Toyota MR2 Roadster

AutoTrader NZ
Published 3 September 2020

In those pre-Japanese used import days, the little mid-engined car was around in limited numbers and drew crowds wherever it went.

It had Toyota’s then current angular styling, was very compact and was a breath of fresh air from a large company noted more for solid and reliable design than for sporting flair.

Of course, Toyota had been building performance cars for many years, including the potent Corolla GT pocket rockets.

But the MR2 was something else again. It was mid-engined, a strict two-seater, a car with undeniable character from a manufacturer noted for the soberness of its designs.

What was more remarkable was that this was no mere fashion accessory, but a highly-competent sports car in its own right, and a sports car from an unlikely source – a monolithic Japanese car maker rather than a small, enthusiast-run boutique firm.

The original MR2 was one of the most entertaining cars of its time. It wasn’t exceptionally fast, but it was extremely chuckable. You could charge into an ultra-tight corner, dab the brakes and turn it in hard. The tail would flick out a little but was easily caught and you were off hurtling towards the next corner. It was fun, it was forgiving, it was an instant classic, and it was powered by the punchy and delightfully raucous 4AG-E twin cam motor.

The second generation with the sleek bodywork that had strong Ferrari echoes looked every bit the mini supercar.

But where the original MR2 would forgive you virtually anything, the second generation could deliver a nasty bite.

Journalists and Toyota NZ staff giving a few of the then-new MR2s a run on the Manfeild racetrack in Feilding found them very easy to spin. Lift off mid-corner or be too abrupt in your steering inputs and the tail would come around and the journos and Toyota staffers were off an ego-deflating ride.

I wasn’t along that day, but driving the MR2 on the road revealed a much more nervous chassis than the original model’s.

You’ll often read about the merits of a neutral-handling car and how undesirable understeer is; and there’s no doubt that excessive understeer (front wheel sledging) is undesirable. But a truly neutral-handling car is on a knife edge of balance and can slip into oversteer (tail-sliding) and a spin without warning.

The second-generation MR2 was an almost exactly neutral-handling car which is what made it so nervous.

That’s not my assessment, but that of ex-Formula 1 driver Dr Jonathan Palmer, in a British Autocar magazine best-handling cars multi-test.

Palmer said the MR2 had been unfairly treated; that driven with sensitivity and with a feel for when it was about to break away, it was a very good-handling car. But it could bite without warning.

For most drivers bar the highest-skilled like Palmer a modicum of understeer makes a car easier to handle and easier to drive quickly.

And Toyota seems to have taken that on board with the current MR2, the first real roadster in the line of Midship Runabout sports cars. Yes, Midship Runabout is what the MR stands for, a nod to the car’s mid-engined layout.

The motor nowadays is the potent VVT-I 1794cc IZZ-FE twin cam four. It puts out 103kW at 6400rpm and delivers peak torque of 170Nm at 4200rpm.

It’s not as peaky as the similar unit used in the Celica and provides solid performance – 202km/h top speed, 0-100km/h in a little under eight seconds.

The motor provides flexible torque for inner city running and good urge for open road passing. It cruises nicely at 100km/h where it’s quiet and refined.

It drives the rear wheels via a six-seed sequential manual gearbox which is operated by a stubby, alloy-knob, centre console-mounted gear lever or steering wheel mounted buttons – finger-operated and on the underside of the spokes for upshifts and thumb-activated and on the topside of the spokes for downshifts. There’s no clutch pedal, the clutch being operated electronically.

The gearbox is a bit of a mixed blessing and frankly I’d rather have a conventional six-speed and a clutch pedal.

In the lower gears – especially on the upshift from first to second – you need to lift off the throttle to achieve a smooth gearchange. But once you get your head around it and remember to lift off momentarily on the way up the gearbox, shifts are smooth and near imperceptible. And they combine with the singing engine to provide a satisfying, near seamless, power delivery as you accelerate.

Downshifts are smooth and nicely sporty-sounding, the throttle blipping as the car goes down the ratios.

As you become more familiar with the system, you find yourself enjoying the benefits of the push-button operation and ultra-fast gearshifts on tight and winding roads where you don’t have to take your hands off the nicely-sized, chunky-rimmed steering wheel.

Even so, I’d prefer a conventional manual.

The seating position is low, and for we older and less-agile folks getting into and especially out of the low-slung MR2 can be occasionally difficult.

The seats are comfortable and very supportive. Though you’re sitting virtually on the floor the ride comfort is reasonably good. It’s a sports car so some harshness is to be expected but the ride isn’t hard in the manner of the ride in a traditional British small sports car like the Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite, a car that shares an almost identical seating position.

Curiously the MR2’s ride got harsher as the speed increased. At 100km/h it felt noticeably stiffer than it did at city speeds. Usually the reverse is true in sporting cars, with the ride smoothing out noticeably as pace increases.

Roadholding is excellent, turn-in is crisp and instant and the car lacks the nervous feel of the second-generation car. Helping the last-mentioned are traction control and vehicle stability control.

The steering wheel angle is near vertical and is another nice touch that adds to the car’s ambience. The softtop hood was watertight and provided reasonable sound insulation. It has a glass rear window.

The wheel are tyre combinations are unequal size: 15-inch by six-inch alloys and 185/55 R15 tyres at the front, and 16-inch by seven-inch alloys and 215/45 R16 at the rear.

The car is well-equipped. Air-conditioning might seem an odd piece of gear in a convertible but it does away with window-fogging in seconds. There’s a single disc in-dash Compact Disc player and good sound system. A central door-locking system is standard as are electrically-adjustable exterior mirrors and electrically-wound windows.

Driver and passenger get front airbags, and the car has a lockable glovebox and lockable storage compartments behind the seats. Luggage space is minimal – a lidded container under the front bonnet. The seats are fabric-covered and the pedals are race car-look drilled metal.

The MR2 is a stylish, well-designed car with good performance, a finely-balanced chassis and entertaining handling. I have reservations about the gearshift but figure that if you drove it day in and day out you’d soon be making absolutely seamless gearshifts every time. But I can’t help feeling a conventional manual would be better. Nor, I think, is the car quite as much fun or has as much character as the original MR2.

The 2003 MR2 roadster costs $51,000.

Story and photographs by Mike Stock