The Miata is also a terrific little open-top sports car, with whip-smart handling, excellent balance and rorty, eager power. For a generation of older-but-wiser fans of British sports cars, the affordable Miata delivers all the windblown pleasures of MG's and Triumphs without the fear of being becalmed by mechanical failures.
Now comes the Toyota MR2 Spyder, another over-achieving, under-priced small sports car; but, alas, even in Virginia, the MR2 is not for lovers.
Due to its mid-engine design--in which the motor is located behind the seats and slightly in front of the rear axle--the MR2 has no trunk. Stowage in the car is limited to a plastic bin behind the seats (you have to move the seats to get to it) about the size of a viola case. Thus a simple trip to the supermarket becomes an exercise in Solomonic reasoning: Who gets to sit in the passenger seat, your spouse or the groceries? As for the cozy weekend getaway, unless you are heading for a nudist retreat, forget it. Carry-on baggage must be checked at the gate.
In this way the MR2 has a strangely feral feel to it, a car that must be enjoyed alone--quite a contrast to the congenial Miata. Toyota could answer quite reasonably that utility was never part of the car's mission statement. Yet after a week in the MR2, this seems a miscalculation. A car with no storage is merely a toy, and, like the Plymouth Prowler, toys become boring.
By the numbers, the MR2 and Miata are strikingly similar. The MR2's length (153 inches) is a couple of inches shorter than the Miata, though the MR2 is slightly wider and taller. The MR2 is about 100 pounds lighter than the Miata, which can be loaded with luxo options not available in the MR2. Both cars are powered by 1.8-liter, 138-hp aluminum engines, though the MR2's variable valve timing gives it the edge in usable torque.
Stylistically, however, the two cars come from very different sides of the drafting table. Compared to the lozenge-like curves of the Miata, the MR2 is crisply geometric, with slab sides punctuated by scalloped brake ducts and an anthropomorphic face reminiscent of Mike Mulligan's steam shovel--all grin and bright eyes. The rear end of the car features a long louvered hood and prominent taillights above a Ferrari-like rear grille. Unlike the Miata, whose top folds down with the inside panel exposed to the elements, the MR2's top folds in a Z pattern, leaving the canvas top clamped down behind the seats, minimizing the need for the tonneau cover.
Inside, the MR2 is well organized and comfortable, with simply superb bolstered buckets you may be tempted to unbolt and install in your living room. The bluff and upright dash keeps the climate and audio controls well sorted. Handsome materials, like dimpled vinyl on the steering wheel, dash and door pulls, and refined brushed aluminum, lend the interior a serenely technical feel.
The Achilles heel in any mid-engine car is packaging, since the engine takes up so much prime real estate in the car, in close proximity to the driver. Yet the MR2's engine seems well isolated from the cabin. It makes its presence known under hard acceleration, as it should, with a hoarse, mechanical burr, but in the putter of city streets it remains pleasantly sotto voce. Legroom is ample for a mid-engine small car, allowing you to move the seat up to gain a few degrees of seatback rake. Credit the MR2's expansive wheelbase of 96.5 inches, setting the wheels to the far precincts of the fenders.
Considering its myriad packaging problems, why bother with mid-engine design, anyway? Because locating the engine near the center of the car allows it to turn more quickly, pirouetting around a vertical axis like a skater with her arms drawn in tight. For pure performance, nothing beats a lightweight, mid-engine, rear-drive car--as a glance at the grid of the Indy 500 will tell you.
And the MR2's performance is sparkling--lively, alert and well-composed--transitioning evenly from one sliding corner to another. The car's rack-and-pinion steering answers instantly to command, and the sensations from the tires feed up through the wheel so you can intuit what each wheel is doing at all times. The MR2 is remarkably light (fully loaded, about 2,400 pounds), so the suspension and tires needn't battle high inertia loads pitching from side to side. The independent suspension (struts and springs with control links) is supple but firm, giving up a few inches of body lean in corners before stiffening in a muscular, shoulder-down stance.
Toyota wisely chose to put 15-inch radials on the car. Bigger tires might have given the car more overall grip (and filled in what appears to be over-generous wheel wells), but the ride would have suffered without really improving the car's fun quotient.
As it is, the MR2's toggle-like gearshift, well-placed pedals and hearty ABS brakes all make it a wildly amusing car to drive hard. The MR2 dances and darts like an aerobatic kite in a stiff spring breeze.
All of which means that the MR2 is no better than a tie with the Miata in general joie de vivre. So why would anyone choose the MR2 over a classic with a trunk? Cheap exclusivity, for one thing. There are about a quarter-million Miatas running around the United States. The MR2 will be sold in very limited numbers, only 5,000 per year.
So if you buy an MR2, you will definitely turn some heads. And you will have bought a car with fit and finish, the oaken solidity of a car costing thousands more. If only it didn't make you feel so lonely.