Back when Toyota made really fun cars, the MR2 was their answer to the Mazda Miata. Low-slung, small, and mid-engined, the MR2 Spyder represented a true sports car configuration for the price of a milquetoast Corolla sedan. While it never enjoyed the success of the MX-5, they’re a great way to get a little mini-Boxster for a fraction of the price.
The Miata, as almost every car guy knows, single-handedly revitalized the roadster market in the United States. With its honest good looks, simple design, and small (yet more than adequate) powerplant, it represented everything that a tiny roadster should be. Needless to say, everyone wanted to make a competitor to it. The MR2 though, was a take on the Miata’s formula with a touch of the exotic–thanks to its mid-engined layout, the little MR2 was a totally different animal, and cost about the same. At the start, it was envisioned to be another car to entice the younger set to Toyota’s lineup (along with the Celica, Tacoma, and Echo), and it was a pretty good representative. Where the Echo was more of a box on wheels (and not a very good one to boot) the MR2 was a true bundle of joy.
Toyota’s reputation for engineering robust cars was in full swing at this point. The MR2 got, at launch, a 1.8L inline-4 with 138 horsepower, a five-speed manual transmission, rear wheel drive, and a wheelbase pushed to the corners of the bodywork. It wasn’t powerful, but thanks to its low curb weight (under 2400lbs), it didn’t need much outright power to get moving. Within a few years, a sequential-manual transmission ended up on the option list (a 5-speed at first, then later upgraded to a 6-speed), and the styling was changed mid-cycle to keep it fresh in the market. It didn’t sell in the same numbers as the Miata, but the MR2’s Toyota design means that its reliability should be of little issue over time. Although it was dropped in 2005 (and therefore likely won’t have its powertrain warranty), running costs aren’t bad. Unfortunately, the engine isn’t very receptive to modifications, which doesn’t help its case very much. That said, prices are reasonable for an MR2. Even if you’ve got only four figures to spend, an earlier model is just about perfect. It may not go as fast as a similarly-priced used Boxster, but it will be cheaper to run and possibly more reliable. It really is a shame that Toyota doesn’t produce cars like this one anymore–if they did, I would at least give them a look.