Road Test -- Toyota MR2 (T-bar)

Worthy of the Niche ?

Photographed against a background redolent of fashionable Tuscany, alongside its Supra and Celica stablemates, the 1991 Toyota MR2 is promoted under the colour supplement banner headline: "The latest from Modena? No, the latest from Toyota." A small sub-heading under a Japanese character adds, "what is desirable should also be attainable."

Even at a sniff beyond £18,000 for the glass panelled roof of the T-bar MR2 we tested, the MR2 occupies a unique slot on the British market. Amongst mass production sports cars it is the only mid-engine representative. You must search long and hard for any alternative now that the Fiat X1/9 is long deceased. Only British specialists such as Ginetta proffer the choice of cheaper mid-engine motoring (from £14,487), but with the best will in the world none of us will cite the 1.6-litre Ford CVH motivation as a match for the DOHC 16-valve Toyota. Nor can Ginetta's resources stretch to the sort of extensive dealership chain and service abilities that Toyota can muster.

Even amongst the Japanese manufacturers there is a commercial reluctance to take Toyota on a nose to nose basis: the Honda CRX is due for an extensive overhaul, along with the rest of the Civic range from which it sprung, but that is a distinctly front-drive coupé that now has to battle with the Mazda MX-3. Thus the mid engined MR2 has proven a comparatively large seller in sports two seater terms, often racking up UK sales equivalent to many manufacturers' speciality hot hatchbacks.

Two years after its sales peak of 3000 units per annum in 1988, the original 1.6-litre MR2 was phased out of the British market having notched up total sales of some 13,580 units. Since then, however, there has been a considerable expansion on the mid-engine theme, now all of 2-litres, which has sold profitably in Britain despite criticism from some quarters of inherent handling flaws.

We found no such defect in the Toyota during road, track or grass track use, the latter allowing us to balance the car in long power slides with one hand. While we respect those who have found fault with the model's track manners, we did not find anything other than a rather uninspired understeer in a series of skid pad tests which only emphasised appalling driving habits. The alleged cornering defects were apparent only in track use to journalists and about out which Toyota GB commented stolidly: "we have made no changes to the suspension of the MR2 since introduction; in fact the only change for 1991 is that the seven-speaker stereo system now incorporates the RDS traffic service."

We enjoyed the MR2 for its calculated combination of speed (performance was exactly as claimed for top speed, but better in acceleration than expected), reasonable 26.6 mpg economy on cheaper unleaded fuels, and an assembly quality that was emphasised by leather seating in the test example. Snags included far more fiddling with the roof than is acceptable today — several convertibles are far easier to live with — and an engine and gearchange that are matched by plenty of ostensibly more mundane saloons.

The UK Range

Originally priced from £14,000.68 at its April 1990 launch, the MR2 range now spans £15,485 to the £18,413 of the MR2 range leader that we assessed; all have catalytic convertors. The £15,000 MR2 is easily identified by the lack of a rear spoiler and it has the torquey but largely unsporting 3S-FE 119 bhp engine. For £812.13 more you can have an automatic transmission which also takes Toyota into a unique selling position.

The most popular all-round performance versus price choice is the MR2 GT, which mates the 158 bhp 3S-GE engine with a spoilered coupé body that features a glass sunroof. This has all the performance of the car we tested, but costs £1485 less than the MR2 GT T-bar, which has leather upholstery to rather impractically complement the twin removable roof panels.

Technical Analysis

The MR2 ("Midship Runabout 2-seater") has been sold in Japan and Britain from 1984. Since that time the MR2 has dramatically gained in size and weight so that the wheelbase has now become the same as that of a Porsche 944 while the front/rear track dimensions are within 2mm of the obsolete German coupé. The 2-seater mid-engine principles, however, have remained in what has become a 2800 lb vehicle, over half of which is placed aft of the centre line. The enlarged body has considerably smoother contours than those which prededed it and that has helped knock three decimal points from the quoted aerodynamic drag factor.

Of more relevance to the customer, though, has been the sustained effort to reduce cabin noise, previously always a bane of mid-engine motoring, so that, for example, fluid-filled mountings are used for the engine which itself now has a stiffened block. Toyota have succeeeded to the point at which you begin to ask, "where is the sporting exhaust note?" Exit one Japanese engineering team in despair at the contrariness of the British character.

Compared to the 7700 rpm wonder of the previous MR2 engine (which also did distinctive front engine/rear-drive duty in other contemporary Toyotas) the replacement 2-litre units offer much beefier power curves, but less pure driving pleasure. Statistically power went from 123 bhp at 6600 rpm to 158 bhp at at the same peak, but torque increased from 107 lb ft on 5000 rpm to 140 lb ft at 200 rpm less.

The higher output MR2 unit lists items such as variable length induction tracts for the fuel injection DOHC, 16-valves and electronic management (including anti-knock sensing) for an engine that ingests 95 octane unleaded yet is asked to deliver 79.4 bhp per litre with the aid of a 10:1 compression ratio. Exhaust gases are delivered for further cleansing by a stainless steel manifold.

