The world leader in mass-market
cars seems to be an unlikely source for a small mid-engined two-seater designed
purely for fun. And if the idea seems a little odd now, think how bizarre it must
have looked when the original bounced onto the scene in the '80s. Corolla fwd
drivetrain and suspension slotted in behind a pair of seats with transverse engine
and rear-wheel drive, and hey presto: space, pace and reliability to outshine
the Bertone/Fiat X1/9. It was a cracker.
The second-generation MR2 courted controversy through being bigger and plusher
-; but added a healthy power boost. Many were dismissive, but in our road test
of January 1991 we found that the more you drove it, the more you liked it. Sadly,
none were officially imported.
It's been awfully quiet since the MR-S show car back at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show,
but finally that concept has reached production in distinctly back-to-the-roots
fashion. As a spyder, with manual fabric drop-top and optional hardtop. And to
coincide with Toyota South Africa's 40th birthday celebrations, a total of 500
SA-spec examples are being brought in.
Whereas its predecessor looked like a scaled-down Ferrari, the 2001-vintage MR2
has neat, boxy lines reminiscent of a squared-off Porsche Boxster. Those outsize
headlights, slit grille and prominent air intakes in the flanks certainly suggest
a nod to Zuffenhausen.
With its undeniably Noddyish cuteness and relative rarity, the MR2 rates high
on pose value. But there's more. Lightweight body, rasping engine note, almost
telepathically quick steering response, g-defying grip, unyielding ride, outlook
well below navel height... it's a sports car, all right. Granted, there are
concessions to the real world: for one thing, the power-unit is high-tech and
efficient, but anonymous.
But the MR2 is still quick enough, too nimble by far, and cheeky-looking with
it. Instead of having you falling out at the end of a trip, drenched in elated
I've-just-experienced-supercar-Nirvana sweat, its infectious abilities will bring
out a bemused smile, a chuckle and even a guffaw while you're driving.
Like many classics before it, and like Formula One cars, with its mass concentrated
around its mid-engined centre the MR2 enjoys what the techno-literate would term
a low polar moment of inertia. For the non-geeks, that means when you want to
turn... it turns. There's no extraneous fat creating a pendulum effect.
No soggy front-drive nosing outward. No rear-drive squirm and push. It almost demands a reappraisal
of driving technique. Just point it, put your foot down, and apart from a mild
nose-on feeling, a lightness about the front end, it just squats, grips, and scoots
around sensationally. Should you feel tempted to experiment with your right foot,
nailing the accelerator pedal (or lifting off sharply) can result in entertaining
-; and entirely controllable and catchable -; powersliding tail-out antics
when conditions are right.
Designing for lightness in the safety-conscious present day means boxing clever
by specifying tubular steel stiffening instead of solid beams, and a manually
operated top instead of a motorised one. Motorised tops are pretty common in roadsters
these days, but manual operation -; presumably on grounds of weight and cost -;
needn't in principle be a problem. However, the degree of brute force required
to fix the hood in place could be severely off-putting to potential buyers. Also,
there's no tonneau, and with quite a gap around the hood and its mechanism when
folded into its bay, there must be concern about the ingress of contaminants such
as dust and moisture.
With the optional hardtop in place, predictably travel is quieter at high speeds
than with the folding top. But look on the bright side: the noise may be intrusive,
yet beyond a certain point it doesn't get radically worse with increasing speed
and never actually becomes unbearable. We would rate noise levels as reasonable,
considering what else you're getting. Those who enjoy their top-down motoring,
irrespective of season, will be glad to know that the miniscule fold-up windshield
on the rear bulkhead really does make a difference, and the heater vents are perfect
for keeping hands warm, hood down, in winter.
Initial impression of the interior ambience is a feeling of quality, although
some found the cabin claustrophobic with the fabric hood up. On closer inspection
the blend of plastics and the décor are, well, indifferent. Luggage, the designers
reckoned, was not a priority in the likely MR2 owner's life. So a jacket or two,
perhaps a shopping bag, is all you can squeeze into the lockers behind the front
seats. In the front trunk there's space for little more than a couple of sandwiches
alongside the space-saver spare wheel. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps
this is minimalism taken too far.
