Along Came a Spyder
An MR-Spyder; from Toyota of all places, is due here in early '00 By Mark Vaughn
WHAT THE...? Toyota's having fun again? What the heck's going on here? There hasn't been any fun at Toyota since, since when? Since the Supra got the ax after the '98 model year? Since the MR-2 was dropped almost five years ago? Now Toyota is supposed to be the company that builds bulletproof, practical, somewhat boring-to-look-at sedans and mini-vans - vehicles perfect for families but usually not anything that inspires passion. Nothing you would buy on impulse right after the divorce, for instance, or when you just realized you were having a midlife crisis ("I just don't care anymore - I'm buying the XLE!"). This little convertible roadster might change that perception.
Toyota division chief Don Esmond said the MR-Spyder was "designed to immediately impact how consumers think about Toyota products." That's Toyota-speak for passion. Imagine saying to your date, "I would like to immediately impact how you think about me, baby." Passion isn't something that comes naturally to this mega-manufacturer. Practicality, value, durability, yes, but passion?
We got a chance to find out during a photo shoot in Southern California. We piloted the very same MR-Spyder pre-production prototype that would be on the Toyota stand at the Frankfurt motor show. There weren't many of these - maybe two altogether, we guessed, so it was our job to drive the MR-Spyder back and forth at about 15 mph, down one direction, turn around carefully, check for traffic, then drive back. This was no road test - and certainly not a drive sanctioned by Toyota. But the road twisted on ahead, through two turns and disappeared around a corner. We wanted to go. What could they do? Call the cops?
The first thing we noticed about the MR-Spyder was the power-to-weight ratio. At just 2200 pounds, it's one of the lightest sports cars made. That alone promises all kinds of tossability when we have a real drive in it, with responsiveness and steering feel, not to mention less passionate stuff like good gas mileage.
The power for this sports car comes from the same 1.8-liter twin-cam four-cylinder that sits in the new Celica. The difference is that the Celica application has the engine sitting transversely in front, while in Mr. Spyder it sits transversely behind the two seats and forward of the rear axle. That means excellent balance (though weight distribution figures aren't out yet).
The VVT-i variable valve timing, which adjusts the timing, lift and duration of the intake and exhaust cams to provide maximum power for low, medium and high engine speeds, spreads the engine's power and torque across much wider bands than they would be with fixed cam timing. So when you stand on the gas and go, the MR-Spyder will respond quickly, before anyone can say, "Hey, where the @#*&# do you think you're going?"
Peak horsepower is 140 and peak torque is 127 lb-ft. With this being a pre-production prototype, Toyota had not released the engine speeds at which those peaks are achieved (they had to save something for Frankfurt).
The particular Spyder we drove didn't have the all-new sequential five-speed manual sport-shift transmission of the Tokyo and Chicago show cars. Ours just had a regular five-speed manual gearbox. Toyota won't even say whether production MR-Spyders will get the fancy new transmission. That might be fine.
The transmission in the car we drove was easy and smooth to operate and engaged about as simply as the best shifters on the market. Matching revs and changing gears smoothly was about as easy to do on this car as on anything we've ever driven.
The unibody felt tight, there was no shifting of secondary chassis loads around corners or over bumps. Earlier, when we'd crawled underneath and poked around, we found some interesting stiffening methods used on the Spyder body. Tubular steel stiffeners ran crisscross all over the car: from the suspension mounts to the body; from forward of the semi-trailing arms up to the midsection of a crossmember; from the front crossmember to the main body (four of them); diagonally across the engine bay (two welded together where they intersected). It was a unique solution to body rigidity. It almost looked like they were all added after the main design to increase the torsional rigidity and bending resistance, maybe because someone decided this had to be a convertible, but that would be a question we'd have to ask of the chief engineer at the real press introduction. Whatever its origins, the finished body felt sound.
And the car was fun to drive, reminiscent of the original MR-2. Had we been given an open track instead of a short stretch of semi-winding road along the beach, it felt as if the car could be throttle-steered, adjusting understeer or oversteer through a corner with appropriately timed use of the gas pedal. More spirited driving will tell for sure.
The suspension consisted of struts at all four wheels, the fronts controlled by lower stamped steel A-arms and the rears by lower parallel arms with semi-trailing arms.
Brakes were four-wheel vented discs with two-piston calipers. Tires on the car we drove were Yokohama 205/50R-15s mounted on five-spoke alloy wheels. The wheels looked nice.
THE BODY, WELL... For all the svelte shapes that could make up a two-seat roadster, all the shapes that designers probably had on their sketchpads, Toyota chose one from its Tokyo design lab that is more boxy than smooth. Proportionally the Spyder looks like the Porsche Boxster, which is good. It has the same short rear overhang, stubby corners and squat, ready-to-leap looks that a roadster should have. But the MR-Spyder's lines suggest more a mix of roundedness and New Edge that doesn't meld together as effortlessly as it could. The Boxster, for instance, is all smooth undulation, with no edginess to it, and hearkens back to the 550 Spyder of the 1950s. The Miata is nicely rounded all over. The Z3 has a shark-like cohesion to all its parts. The S2000 went all New Edge and did it well. The MR-Spyder looks a bit confused. But we weren't complaining. We snuck back into the photo shoot claiming we'd been "scouting locations," an explanation that was miraculously accepted. The question is whether the MR-Spyder will be accepted in the U.S. marketplace. Beachgoers liked it.
"It looks awesome," said one guy in a Mustang.
"That's sure pretty," said an empty-nester.
"I thought it was a Porsche," said a woman with a 4Runner. "It's cute, huh?"
The price will help it. Toyota says the MR-Spyder will be priced "well under" the $40,000-plus sticker of the Boxster, competing with the Miata, which stickers in the low-20s or with Honda's S2000, at about $30,000. That bodes well for Mr. Spyder. Unlike the spider in the Little Miss Muffet poem, this Spyder can't afford to frighten any buyers away.
AutoWeek, September 20, 1999