The chassis work with such a pointed rearward weight bias (despite a transverse engine and a forward bias for a 5-speed transaxle) was centred on struts fore and aft. These were damped by low pressure gas systems and have quite slim roll bars. The only truly obvious steps to counter that weight distribution are the inch difference in front and rear wheel widths (supported by a 10mm/0.4 in differential in the standard Super Contact Continental tyre sections. There is also a massive compensation from the coil spring rates; the rears are over 65% harder than the fronts, but neither are guilty of allowing an unduly harsh ride.

We were privileged to attend a prelaunch driving session in Britain with Japanese engineers accompanying us in pre-production vehicles a few months before UK sales begun. We can thus confirm that the tamer engine was a genuine attempt to try and keep prices affordable for those who had bought the inevitably cheaper original, whilst the suspension was then at a fine tuning stage for the British market. It is possible that Toyota GB were concerned by critical stories emanating in Japan of MR2 handling behaviour in extremis but, so far as we could discover, all these stories concerned the 200 bhp plus turbo model which is not sold in Britain.

We were allowed a final outing in one tired pre-production GT that had firmer rear damping installed, which we thought tidied up the handling a bit, yet on a back-to-back run with the original, there was no doubt that Toyota engineers had been forced to relinquish the sheer fun element in favour of marketing and consumer demands for more showroom features and comforts.

At the Wheel

Despite sombre shades in heavy plastics, the MR2 cabin always feels a light and airy place, courtesy of the standard sunroof or the twin T-bar panels. Instrumentation is fairly simple, stretching to three supplementary dials, a 160 mph speedometer and a 9000 rpm tachometer that is redlined at 7200 rpm. Convenient interior releases are provided for the lid over a slim, but properly arranged and trimmed, rear boot, the fuel filler flap, engine cover and a bonnet that hides the space-saver spare.

The only major surprise was that Toyotas have been trapped by that old TVR foible of having the handbrake and gearlever virtually interlock at certain points in their arcs. The gearchange itself veers toward clunky with its partial cable activation, but unlike a VW Passat/Corrado, it would not be fair to level any real criticisms at the change quality, for that seems fast and fluid in all circumstances, road or track.

The view over the front bonnet is typical mid-engined "front row of the stalls" in character, but is marred by some scattered reflections, worst in the mirror when gazing at the Porsche 959-style hoop rear spoiler. Three-quarter vision is certainly adequate to join motorways and the overall feeling is of the most practical mid-engine motor cars we have driven the since the £50,000 plus Honda NSX.

Dynamically the MR2 was a bit of a disappointment, but not for any of the ballyhooed safety reasons. The engine whirrs about its work without a trace of individuality, the controls support every activity with light precision, but the car does not say very much to you except "I am an extremely suitable choice for those who want the looks of a more expensive 2-seater without any of the hassle or heartbreaks."

A perfect graduation car from the Hot Hatchback set, then? Not really, because its performance advantage over the best of that rapid clique is confined to that creditable 137 mph maximum, of real use only in Germany, and then under continually more restricted circumstances. Our MR2 GT provided less absolute driving excitement over twisty sections than a Peugeot 205/309 GTI, which seems a slight betrayal of its mid-engine layout.

Surely a mid-engined car must confer an enormous handling advantage over the front-drive machines, good though they are undoubtedly are in the Nineties? Certainly it is a pleasant change not to have the wheel rim writhing in your palms as power is applied, but the low-geared (near four turns lock-to-lock) steering does not take advantage of the absence of power steering to generate intimate road-to-driver messages of conditions beneath those effective Continental covers.

Toyota themselves talk honestly of increasing absolute G-forces from 0.84 of the first MR2 to 0.89 in this generation, but when you try and appreciate such abilities on a deserted skid pad, the MR2 turns into such a stolid understeerer that you might just as well have front-drive. We tried quite a lot of tricks to unstick the back and it simply did not happen, though we know of one very experienced journalist who did find the MR2 slewing unexpectedly away from him at Donington. "I just decelerated on the way into the first (Redgate) corner, and it was gone so fast it surprised me," said the seasoned observer candidly. There was no accident, nor likely to be one in that driver's hands as he felt, "it was easily possible to correct the slide and I did not feel tempted to try it all again."

In our experience the latest MR2 proved comfortably supple in ride and capable in hard road cornering. Our only real black mark would have been awarded for the lack of ABS electronic anti-lock braking in what was obviously designed to be a mass market appeal sports vehicle, one which could end up in very inexperienced and hot-blooded hands.

As a showroom choice, all MR2s appear with items such as central locking and electric windows, anti-theft alarms and a seven-speaker stereo system that smacks of the "mine's bigger than yours" syndrome. In fact the radio and cassette reproduction quality were excellent, but not an awesome advance over many conventional four-speaker layouts we have tried.

