More equipment, less charisma; we have seen the process a dozen times and more. Mass manufacturer comes up with a sporting car that catches on in the USA and Europe. All is fine until said provider of fashionable speed decides to replace the favourite. Since the Japanese went for maximum export profits with the sports coupés and convertibles that Europe was too lazy to develop, it is the Japanese who seem prone to forgetting the original appeal of their machinery. Attempting to please the world via a “more of everything” formula, it is easy to fall into the Pacific or (ultimate horror) the mid-Atlantic compromise, ie: the bloated “Z-cars” that followed the sensational 240Z in escalating the 260/280/300 series?
Now Toyota are promoting new versions of both the multi-million selling Celica coupés and the MR2 (152,951 sold between 1984-88). They appear to be trapped by following the “Bigger is Better” route in a 2-seater. Britain is the second biggest export market for the mid-engined Toyota MR2 (“midship runabout 2 seater”) outside the USA. Toyota GB is extremely conscious of the debt it owes to the 13,580 UK MR2 owners created since 1985. Toyota engineers visited Britain in the heat of 1989 with two prototypes to fine tune suspension and steering. The result has been a car which is slightly more responsive to the unassisted rack and pinion steering than the standard American specification, but which fails to match the personal involvement of its forerunner.
The United Kingdom is to receive four new versions of the sportiest Toyota, all compensating for the extra size and equipment levels with an engine size that has grown from the 1.6 litres to a choice of 2-litre fours. The cheapest MR2 attacks the £14,429 Mazda MX-5 almost head on, but only on the most expensive model is there an attempt at fresh air motoring. Toyota GB Deputy Director Trevor Taylor stated: “There are no plans for a completely convertible version of the MR2.”
Priced at £14,000.68 the base model is unique to Britain and identified by its lack of a rear spoiler and the use of the ex-Carina 3S-FE 16v DOHC four cylinders. There is a standard catalytic convertor demanding lead free fuel only. It yields 119 bhp at 5600 rpm and an accessible 130 lb ft of torque at 4400 rpm. This comparatively low speed engine follows a similar performance to the 7700 rpm action of the first MR2, but without such direct driver appeal. Toyota claims 124 mph and 0-60 mph in 9.3 seconds. The engine can be ordered with a slick 5-speed manual gearbox, or (a first for a mid-engine car in Europe?) a four-speed automatic that is likely to account for just 10 per cent of an estimated 3400 annual sales volume. Cost of the automatic amounts to £14,735.72. All other MR2 derivatives carry the tag “GT” in their nomenclature, which signifies a much more sporting 16v of Celica GT ancestry. Coded as 3S-GE it retains the essential dimensions of 1998cc obtained from a square 86mm bore and stroke. Peak power of 158 bhp at 6600 rpm and 140 lb ft on 4800 rpm can be obtained on leaded or unleaded fuels as no catalytic convertor is fitted. This unit stretches audibly but vigorously for a 7100 rpm redline passing 60 mph in second gear. Claimed performance extends to a 137 mph maximum (as for an Elan SE) while Toyota expects 0-60 mph to be reached in 7.6 seconds.
Mechanical changes aim at lower cabin stress and more even weight distribution. Specific moves include reinforcement to “the cylinder block sidewalls” and the use of fluid-filled engine mountings. I cannot recall a mid-engine car that has such low cockpit noise levels. The appearance of a new car must be subjectively judged, but there was some “Baby Ferrari” press and public comment during and after the Yorkshire launch, so there is not the controversy that was stirred by the Celica’s 1990 clothes. The aerodynamic drag factor value of 0.31 Cd is about what you would expect of a two-seater for 1990, but the combination of a mid-engine and motorway side-winds is still notable in providing gentle wanderings from an intended path.
In the showroom a new MR2 has more appeal than any obvious competitor, because it is so well finished and lists a great deal of standard equipment, including a standard seven speaker stereo system of good quality. All MR2s provide central locking, electric windows and anti-theft systems to cover both radio and the complete vehicle.
Externally, the twin exhausts are also shared, but the cheaper models do not carry either the back spoiler or the auxiliary driving lights of the GT range. All Toyotas carry a 3 year/60,000 mile warranty, backed up by RAC membership.
Dimensionally, the new body adds up to an extra 9 inches in length over the original MR2. The newcomer is also broad at 66.9 inches versus a length of 164.5 inches. It rides at an overall height of 48.8 inches; the wheelbase is generous at 94.4 inches.
