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ROAD & TRACK

Driving Impression TOYOTA MR2 Spyder
An affordable mid-engine roadster to challenge the Miata By Sam Mitani


Despite riding a long, colossal wave of financial profit, Toyota has been noticeably absent from the enthusiast-car market the past few years. After its image-inspiring sports cars - namely the Supra and MR2 - were condemned to the proverbial sepuku sword in the U.S., the Japanese car-manufacturing giant seemed quite content producing straightforward cars and trucks rather than anything with pizazz. It made one wonder, was Toyota gradually becoming a family-car maker only?

Perish the thought. A conversation recently with the chief engineer of Toyota's sports-car development center, Tadashi Nakagawa, revealed that the company never abandoned the idea of producing sports cars.

"Toyota long ago realized that it needed sporty cars to uphold a strong public image, and the company has been tirelessly at work reestablishing that image," he said.

Nakagawa-san should know because he is one of the primary players leading this sports-car charge. "I am a sports-car enthusiast and a big fan of the European makes of the Fifties and Sixties. For me, they represent the romance of motoring. I plan on instilling the qualities of those cars into ours."

Last month ("Pocket Rockets Resurrected"), we at R&T witnessed firsthand this newfound spirit in the form of the 2000 Celica, a car that left us duly impressed and the competition in the dust. Next year, Toyota will keep the tide rolling with a more ambitious sports-car venture, one that takes the company into the heart of the affordable-roadster segment…into Mazda Miata country.

The compact Toyota roadster has been no stranger to the pages of Road & Track. We have chronicled the developmental stages of this 2-seater for nearly two years (most recently in March 1999), watching it take shape from the MR-S show car - introduced at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show - to the MR-Spyder prototype to the car you see here: the MR2 Spyder.

Why did we find the MR2 Spyder so intriguing? Simple. It conforms to the age-old sports-car adage of "low weight/great handling." Toyota engineers employed a number of weight-saving techniques to make the MR2 Spyder the lightest car in its class, such as incorporating tubular steel stiffeners instead of solid beams and opting for a manually operated top. The MR2 Spyder tips the scales at a lean 2,150 lb., more than 100 lb. lighter than the Miata. However, the MR2 Spyder's exterior dimensions are virtually identical to those of the Mazda, with an overall length, width and height of 152.9, 66.7 and 48.2 in., respectively. But the car actually looks larger in the flesh, thanks to its long, 96.4-in. wheelbase and extremely short front and rear overhangs.

As for the MR2 Spyder's styling, the words "Porsche Boxster" come immediately to mind. In the Zuffenhausen spirit, the new Toyota features large glass-covered headlights sitting atop a narrow grille in front, while air vents, just aft of the doors, highlight the car's sides. The look of the rear is more distinctive, with an overall rectangular shape and large square taillights.

The interior is minimalist. The instrument panel features three straightforward gauges with the tachometer prominently located in the middle. The dashboard design is straightforward if not artistic, with large knobs and buttons for the ventilation and stereo systems at about chest level. In fact, everything about the car seems to have been designed with function in mind. That said, the MR2 Spyder won't be winning any endorsements from Samsonite, for luggage space is virtually nonexistent. The spare tire occupies the entire front trunk, and small compartments behind the seats are good for holding a couple of duffel bags at most.

Although the official North American drive of the MR2 Spyder is still a few months away, Toyota launched the car in Japan last month. And once again, the forces of nature swept me into the land of the rising sun, this time right into the driver's seat of the new 2-seat convertible.

Turn the key and the engine behind you comes vibrantly to life. Mounted transversely amidships, Toyota's 1.8-liter 16-valve inline-4, which also sees duty in the base Celica, features the company's variable-valve-timing technology (VVT-i) and comes mated to a 5-speed manual transmission. And it has plenty of power on tap, producing 140 bhp at 6400 rpm and 127 lb.-ft. of torque at 4400.

Throw the shifter into 1st, stomp the throttle pedal, and the little Toyota snaps off the line, lighting up its rear Yokohama 205/50R-15 tires. The sudden forward jolt will no doubt catch the unwary by surprise - your torso is pressed back into the seat and the accelerative force doesn't let up until you hit the 6800 rpm redline. The shift to 2nd is met with another tire chirp and forward jolt. Traveling through the gears is a simple task, with the transmission's well-defined gates and the shifter's short throws. By my stopwatch, the MR2 Spyder reached 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds and the quarter-mile mark in roughly 15.5. (One can only wonder how quick the MR2 Spyder would be with the Celica GT's 180-bhp inline-4.)

But if you really want to know what the new Toyota is all about, take it to the nearest twisty road…the twistier the better. Dive into a corner, and the first thing you notice is the precision of the car's electro-hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion steering, which is wonderfully quick and communicative. Combine that with the car's taut suspension system - MacPherson struts up front and struts with transverse links at the rear - and you have a car with exceptionally crisp turn-in and little body roll. Although the car understeers slightly through razor-sharp hairpins, it stays well balanced through tight left/right transitions and long sweepers. Oversteer is easily induced by mashing the throttle, or lifting abruptly, in mid-corner; this, the result of its rear-wheel-drive layout and 44/56 front/rear weight distribution.

