If you want to out-Miata the Miata, there’s really only one option. You’ve got to pull out all the stops for mass reduction and centralization. You’ve got to go lighter and more focused. You’ve got to make a mid-engine sports car. So, some 23 years ago, that’s what Toyota did.

The 2000–05 MR2 Spyder was the third generation of Toyota’s mid-engine sports car, but at its debut it had been five years since the second-generation car left the market. And both of the previous MR2s were coupes, not roadsters. This was an all-new platform, one dedicated to being lighter, stiffer and more eager than the Mazda MX-5 of the day. Most important, it needed to be more fun.

The hardware

As it had done for the 1985 MR2, Toyota cribbed the Corolla powertrain for duty in the MR2 Spyder, then mildly enhanced the engine for its sporty new role. The 1.8-liter 4-cylinder 1ZZ-FE received VVT-i, Toyota’s variable cam timing, added to its intake camshaft. Combined with tweaked intake and exhaust manifolds and a higher redline, the changes bumped the engine from 125 horsepower in Corolla trim to 138 hp in the MR2 Spyder.

Initially, the engine was paired only with a 5-speed manual transmission, which enabled a 0–60-mph run in around seven seconds. Both 5- and 6-speed automated manual transmissions, dubbed SMT, were offered as options later. (A limited-slip differential was also available on later cars.) The SMT eliminated the clutch pedal and shifted the manual transmission electro-hydraulically via buttons on the wheel or using the gear selector. 

No one who remembers these cars fondly wants that gearbox, though. Its shifts were slow and its launch was weak, adding more than a second to the MR2’s 0–60 mph sprint. Toyota touted the upscale technology and durability of the SMT transmission, but enthusiasts knew it was meant for those who never learned how to drive a stick. 

Packaging the engine and transmission just behind the passenger’s seat yielded a 45/55 front/rear weight distribution, which wasn’t as perfect as the Miata’s 50/50 balance. But pushing all the heavy parts to the middle and stretching the tires all the way to the ends of the car helped the MR2 Spyder be both wildly nimble and eminently drivable. Its 96.5-inch wheelbase was more than seven inches longer than the Miata’s, but room for stowage was limited to two small bins behind the seats. A road-tripper the MR2 is not.

Underneath are struts at all four corners, which further aided Toyota’s weight-reduction efforts. Fifteen-inch staggered-width, five-spoke wheels are wrapped in 185- and 205-section tires front and rear, respectively. The MR2 wasn’t a lot of car, so it didn’t need a lot of rubber. After all, the mid-engine packaging eliminated a driveshaft running the length of the car and the rear differential. Combined, those deletions made it at least 100 pounds lighter than a Miata.

Fun, embodied

On the road the MR2 was as playful as a wet puppy. It slipped through gaps in traffic, flirted with exotic-car dynamics, and was as easy to park as a golf cart. Its stiff chassis distinctly lacked the shakes and shudders of the Miata. And it was nearly a second quicker to 60 mph than its Japanese counterpart. If there was any downside to the MR2 Spyder, it’s that it required fast hands to correct oversteer. Though its dynamic tuning was benign, mid-engine cars don’t behave like front-engine cars at the limit, and that demands respect.

Electro-hydraulic steering gave this roadster a natural, light steering feel, though the Spyder’s wheel never offered the feedback granularity that it should have. At about 0.90g, skidpad grip was strong despite ample body roll. The result of that body roll and the strut suspension was rapid tire wear. Drive a stock MR2 Spyder hard, and before long you’ll notice the outer edges of its tires degrading thanks to its lack of camber and toe control.

The Spyder’s parts-bin drivetrain is well regarded for its reliability and low maintenance cost. The rest of the car is a pretty simple machine — the struts make suspension work easy and everything is fairly light.

In strong supply

At the MR2’s debut, Toyota said it would offer 5,000 Spyders per model year in the U.S., and it’s estimated that about 28,000 were sold during its six-year run here. Fortunately for buyers today, few of them were frog-marched into tuner shops to lose their dignity to huge wheels, lowering kits and loud exhausts. Nor have they yet become so popular that they are hard to find. As a result, unmolested MR2 Spyders are relatively plentiful today—and relatively cheap compared to most contemporaries. A mint 1,200-mile car sold in 2021 on Bring a Trailer for $31,000. A good-condition example with moderate miles can be had for between $15k and $20k, though prices have started to climb. Rare factory options include a hard top (which is expensive to buy separately, so look for a car that already has one) and a TRD body kit.

Toyota didn’t beat the Miata with the MR2 Spyder, as evidenced by its relatively short life. But the car did offer a genuinely enjoyable alternative that was better in some ways and simply different in others. The MR2 Spyder is worth seeking out now, especially if, like many enthusiasts, you’ve already scratched your Miata itch.

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