "lemons" a la Honda Odyssey and del Sol, Mercedes ML, etc. We suspect many of the parts will interchange with the Corolla and Celica, which may be good for availability and price compared with more exotic two-seat roadsters. Some may prefer the Mazda Miata, which has more interior space, but we really do recommend taking the MR2 out for a spin.
A week with the Volkswagen Beetle Convertible was ... no contest. The Bug does have more trunk space and two sortofkindof usable rear seats, but it isn't as much fun to drive, and the base engine just can't compete with the MR2. Even the optional and inexpensive active suspension doesn't bring the MR2's go-cart feel, and the interior of the Beetle is...annoying, particularly the too-low seat belts.
There are a surprising number of two-seat convertibles and roadsters out there. The MR2, despite its flaws, is a good buy, and its rarity will help to attract notice wherever it goes - especially if you keep the top down.
At $23,098, the Spyder used the same engine as the new Celica GT, with 138 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque and variable valve timing to boost responsiveness at low speeds. The result was an incredible 0-60 speed of 6.95 seconds, right in Maxima territory but with better handling and gas mileage (about 25/30). Its 70-to-0 braking space of 167 feet is more than competitive, and may save a few MR2s given their superb acceleration.
The Spyder was rear wheel drive. It had a five-speed manual transmission - or, later, a manually controlled sequential semi-automatic.
To keep the price low, Toyota only allowed dealer-installed options. Standard features included a cassette/CD player, air conditioning, antilock brakes, power windows and locks, and a rear defroster.
Toyota said only 5,000 would be made each year.