The roof panels were frequently used during our 600 or so miles with the bright red Toyota and so we discovered that they were really a lot more tiresome and cumbersome that we would have thought possible. Fit and finish are fine so long as you get the prongs properly located on each replacement manoeuvre and have the locking handles in the right position. The sheer weight of the glass panels makes it hard to line them up in the soft bags provided behind each seat and that means the total time from "phew, it's hot in here" to a welcome motoring breeze is longer than in current convertibles.

Verdict

We have had a lot of detail moans about the MR2 in its later guise that suggest it does not provide quite enough driving pleasure to forget the inevitable drawbacks of a tightly packaged and priced mid-engine sports car. That nobody provides Toyota with any direct opposition is a commercial disgrace for their recipe is far from flawless. Maybe Mazda could have the guts to take advantage of their Japanese pioneer role at Le Mans? The masters of the marketing niche could package up an affordable mid-engine engine machine around the compact benefits of the rotary engine finally to overcome the price practicality hurdles. Meanwhile, if you want a durable and and affordable mid-engine car with a more than fair dash of speed, Toyota and their MR2 are the only way to go. . . . but never let us hear you muddling such machines with "The latest from Modena." -- JW

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MOTOR SPORT TEST RESULTS -- Toyota MR2 T-Bar

SPECIFICATION

ENGINE: Engine, water-cooled, light alloy head, iron block; in-line four cylinders DOHC, 4 valves per cyl. Capacity: 1998cc (86 x 86mm). Nippondenso motor electronic ignition and fuel management. 10:1 cr, 3-way catalytic convertor. Max power 158 bhp @ 6600 rpm; Peak torque 148 lb.ft. @ 4800 rpm.

TRANSMISSION: Mid-mounted, transverse engine, rear-drive via 5-speed manual transaxle; single plate diaphragm spring clutch 224mm/8.8 inches.

GEAR RATIOS: First: 3.285; Second: 1.960; Third: 1.322 ; Fourth: 1.028; Fifth: 0.820 ..... 22.11 mph per 1000 rpm; Final drive: 3.944

BODY: Steel monocoque 2-door 2- seater with lift-out glass inlays to form Targa roof. Central locking. Petrol tank of 55 litres/12.1 gallons. Aerodynamic drag factor: 0.32 Cd.

DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase 94.5 in/2400mm; front track 57.90in/1470mm; rear track 57.01in/1450mm; length 164.6in/4180mm; height 48.82in/1240mm. Kerb weight: 2827lb/1285kg

FRONT SUSPENSION: MacPherson struts, double acting gas damping, coaxial coil springs, 17mm anti-roll bar. Steering rack and pinion, 3.7 turns lock-to-lock on a 20.5:1 ratio; 10.6 metres turning circle

REAR SUSPENSION: Independent, coil-sprung struts, telescopic gas dampers and 18mm anti-roll bar. Front springs rated 65% softer than rears.

BRAKES, WHEELS, TYRES: Vacuum power-assisted, vented front and rear with twin-piston calipers front, single rear; mechanical handbrake linkage to act on rear discs. front discs 10.6in/258mm diameter; rears 10.35in/263mm diameter. Light alloy 6JJ x 14 front wheels; 7JJ rears. 195/60 R14 front and 205/60 R rear

PRICE: £18,413 UK taxes paid

MANUFACTURER / IMPORTER: Toyota (GB) Ltd, The Quadrangle, Redhill, Surrey, RH1 1PX

CLAIMED PERFORMANCE: Max speed 137 mph; 0-60 mph 7.6s

TEST RESULTS:
Conducted at Millbrook Proving ground using 1991 Correvit electronic measuring gear. Weather conditions: Damp, drying tarmac

ACCELERATION: 0-30 mph 2.9 seconds; 0-40 mph 4.1 seconds; 0-50 mph 5.8 seconds; 0-60 mph 7.2 seconds; 0-70 mph 9.5 seconds ; 0-80 mph 11.6 seconds; 0-90 15.2 mph seconds; 0-100 mph 19.6 seconds

FLEXIBILITY: Third gear 50-70 mph 4.8 seconds; Fourth gear 50-70 mph 6.4 seconds; Fifth gear 50-70 mph 10.0 seconds
Standing 0.25 mile/400 metres: 15.5 seconds @ 90.8 mph
Maximum speed: Millbrook 2.029 mile bowl, lap speed, 137.04 mph
Maximum gear speed @ 7200 rpm: First 37.8 mph; Second 68.6 mph; Third 94.7 mph; Fourth 123.3 mph
Overall fuel consumption: Test Average 26.64 mpg; Best 27.21 mpg; Worst 21.09 mpg
Government mpg figures: Urban 28.2 mpg; @ 75 mph 37.7 mpg; @ 56 mph 49.9 mpg