Road Test: Toyota MR2

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A sports car for the eighties

 Anyone who tries to lay down a definition of a “sports car” soon finds himself in the position of the oozlam bird, disappearing up his own specifications. A sports car cannot be defined by out and out performance. The Reliant Scimitar SS1 is comfortably out­gunned by most “hot hatches” yet is unmistakeably a sports car. It is nothing to do with the number of seats (the Austin-­Healey did not suddenly stop being a sports car when an occasional rear seat was added), nor does a sports car have to be a rag-top: the Triumph Herald convertible was not a sports car yet the Jaguar E-Type coupe unquestionably was. A sports car is something which is recognised, not defined, just as we recognise an actor who is a “star” despite the fact that he may have some serious limitations in his craft – John Wayne died without giving us his Hamlet, yet was undeniably a star.

In August I was given the use of, first, a Caterham Seven Super Sprint 1700 (see last month’s Motor Sport) and then a Toyota MR-2 – I get paid for doing this, I must have done something terrific in a previous life. The contrast between these two distinguished sports cars was fascinating. Both are fully-fledged sports cars and are similarly priced, yet two cars could not be more dissimilar in character. The Caterham is basic, the Toyota is superbly equipped, the Caterham has astonishing acceleration, the Toyota merely beats decent “hot hatch” times, the Caterham is a rude beast, the Toyota is refined, and the list of contrasts continues not only in generalities but in detail too, yet both are true sports cars. The essential difference, though, is that the Caterham makes demands on the driver, to get the best from it you have to learn the car patiently (and the rewards are great when you do) whereas one can be almost immediately familar with the MR-2.

Toyota has been clever with its use of its splendid 1,600 cc, 16 valve, 122 bhp 4A-GE engine. It powers the Corolla GT Coupe (front engine, rear wheel drive), the Corolla GT hatchback (transversely mounted front engine, front wheel drive) while, in the MR-2, in conjunction with the Corolla GT transaxle, it appears transversely mounted behind the driver. This mid-engined layout, naturally, restricts luggage space and I must say that I had my reservations about its practicality as an everyday vehicle but was pleasantly surprised to find just how much one could pack into it. The rear luggage compartment will take a couple of small-to-medium sized suitcases, while the front “boot” will take quite a lot of small soft packages. There are generous, rigid, pockets inside both doors and, a clever touch this, behind the driver’s seat there is a small hook on which to hang your jacket. If it were used as a second car, the memsahib would be able to stow a week’s family shopping in it without encroaching on the passenger area.

A mid-engined layout can lead to a nasty gear shift, but not in this case. One grips the leather-clad gear lever around the middle (it’s like a joystick control, not a stick with a knob on top) and if there is a better gearchange, then I’ve yet to encounter it. A weight bias of 44/56 helps the 14 in 185/HR 60 Continental Super tyres to transmit the power to the road without a hint of wheelspin, which is unusual given that the engine revs freely to 7,600 rpm. When I first drove an MR-2, in Portugal in January, this characteristic impressed me greatly for even on the smooth cobblestones of Oporto it was impossible to induce wheelspin. On the other hand, the rearward weight bias does not help braking in the wet. The Assistant Editor, Gordon Cruickshank, reports that the front wheels had a tendency to lock in the wet under hard braking but all my driving of an MR-2 has been in dry conditions. and this includes some swift lappery of Donington Park where the brakes (9.6 in discs front, 9.5 in discs rear) seemed outstandingly good.

Entry to the MR-2 is easy, thanks to very wide doors. Once seated, one’s first task is to adjust all the seat controls for, apart from the normal fore and aft and tilt adjustments, there are pressure controls for the thighs and lumbar region and the side supports can be altered too. At first, the leather-trimmed steering wheel, which is adjustable for rake, seems too large and that feeling never left me, though it is hard to see how it could be made smaller while still retaining an excellent view of the instruments and ease of manipulating all the other controls.

Toyota UK offers only one optional extra, metallic paint finish at £42.36 above the basic price of £9,295, for the cars are brought in with a high level of equipment which includes electric windows, central locking, easily adjustable headrests, a good quality radio/cassette player, detachable “moon roof” (the aerodynamics of the car allow normal conversation at 90 mph with the panel removed), tinted glass and electrically adjusted door mirrors. I was once taken to task by a reader for deploring the lack of this last item on a sports coupe which I’d enjoyed; he made me feel like Sloth personified for had he not gone for years without feeling the need to change his mirror settings? The point is that if a car is a good one, every driver in the family will want to drive it and we all have different requirements. The ability to adjust mirrors easily and accurately is a safety factor, not merely sybaritic luxury especially when, as with the MR-2, rear and rear three-quarter vision is restricted; for while the rear wing looks fairly discreet from the outside, it looms large from inside the cockpit.