The 1990 MR2 is a meatier proposition than its predecessor and weighs from the cheapest car’s 1265 kg/2783 lb to 1285kg/ 28271b of a Targa top model, which retails for £16,650.50p. The £15,440.86 MR2 GT of 158 bhp with a tilt glass sunroof, is expected to account for a 40% majority of total sales.
The enlarged MR2 offers a 50 per cent bonus in boot space, that behind the engine downright accommodating by mid-engine standards, whilst the front “boot” is cluttered by a spare 6J steel wheel carrying a 185/60 radial. Fuel tank capacity is also up at 55 litres so you could expect a range of 356 miles at the Urban mean of 29.7 mpg from the less powerful MR2; or 338 miles extracted from the GT at an Urban 28.2 mpg.
The handling, ride and braking capabilities of the original MR2 were key selling points. Now the ingredients are updated rather than replaced. That means coil sprung struts at all four corners, which also wear ventilated disc brakes, the heavier rear end wearing the slightly larger diameters. No anti-lock braking system is offered, an omission that is based on the alleged skills of sports car drivers and cost considerations. Suspension changes contrived extra capacity for gas-filled dampers and ball joints for front and rear anti-roll bars, 17mm front and 18mm rear diameter. Rack and pinion steering remains. It is not the fastest system around — 3.7 turns lock-to-lock — but it is able to provide adequate feedback on road contours. Unfortunately it does not always state quickly enough that mid-engine cars do not like sideways travel, especially when provoked by a closed throttle at track speeds.
Which brings us to weight distribution. To even out the rearward weight bias, the gearbox was inched forward on both models, but there is still a bias; over 700 kg of total kerb weights resides in the tails of all models versus 560 kg in the nose of all but the automatic and “T-Bar” models, which carry another 5 kg forward. Such weight allocation is reflected by unequal rim widths and tyres sizes. All the cars we drove were on Continental Super Contact covers, these measuring 195/60 front and 205/60 rears. The Japanese alloys, just like the interior, lack any sharp edges or obvious manufacturing flaws. They are 14 inch diameters with a 6JJ front rim width and a 7JJ rear ledge. The three spoke steering wheel offers a good view of comprehensive and clear instrumentation. The handbrake opposes MX-5 practice and sits the same side as the driver: both are initially awkward but you acclimatise.
Aside from the leather seats of the Targa top model, the interior of all four MR2 derivatives offers the same rounded attributes in quality plastics. There does not seem to be a rough edge and the three quarter rear visibility through that extra side window is a welcome bonus over most mid-engine machinery.
None of the latest MR2s offers any resistance to driver commands, the gearchange quality notably good by rear gearbox standards. Unfortunately Toyota stopped short of providing an inspired engine note from a unit that yields a bustling 79 bhp per litre. Only BMW and Honda comfortably exceed these levels in normally aspirated engines, and neither the M3 nor the V-Tec Honda are common UK hardware as I write.
The cheapest 119 bhp manual MR2 and the GT share their chassis capabilities, but you get a very different impression at the wheel because of the entry level engine’s wide torque band. It seemed happiest between 3000 and 5500 rpm, and progress is adequate rather than uplifting.
By contrast the GT engine feels keen to cooperate between 3000 and 4500 rpm, taking on a tougher edge on ascending from 4500 to 7000 rpm. It has not the charisma you might expect of a 16v DOHC unit, particularly “tinny” on the over-run, but it performs in an impressive sweep of acceleration that suggests Toyota’s performance claims are modest. At 4500 and 110 mph this two-seater is mechanically happy to cruise at noise levels more reminiscent of a Ford sports saloon.
Wheelspin is a low gear, sharp corner or poor surface rarity. My public road mileage gave me none of the worries that have been voiced elsewhere about MR2 handling on the race circuit limit; in fact I enjoyed the blend between absorbent ride, outstanding traction and accurately “weighted” brakes. A quick run in the first MR2, though, convinced me that the later car only offers a greater general benefit in return for a lower “Grin Factor.”
For sheer enjoyment within its shapely leather seats, the “T-bar” MR2 was my choice. We stowed the two roof panels in a matter of minutes and were rewarded by sub zero temperatures and a touch of Yorkshire snow to remind us Southerners not to “act so daft.” If there were any rattles and creaks, I did not detect them on this model. In fact the GT was a worse offender with its sunroof propped open.
The Targa Top MR2 shows that a midengine car be practical fun, offering most of the thrills of the open Elan with a better finish and the “easy to live with” thoughtfulness of so many Japanese products. Those qualities are not enough to overcome the emotional involvement and pleasures of the best in convertible two-seaters for this writer, but it could be “just the ticket” for somebody who wanted a fair dash of speed without the full wind-in the-hair factor.