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Car reviews - Toyota - MR2 - Spyder convertible

Our Opinion

We like
Back to basics, light-weight, sharp handling
Room for improvement
Fussy semi-automated gearbox, lack of luggage space, slabby looks

15 May 2001

THIS might be the third generation MR2, but there's also a few firsts here.

The first Toyota designed from inception to be a convertible, the first Toyota with sequential-shift manual transmission and perhaps most importantly, a lot more in common with the first generation MR2 than the second.

That first MR2 was a small, mid-engined coupe which exploited light weight and dynamic ability to surprise and delight drivers with a sporting bent.

The second generation car was bigger, heavier, more powerful and more expensive, and its audience shrunk as the price blew out to around $60,000.

Now, minimalist is back in fashion. The engine has shrunk in size, the pricetag has dropped significantly and the car even appears truncated compared to its swooping predecessor. There's also been careful attention paid to equipment levels. For instance, air-conditioning is an option!

With peak power of 103kW, the Spyder's 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine is 10kW down on the latest Mazda MX-5, but at 975kg it's more than 100kg lighter and therefore right in the ballpark when it comes to power to weight.

And there's plenty of familiarity with the MX-5 experience when you drop the top and go for a burn down a winding country road in the Spyder.

The grip of the front-end and the feel communicated back through the steering wheel are excellent, as is the accuracy of the steering. The only thing that takes some time to get used to is the rear-end which can feel a little floaty, but you soon realise it's going to stick - unless you are really pushing very hard.

The package does deteriorate when the going gets bumpy and rutted, however. There's a tendency for tram-tracking and the front-end can struggle to retain controlled contact with the bitumen. Throw bumps in when you're braking heavily or jumping on and off the throttle and you can feel the Spyder getting a little confused.

Then there's the clutchless manual gearbox. The downshifts are simply superb, complete with a computer-generated blip on the throttle as you engage the gear. Upchanges, however, are too slow particularly if you choose to leave your foot flat on the accelerator.

You really need to lift just as you're pulling the higher gear and then it's noticeably smoother and quicker.

Several members of our test team have commented that the second and third gear ratios seem a little too wide for attacking driving on winding roads. Second will run out of puff just too soon, third seems just too tall. And the gearbox's computer management system will not let you shift down early and use some engine braking if it calculates you are going to over-rev the engine.

Instead, you have to rely on the disc brakes equipped with anti-lock - handy that they are strong on power and feel - to slow you for corners. Only when the revs have died away can you change down and boot the car through the corner.

Oh for a manual gearbox!

That's not such a cry around town where the lack of a clutch pedal is a help rather than a hinderance, although the ability to go full auto in town would probably be the best solution.

And forget about the E-shift buttons on the steering wheel, the gearlever is much easier to use.

All the while, growling away behind your left ear is an eager, hard-revving and smooth little engine - an obvious aural indication that the MR2's traditional mid-mounted engine layout has been retained.

It's an enthusiastic if reasonably noisy little twin cam 16-valve unit which employs variable valve timing technology (VVTi is what Toyota calls it) to deliver honest and flexible performance over a reasonably wide range.

Independent testing has shown that the MR2 Spyder accelerates to 100km/h in about 8.8 seconds and zips through the quarter mile in about 16.4 seconds. That's right in the ballpark for this category.

Moving inside the cockpit and the presentation is a curious mix of sports car theme and Toyota parts bin. There's chrome rings around the air-conditioning dials, black on silver instrument dials with the tacho centrally mounted, that silver knob of a gearshift lever and comfortable body-hugging sports seats.

Yet the audio system head unit is from the styling house that brought you Camry - nothing bespoke there. The presentation is dark, the plastics quite hard and the silver tubing mounted as door grabs could be from your grandmother's bathroom.

On the more practical side, storage space is extremely limited. The front "boot" is a joke, the sliding compartment behind the seats struggles to accommodate a briefcase such are the impracticalities of its shape and the door pockets are only good for a mobilephone.

On the flipside, the glovebox is commodious and you get three cupholders - in a two passenger car.

But the real test of a convertible is the roof. It's a manual system which is easy to use and earns more points for having a glass rear window. With the top down, windows up, the pop-up wind breaker in place and you nestled down into the low seating position this is a cosy environment in which to go for a blast.

It looks good too, a trait not all convertibles can boast when the top's lopped or added back on. In fact, as has been commented far and wide, there's more than a little Porsche Boxster to the styling.

And, happily, there's just a little Boxster in the drive experience too.

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