The standard accessories are sensible too, the windscreen washers, for instance, deliver four powerful jets which easily deal with the splattered corpses of insects which were, not quite quick enough. A smaller detail, but typical of the design, is that the “door open” warning light incorporates a clear panel which illuminates the ignition switch. This degree of competence in detail design gives the driver immediate confidence in the whole car.

Everything in the interior of the car feels natural, it’s as though one wears it like a favourite pair of shoes. You slip off into city traffic with confidence, the first dab of the accelerator, the first flick of the wheel, the first kiss of the brake pedal and you know that you are not only at one with the car but there are treats ahead. The treats accumulate; they begin with the first take off from traffic lights where, effortlessly, you leave the rest of the traffic behind. You take your short cut around the back streets and the car moves precisely in and out of the cars parked on either side of some roads. Eventually you make the motorway with that marvellously flexible engine responding with muscle in what is, in terms of ultimate speed, but not feel, an overdrive fifth. Off the motorway and a quick hack across country to “Mon Repos” and on every type of road surface the MR-2 feels comfortably at home. The 67 miles from the Motor Sport office to the family pile outside Northampton is accomplished rapidly and entirely without strain.

Number One son drools over the car so he must be given a quick squirt in it, and then there’s his mate who must not be left out. There is so much pleasure in the car that you want to share it, even after a long day in the office. In fact the drive home is more refreshing than a shower. Steering, in city traffic, is a little on the heavy side, but that’s no criticism of a sports car, since in country lanes that feeling translates into complete feeling, with the wheel communicating with the driver. The car is taut but the ride is excellent; you are aware of changes in the surface, as you should be, but potholes and ridges do not present problems, all four wheels remaining in tune with the road.

When cornering there is mild understeer at what I would call “sporting motorist” speeds on public roads. This becomes more pronounced when the car is driven really hard, as one might do in selected situations.

Body roll is minimal, the machine responds sensitively to the throttle, and so you do not have to be Fangio to obtain very high cornering speeds. When you reach the limit, the rear end starts to break away very gently, giving the driver ample time to correct. If you watch any top class sportsman, he appears to have time on his side whether it’s controlling a bouncing football or returning a volley at tennis. The MR-2 gives everyone that margin of time and so flatters the driver. 

The engine is a great design, and the word “great” is not used lightly. In my view it is one of the truly great mass-produced motors in the history of the motor car. It’s so willing and responsive that it seems to have the edge on engines which, on paper, are more powerful or more muscular.

When it came to do our performance figures, however, the car proved dis­appointing and this brings us back to the problem faced by the road tester. We receive cars early in their lives so they should be in prime condition, but it doesn’t quite work like that. Cars in every press fleet take quite a hammering as various writers verify the claimed performance figures, and are most vulnerable in the transmission, which takes a pounding which no private motorist would give his car. It seems that my car began with very slight clutch slip, for the rev limiter was hit at 59 mph in second, instead of 61 mph, which necessitated two changes up to sixty. Having recorded a time of 8.7 seconds for 0-60 mph the clutch began to protest and the smell of hot fibre began to pervade the car. I dislike abusing cars, so called a halt at that point. Toyota claims 8.2 seconds for 0-60 mph and one magazine, using similar test equipment to our own, recorded 7. 7 seconds. These are excellent figures for a normally aspirated engine of just 1,600 cc. 0-30 mph takes 2.6 seconds, 30-50 mph, 3.4 seconds and 50-70 mph, 5.5 seconds.

On the two mile straight at Brunting­thorpe Proving Ground in a strong wind we achieved a mean top speed of 115.45 mph, with 120.4 mph as a best one-way run. Toyota claims a maximum speed of 124 mph and doubtless this would be possible given a deserted autobahn.

Overall fuel consumption, excluding performance testing, worked out at 28.5 mpg.

Were it not for the fact that I often need to carry more than one passenger, the MR-2 would be my next car. -ML. 

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