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Toyota's two-seat MR2 Spyder is a modern sports car with back-to-the-roots feel. Like some Ferraris, its engine is mounted just behind the passenger compartment and ahead of the rear wheels, providing great balance and handling.
Redesigned for the 2000 model year, the big story for 2002 is the SMT model, with its new five-speed sequential manual transmission, which uses no clutch.
The engine's 138 horsepower moves the 2200-pound car briskly, with acceleration from 0 to 60 mph in just under 7 seconds. Toyota's VVT-i engine uses variable-valve timing, but it doesn't generate a big surge of power when it switches to the high-power cam profile. This is good in a small engine, because it means the powerband feels broader. The maximum torque of 125 foot-pounds comes at 4400 rpm, so you have to be in the correct gear to get those revs if you want to zip away without bogging.
The game little engine feels and sounds quite willing to rev beyond 6800 rpm, where the rev limiter kicks in, but that's an illusion because the power peaks at 6400 rpm. At 70 mph, it hums along at 3500 rpm, happily and with no significant vibration. But on a grainy freeway the road noise hums as loud as the engine, apparently from the tires.
The MR2 was discontinued in 1995 because it wasn't selling well, probably because it was too expensive and heavy, using Celica components. So the reborn Spyder is based on the Corolla, employing its MacPherson strut suspension front and rear. This is more than adequate for typical street driving, but hard driving over uneven surfaces tends to expose the limitations of struts, although even the expensive Porsche Boxster uses them.
The MR2's longish wheelbase and moderate spring rates provide a smooth, solid and comfortable ride, jolted only by the ugliest of bumps. The hydraulic power steering is secure and provides good feedback and feel, while the great balance from the mid-engine design generates terrific cornering.
The brakes are sensitive yet easy to modulate, with stopping power that's more than sufficient for sporty street driving. Toyota claims the stopping distance from 70 mph to be a brief 167 feet. We had an unplanned test of the brakes on a rough gravel road that came by surprise at that speed, and we can report that the ABS works well.
The five-speed shifter is good, although it falls just short of the shifters in the Miata, Honda S2000 (exceptional), and BMW Z3, which are front-engine cars. Routing the shift cables around the MR2's mid-placed engine apparently creates just enough drag that the shifter lacks such positive click-click feedback. It is still, however, better than the Boxster's shifter.
We saved the best for last: the new sequential manual transmission. It shifts much like an automatic transmission with a manual mode, in that there is no H-pattern; to upshift you slide the lever back one notch, to downshift you slide it forward. In addition, there are twin buttons on the steering wheel, under each thumb at 3 and 9 o'clock, and in the back where an index or middle finger can click it. This way you can upshift or downshift without taking your hands off the steering wheel, which is useful when you're really really driving hard like the F1 drivers, or when you're eating a hamburger or drinking a cup of coffee or talking on a cellphone.
With the SMT, you can lift off the throttle or keep your foot down when shifting, because electronic management will control the throttle appropriately, if not always smoothly. As a result, upshifts are not nearly as smooth as with a manually controlled automatic because of the snap in deceleration and re-acceleration. In many situations (throttle positions), you can shift more smoothly if you back off the gas and re-accelerate with your own foot, assuming you do a good job of it.
Upshifts aren't particularly fast, either; MR2 racers will never go for this racing-inspired system because it's possible to shift a manual transmission, even with an H-pattern, more quickly. When you shift this sequential very quickly and get back on the gas, the programmed throttle response lags behind your foot.
But downshifts are terrific. The engagement is super smooth, with throttle blips programmed in; sometimes it even blips twice, as if double-clutching. And it won't let you downshift too early, thus preventing over-revving; from
The MR2 Spyder is a great little sports car with impressive technology in the engine, chassis and gearbox. Its acceleration is exciting thanks to its light weight, yet the ride is solid and admirable. It is comfortable and convenient, but its mission is not misguided by luxury. The convertible top lowers in a flash so you can fully enjoy top-down motoring, or suddenly enjoy protection from thunderstorms. And it does it all this for a reasonable price.