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Road and Track / Motor Trend / Auto Week / World of Wheels / EVO #1 / EVO #2

Motor Trend - February 2000

by Jeff Bartlett

For the new century, Toyota is breaking free of its conservative image-with the quirky Echo, striking Celica, and daring MR2 Spyder targeting young new-car buyers. The last of this techno triumvirate to be offered in the States is the mid-engine roadster that's been making appearances around the globe at international auto shows as the countdown continues later this year.

Painfully aware of the market shift in sports cars away from gizmo-laden, high-dollar sport coupes (collective sigh for the dearly departed Supra Turbo), Toyota has jealously watched the long-running success of the Mazda Miata and other, Euro-bred two-seaters. Now the Japanese giant is prepared to enter the fray with a hot, little convertible certain to impact the current sales champs.

We recently had an opportunity to sample a Japanese-market Spyder at Toyota's Mega Web auto-theme park in Tokyo, giving us a taste for the exciting arachnid.

The 2210-pound MR2 Spyder shares the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with "genesis"-mate Celica. Mounted transversely amidship, the all-aluminum, twin cam powerplant produces 138 horses at 6400 rpm, we estimate that's enough to propel it to 0-60-mph times in the low-7-second range. During our speed-limited drive, the Boxster-esque Spyder responded swiftly to throttle input, with the small-displacement engine racing eagerly toward redline, awaiting the next quick row of the short-throw, five-speed shifter.

One of the lightest sports cars made, the 96.5-inch-wheelbase MR2 Spyder is quick and agile without an overdamped suspension or big horsepower numbers. Steering and ride do indeed feel very Miata-like, though the rear-drive and mid-engine placement seemingly conspire to permit even swifter turn-in. On smooth surfaces, we found the MacPherson strut setup felt communicative at modest speeds. Steering effort with the three-spoke wheel was lighter than expected, though not overassisted.

At 153.1 inches stem to stern, the Spyder is not a large car, yet passengers ride low with the window sills at shoulder height. Seats are modestly bolstered with web-textured cloth upholstery that keeps riders planted under harsh maneuvers. Behind the buckets hide a couple cargo wells, perfect for a purse or bachelor's midweek groceries. A clever storage compartment rests in the center dashboard, putting small items close at hand. The manual top operation is simple and efficient, with the folded cloth roof becoming its own neat origami tonneau.

Simple dash design, with a three-pod instrument cluster featuring silver-faced gauges, works with aluminum pedals and tubular door handles to lend a modern aesthetic. Standard power windows and door locks, double-DIN-size AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo, air conditioning, and glass rear window with defroster provide basic creature comforts.

Pressed for details on when the Celica GT-S' 180-horsepower engine and six-speed transmission could be added to the MR2 Spyder offerings, Toyota said, "not in the foreseeable future," reminding us that steep insurance premiums were problematic for the previous supercharged MR2. The focus is on affordable performance with the new car, leaving the exotic enhancements to the creative aftermarket and perhaps, eventually, Toyota Research Development. The car's unit-body construction would lend itself well to bolt-on body kits; replacing the conservative steel panels with exotic Japanimation-inspired pieces could be the MR2's real aftermarket trick, said one Toyota insider.

Expect prices to be on par with the Miata when the MR2 Spyder goes on sale in May, placing the roadster just north of the $20K mark. With only 5000 units planned for the U.S., initial demand will likely be high. And based on our first hands-on experience, it should be.

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