There aren't many changes to the MR2 since it was new last year.
The manual convertible top works easily, and can be lowered from the driver's seat. A nice detail is that the roof collapses into the boot as a parallelogram, instead of the usual flip-over and collapse setup. Translation: Like the Boxster, the roof settles into place exposing only the top section, which rests flush with the body so no boot is needed to cover it. Unlike the Boxster and the S2000, the MR2 features a glass rear window with an embedded defroster, so the car should be easier to live with in the winter.
An unusual aspect of the MR2 Spyder is Toyota's use of a space frame with bolt-on fenders. The design is similar to that of the long-gone Pontiac Fiero in that it lets customers easily replace damaged components. It also lends itself to fairly easy customization by the youthful customers Toyota covets.
The pedals have a brushed metal look, peppered with black rubber nubs for grip. They are comfortable pedals and Toyota provides a dead pedal for the left foot. We found heel-and-toe downshifting a bit more difficult than on its competitors. (Heel-and-toe is a bit of a misnomer; you actually use the ball of your right foot on the brake pedal, while blipping the throttle with the side of the foot.)
The black upholstery matches all of the paint schemes well and looks nice. One exception: The yellow interior leans toward the red end of the spectrum, while the yellow paint reflects with the high frequency of the blue end. Result: The yellow inside clashes with the yellow outside, but works with some of the other colors.
Toyota includes a CD/cassette stereo as standard equipment. The system produced good sound, though it probably won't deceive anyone into thinking it is a custom stereo. Like most convertibles, the sound tends to stay down in the footwell area. The MR2 uses a traditional metal mast for an antenna, rather than a more durable rubber antenna or an antenna embedded in the windshield, but it seemed to get good reception.
The owners manual is required reading before putting the top down.
The five-speed shifter is good. It falls just short of the outstanding shifters in the Miata, Honda S2000 and BMW Z3, which are all front-engine cars. Routing the shift cables around the MR2's mid-placed engine apparently creates just enough drag that the shifter lacks the positive click-click feedback of sliding in and out of gears. Instead, there is a continuous light drag that masks much of the feedback from the gearbox. It is still, however, better than the Boxster's shifter.
Toyota decided the reason its second-generation MR2 was less popular than the first was that it was more expensive and heavier as a result of using Celica components instead of Corolla components as a foundation. So the MR2 Spyder is based on prosaic Corolla, employing such pieces as 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. (Even the much more expensive Boxster, which also uses struts, has problems under such conditions as well.)
The MR2 Spyder enjoys a smooth, comfortable ride, courtesy of its long wheelbase and moderate spring rates. The steering is light, nicely balanced and provides good information about the road. The mid-engine design gives the car excellent balance that will give showroom stock racers an edge over the front-engine Miata, but the MacPherson strut suspension may offset that benefit.
The brakes are light and sensitive and feel easy to modulate. Only track testing will reveal how they respond when pushed hard, but they are more than sufficient for sporty street driving.
A problem in the passenger's seat is the blast of air that shoots between the outside mirror and the windshield pillar when driving al fresco. It doesn't have the problem on the driver's side for some reason. You could drive with the window up, but that seems self-defeating.
The Spyder is one of Toyota's several models (Celica. Tacoma S-Runner and Echo are a few others) that seek to rebuild the company's image with young customers. Toyota has been sort of the unofficial car company of the baby boom generation, but that means the average age of Toyota buyers has gotten higher than the company would like. Toyota has created a separate multimedia web site (www.isthistoyota.com) to promote these cars to younger buyers who have been gravitating to Honda.
The Toyota MR2 Spyder's one unassailable advantage over the Mazda Miata is its newness. MR2 buyers will not see another car like theirs on every street corner (since only 5,000 per year will be sold), as it can seem with the Miata on a warm summer evening.
The MR2 Spyder is a fun car that's easy to live with for a good price. The convertible top is simple to operate and features an innovative design that results in a tidy look when it's down. And it's just different enough to get you noticed.