Why I've Fallen In Love With The Third-Generation Toyota MR2

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Photo: David Tracy

Among small convertible sports cars, it’s usually the Mazda Miata, Honda S2000, and even the first-gen Audi TT that tend to get all the love. Cast aside like an automotive reject, though, is the third-generation Toyota MR2 Spyder, and—after having driven one for a month—I’ve decided that this is just unfair. Here’s why.

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Over the past month, I’ve been staying in Nürnberg, Germany, commuting 15 miles one way to Erlangen (to fix my awesome diesel Chrysler minivan) in my friend Andreas’ green Toyota MR2 Spyder. It’s a machine that I’ve grown extremely fond of not just because of its handling prowess, but because of its surprising practicality.

It’s Incredibly Daily-Drivable

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The little green frog I’ve been piloting roughly 30 miles a day has proven itself wonderfully usable, especially for a convertible its size. I thought daily-driving this car would get tiring, but no, it’s been awesome. Just plain awesome.

Okay, so I’ll begin by addressing one of the biggest complaints about the MR2 Spyder: There isn’t tons of storage space. But it’s not really that bad; if two people went on a weekend getaway and packed efficiently, they could make this car work. I was by myself the other day, and I managed to shove a big check-in bag and a backpack on the passenger’s side:

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In the Midship Runabout 2-seater’s frunk, I stuffed four wheel hubs and two shock absorbers:

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And then behind the front seats there was even more room. Easily enough for two small backpacks:

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So the storage space is just adequate, but there’s still plenty that makes this car practical: namely, the car’s mechanical simplicity.

There’s really not a whole lot that can go horribly wrong with the MR2. Sure, some model years are prone to an issue involving exhaust catalyst being ingested into the engine through the exhaust gas recirculation system, but still, what powers the third-gen MR2 is a version of the 1ZZ 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine found in your average, everyday Toyota Corolla of the era. The C-family five-speed manual transmission bolted to that motor is also similar to the Corolla’s.

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This is a good thing; these are tried-and-true components, meaning you should expect to be able to drive an MR2 day in and day out for many years, raking up 200,000+ miles on the original drivetrain if you take decent care of the vehicle. But even if you don’t take good care of the MR2, and you have to source a new transmission or rebuild the old one (as the previous owner of Andreas’s car did), parts are plentiful and cheap.

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On top of its simplicity, the MR2 I was driving has wheels wrapped in tires with pretty tall sidewalls, and the vehicle’s ground clearance isn’t bad, either. This, combined with a fairly short sub-13-foot overall length means maneuvering into tight parking spots that require driving onto curbs is no issue at all.

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Not to mention, at around 30 MPG, fuel economy is decent, too, which is good given the $5-per-gallon fuel costs here in Germany.

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So what we have in the MR2 Spyder is a practical, reliable, efficient, and easy-to-maintain mid-engine sports car, and while it’s not particularly powerful at ~140 horsepower, the car only weighs just over a ton, and with the engine behind the driver? Well, that brings me to my next point.

It Handles Beautifully

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The MR2 isn’t about power, it’s about Fahrvergnügen, a word that you could argue belongs to Volkswagen, but look, I’m in Germany and this is a fantastic little mid-engine sports car. This delightful MR2 deserves the term “Fahrvergnügen” for just this one article, I think. [Wolfsburg police knocks on door].

The 190,000 mile car I’m driving (with an 80,000 mile replacement engine—and yes, I realize I just negated one of my main points by pointing out that this car has a replacement engine and transmission! But just trust me; they can be reliable little cars.) has Koni “Sport Kit” adjustable dampers with 30mm lowering springs and Yokohama semi-slick tires that are a tad bit wider than stock up front. Otherwise, the car is as it came from the factory in Japan.

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Ride quality is actually decent even with the aftermarket springs and dampers, but what matters is the grip; there’s lots of it. With the semi-slick tires, throwing this green lidless two-seater around turns yields centripetal forces that will send the wheel bearings and shocks you have in the frunk bouncing around in a frenzy. But despite the chaotic suspension movement in the cargo area, the suspension movement where it matters—under the car, bolted to the unibody—is composed. The car leans a bit, but it holds onto the pavement just as well as the decently-bolstered cloth seats (surrounded by a rather simple, but well-laid-out interior) hold the driver.

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I’ve only gotten close to the lateral traction limits maybe once or twice. And while the internet is filled with discussion of the car’s tendency to snap-oversteer, the Green Machine’s tail actually stepped out in a fairly predictable manner when I took it perhaps a bit too quickly through a few roundabouts and onto some Autobahn on-ramps. I know if I drove a bit harder, things could get wild, but this is my friend Andreas’ car, and friendships are more important than satisfying my primal desire to do dumb stuff with machinery.

But that’s okay. You don’t have to be at the limit to have fun with the MR2. The naturally-aspirated engine feels powerful enough given the car’s light weight, and it’s responsive and has no trouble revving over 4,000 RPM all day. It doesn’t sound amazing, with its high pitch, but it’s fun to wring out all the same.

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More importantly, we have to talk about the shifter. It is fantastic. The throws are not too long, and not too short. They’re notchy, but in the best of ways, and the clutch offers the optimal level of stiffness and travel. I would change exactly nothing about the car’s five-speed transmission, because it makes driving the car fun in almost all conditions, even city driving.

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I don’t think the electrohydraulic power steering is the most satisfying, and again, the car is definitely not fast, but between the excellent shifter, the modest but fun engine, the absurdly light curb weight that—along with the multilink rear suspension and front MacPherson strut setup—yields a hell of a lot of fun in the corners, and the convertible top that unlatches easily (see above—yes, that’s basically the same as an old Miata latch), the MR2 proves itself to be just pure automotive joy.

It’s Worth It

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Okay, so it’s an only modestly-quick sports convertible with a Corolla drivetrain that doesn’t really sound all that exciting. What’s the big deal? The big deal is the price.

My friend Andreas snagged his awesome green mid-engine convertible for 2,500 Euros, or around three grand in Americurrency. That’s a fantastic deal for a vehicle that you can daily drive, cruise in on sunny days, and thrash around a racetrack.

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Admittedly, Andreas is a master negotiator, so his was the cheapest bargain around, and it appears these might be be that cheap in the U.S. anymore (really nice ones seem to be listed at around $6,000 in the U.S.), but for a vehicle this versatile and fun?

The MR2 Spyder is still worth it.

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).

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DISCUSSION

halftrackelcamino
Half-track El Camino

I feel like everything that’s good about this also applies to Miatas, except moreso. More practical, more reliable, more simple. Not that I’m here to trash the 3rd gen MR2—it’s a good, fun, inexpensive car and the mid-engined layout is definitely more special—but honestly Mazda fucking nailed it with the original Miata and if you don’t care about “special” it’s pretty hard to go wrong with a good used NA if you want a cheap toy car that you can daily and also wrench on yourself.