Controls and instruments are sporty, jazzy, and plasticky in the best Japanese
tradition. With little regard for ergonomics, either. But the night-time instrument
lighting in the trio of deeply hooded dials (the rev counter centrally mounted)
ahead of the driver got a firm thumbs-up. At night, the inside edges of the oversized
headlights frame the view out the front in a quaintly old-fashioned way.
Standard fitments include air-conditioner and four-speaker premium radio/CD frontloader,
tempered glass rear window with demister, power windows (one-touch on the driver's
side) and exterior rear-view mirrors. Drilled aluminium pedals round off the sporty
image and, by the way, are laid out just nicely for those blipped heel-'n-toe
The usual rigid reinforced steel body with front and rear crumple zones is supplemented
by side impact beams and dual front airbags. The seats have a "whiplash
injury lessening" design.
In view of its compact dimensions, one might be forgiven for thinking that the
MR2 would be suited to compact people only. In fact, our tallest tester pronounced
the space quite acceptable. The two buckets are snug and supportive in the best
roadster tradition. And they need to be.
With the quick, precise steering, this really is a zippy car in traffic. Our team
differed on the overall ride comfort, with most rating it firm, but acceptable,
and one dismissing it as "bloody hard". The price you pay for the flat cornering,
talkative steering and intuitive responses...
In standing-start sprints, dropping the clutch at ridiculous revs simply causes
the rear to dip, there's the hint of a hesitation as the wheels decide they don't
really want to light up, and then they dig in and the little Toyota springs forward.
Although there is no electronic traction control as such, a limited slip diff
Batting up and down through the gearbox is effortless, although the shift quality
lacks the businesslike click-clack feel and precision of some of the competition.
Slightly shorter throws would help, too.
The engine is raucous when revved, penetrating to the interior rather more easily
than its location might suggest. Once on the boil, it's pretty responsive, at
the expense of some noise.
A bit more crackle and zing to the engine note might go some way towards making
up for the racket.
The transverse d-o-h-c 16-valve 1,8-litre power-unit, which features Toyota's
VVT-I variable valve timing, needs a little stirring to turn on the charm. More
than one of our team wondered wistfully just how the MR2 would feel (and sound)
with something more performance-oriented under the louvred rear lid.
Still, against the clock the MR2 is quick by any standards. From standstill it
zips to 100 km/h -; requiring a shift into third gear -; in 8,32 seconds
and clips the standing kilometre mark in under 30 seconds. Top speed, averaged
both ways, just edges over the 200-km/h mark. Incidentally, we conducted our tests
with the fabric roof locked in position. We weren't able to hook up our
flowmeter, but according to official legally required consumption figures the
MR2 does a passable 10,1 litres/100 km overall.
If that's all that there was to the MR2, you would be entitled to say, "So what?" The simple fact is that you'd struggle to find more fun on four wheels.
And all that with the kind of running gear found in your average Corolla: MacPherson
struts up front and struts with transverse links at the rear. Of course, that
weight distribution helps. On our scales, excluding test gear and with a full
tank, the MR2 registered a weight split of 58 per cent rear and 42 per cent front;
the proportion shifts to virtually 50:50 with two aboard.
Smaller overall than the previous model, the MR2 has a 50 mm longer wheelbase.
That fact, coupled with short overhangs front and rear, a mid-engined layout and
overall reduction in weight, helps create a vehicle that is remarkably quick to
react around its centre point without feeling unduly twitchy.
Finally, braking from the all-ventilated-disc ABS-assisted system is stupendous.
In our 100 km/h-to-zero emergency stop routine the MR2 clocked an average of 2,7
seconds: that's between 33 and 34 metres. Incidentally, the rubberware is Bridgestone
Potenza asymmetrical, with 205/50s at the rear and 185/55s in front.
Original article from Car