With the emergence of the MR2 Spyder - scheduled to hit showroom floors sometime in the spring of 2000 - Toyota is definitely back on the sports-car scene. And with a base price of about $20,000, the MR2 Spyder is sure to make foreheads sweat in Mazda's corporate boardrooms. Whether it will dethrone the current king of affordable roadsters remains to be seen, but I'm sure of one thing: That wave Toyota has been riding just got a little bigger.

GENERAL DATA
Curb weight est. 2,150 lb.
Weight distribution 44/56
Wheelbase 96.4 in.
Track, f/r 58.1 in./57.5 in.
Length 152.9 in.
Width 66.7 in.
Height 48.2 in.

ENGINE
Type aluminum block & head, inline-4
Valvetrain DOHC, 4 valve/cyl.
Displacement 1,794 cc
Bore and stroke 79.0 mm x 91.5 mm
Compression ratio 10.0:1
Horsepower (SAE) 140 bhp @ 6,400 rpm
Torque 127 lb.-ft. @ 4,400 rpm
Fuel injection electronic sequential port
Transmission 5-speed manual

CHASSIS & BODY
Layout mid-engine/rear drive
Body/frame unit body/pressed steel
Suspension
Front: MacPherson struts, lower L-arms, coil springs, tube shocks, anti-roll bar
Rear: struts, dual transverse links, trailing links, coil springs; tube shocks, anti-roll bar
Brakes vented discs with vacuum assist
Steering rack & pinion electro-hydraulic variable assist
Overall ratio 16.6:1
Turns, lock to lock 2.7
Wheels cast alloy; 15 x 6JJ f, 15 x 6 1/2JJ r
Tires 185/55R-15 81V f, 205/50R-15 85V r

ESTIMATED PERFORMANCE
1- 60 mph 7.5 sec.
0 - 1,320 ft. (1/4 mile) 15.5 sec.
Top speed 130 mph
Fuel economy, city/hwy 26/32 mpg

Copyright ©1999 Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The view from Japan

The new MR-S, or MR2 Spyder in the U.S., must be about the chummiest lightweight, mid-engine, open sports car on earth. Which is exactly what Tadashi Nakagawa, chief engineer for the new roadster, wanted it to be. In short, Nakagawa, who was also responsible for the second-generation MR2 and the new Celica, aimed at reviving the spirit, character and above all affordability of the original MR2.

The Japanese MR-S weighs all of 2,115 lb. (slightly less than the U.S. version). With 140 bhp on tap, the MR-S has a favorable 15.1 lb. per bhp. The car has a long wheelbase, with all major mechanical components placed within the axles. This configuration ensures good straight-line stability and handling agility. Also, all outer panels are steel and bolted onto the sturdy unit-body, which allows for easy access to the car's innards to facilitate repairs and replacements. The bodyshell draws its strength from a pair of oversize side sills, twice as big in section as normal, plus other longitudinal rails secured by crossmembers.

The gearbox of the new Toyota is a lightweight 5-speed manual, with a conventional shift pattern. The concept cars shown at the Tokyo and Chicago auto shows featured a clutchless, sequential 6-speed transmission; however, it won't be available on the production model because its shift quality was not up to Toyota's standards. The company could have incorporated the 6-speed gearbox from the Japanese front-wheel-drive high-performance Corolla coupe, but decided not to because it would have added more than 10 lb. to the car's curb weight. A helical-gear limited-slip differential is an option.

The manual soft top is quite clever in design, and its midsection, when folded, neatly fills the bay without need for a tonneau. It also has a heating-wire-imprinted glass rear window. A detachable hardtop is available. Perhaps the most significant technical facet about he MR-S is that it's not overly technical. It's basic and simple exactly what a true sports car should be.
- Jack Yamaguchi

Remembering the first Mister Two

Why a Japanese automaker didn't do it sooner we'll never know, but in 1985 the original mid-engine Toyota MR2 bulldozed the affordable sports-car segment with the force of a runaway locomotive. By cleverly rearranging existing parts - a Corolla front-wheel-drive drivetrain and suspension moved just aft of the two seats, the rear-drive Corolla GT-S's 116-bhp 4A-GELU 16-valve inline-4 spliced in, albeit transversely - Toyota introduced a generation of enthusiasts to the joys of low-polar-movement, mid-engine motoring. More nimble than the Pontiac Fiero (and at 8.9 seconds to 60 mph, a full 2.7 sec. Quicker than GM's 4-cylinder model) and vastly more roomy and reliable than the Bertone (nee Fiat) X1/9, the MR2 was also one of the more practical, its trunk behind the engine large enough to accommodate two golf bags and its nose featuring a deep oddment space in front of the space-saver spare.

A supercharged iteration with a Roots-type blower followed in 1988, with 145 bhp and 7.0-sec. 0-to-60 time. And the MR2's second version came in model-year 1991 with a slightly upsized (and 500 lb. heavier) version that resembled a Lilliputian Ferrari 328, right down to the 5-spoke alloy wheels introduced in 1993 1/2, at which time the rear suspension was also modified for less toe change through its travel to alleviate some tail-happiness. Engine choices were the Celica's 135-bhp 2.2-liter inline-4 and a 2.0-liter turbocharged four producing an impressive 200 bhp. Sadly, fickle demand for Toyota's 2-seater hastened its exit from the U.S. market at the end of 1995.

Which brings us to the spiritual successor to the original MR2, the new MR2 Spyder, which should sell for slightly more than half of the next-most-affordable mid-engine car sold in the U.S., the Porsche Boxster.
- Douglas Kott


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