Toyota is having something of a sports car renaissance right now. The Supra is coming back soon with a manual transmission. The affordable, flying GR 86 is in its second and best generation. It even completes 10 years on the market. Toyota even created two rally-inspired all-wheel-drive hot hatches, the GR Yaris for most of the world and the bigger, more powerful GR Corolla for the U.S. There’s one famous Toyota sports car that has yet to be revived , though: the Toyota MR2.
Yes, there have been rumors for years that Toyota’s mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive Porsche-for-the-people would return, but none of them have come to fruition. That leaves the last MR2 we got the MR2 Spyder. It was a departure in many ways compared to its predecessors. It wasn’t even called the MR2 in its home market, where it was actually called the MR-S (for Midship Runabout Sports, rather than Midship Runabout 2-Seater). Some other markets also took on the MR-S name. A farcical story has it that Toyota rejected the MR2 name in France because it sounded like a word for “nonsense”. It was the only model offered only as a convertible with a soft top and the only one to have a single naturally aspirated engine. Still, the MR2 Spyder was a fun, lightweight sports car with the truest feel that should remain on enthusiasts’ radars for years to come.
Why is the Toyota MR2 Spyder a future classic?
There is a lot about the MR2 Spyder that makes it unique, fun and collectible. Mid-engined economy cars have always been unusual. In part, it’s not a very practical design that would work well for other cars, so it’s almost always expensive to develop, and so they end up being more expensive cars to begin with. As such, something as affordable as the MR2 Spyder is something special.
The same layout, however, is great for sports cars. It can help maintain even weight distribution. Under acceleration, there is more weight to the rear, providing better traction. The nose is light and more responsive and can be set low for excellent visibility. All of that applies to the MR2 Spyder, and it’s enhanced by the car’s light weight (just under 2,200 pounds with a regular manual and a bit more with the sequential transmission) and its convertible roof. This fun, open driving experience is the biggest appeal of the MR2 Spyder.
This convertible roof made it unique among MR2s as well. The first and second generation cars were offered from the factory as coupes with optional removable roof panels. either T-tops or full targa tops. But with the exception of a handful of special second-generation convertibles, the Spyder is the only model ever offered with a retractable soft top, the only roof option.
Beyond that, it’s also a distinctive-looking car, partly because of this engine layout, but also because of the styling. It has huge, cheerful headlights and a low, aggressive grille. And the rear intakes and vents make the exotic powertrain arrangement apparent.
What is the ideal example of the MR2 Spyder?
Almost any MR2 Spyder will be a solid choice as it didn’t change much during its lifetime. For the first two years, it was only available with a five-speed manual transmission, and then in 2002, Toyota introduced an unusual five-speed sequential manual. The following year, the sequential manual was upgraded to six gears. This transmission was really a single clutch automated manual transmission, not an automatic or dual clutch torque converter. Also, interestingly, he did not they have full automatic mode, so the driver will have to operate the stick to request different gears. According to Toyota’s press materials, this was done to keep the price of the gearbox reasonable for the car.
Along with the six-speed sequential manual came a visual refresh applied to later years of the MR2 Spyder. And in 2004, the MR2 gained an optional helical limited-slip differential. Regardless of the year, every MR2 was paired with the same naturally aspirated 1.8-liter four-cylinder that produced 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. This engine also appeared in many other Toyotas of the era, including the Corolla, Matrix, and the entry-level Celica.
Under the skin (which had completely bolt-on front and rear fenders), the MR2 Spyder used MacPherson struts not only at the front, but also at the rear. Four-wheel disc brakes were standard, as was ABS. The tire layout was staggered with 185mm tires at the front and 205mm tires at the rear, like the bigger, more powerful mid-engined cars.
Our pick would be any of the cars with the traditional five-speed manual, and ideally a 2004-2005 model with a limited-slip differential. This is a car you’ll want maximum involvement with, and a clutch-pedal transmission is the way to go. But if you have trouble operating a clutch pedal, the sequential manual is a perfect choice. You’ll even get slightly better fuel economy if you get one of the six-speed units (25 to 26 mpg combined depending on year vs. 24 to 25 mpg for the five-speed).
Another note about the MR2 Spyder: pack light. With the engine in the rear, there is no conventional trunk. There is a cargo bin in the front, but it is filled with the spare tire. There are bins behind the rear seats, at least, but they come in at just 1.5 cu.
Are there any good alternatives to the MR2 Spyder?
Well, there’s a pretty obvious alternative to the MR2 Spyder. Many say it’s always the answer, and it has a similar alphanumeric name: MX-5 Miata. The little Mazda that stole the hearts of fans and journalists everywhere was a direct competitor back then (specifically the second generation NB) and factors that made it more appealing then still apply today. It had more classic roadster styling and a real boot, but was still light, rear and had similar power. They are much easier to find these days thanks to strong sales and now you have the choice of several generations, all with a similar design and feel.
Another possible choice that is a bit newer would be the Pontiac Solstice and its twin, the Saturn Sky. Both roadsters featured much more striking styling and the later versions had extremely powerful supercharged models. But they’re also relatively unusual and have ergonomic and cargo compromises that make it harder to live with (the top is a pain, the trunk is oddly shaped, and some internal features are oddly arranged).