Toyota’s little MR2 (a.k.a. Mister Two, or Mister Spyder for this review) two-seater roadster now offers a sequential manual transmission (SMT) option that completely does away with the clutch pedal—yet it’s still a real five-speed, not another one of those slushbox automatics with gimmicks that let you pretend it’s a manual.
Until now, Toyota has only offered the MR2 with a five-speed manual transmission. It’s a fine gearbox, with a light, smooth clutch, short throws, and confident action. A conventional automatic transmission seems beside the point on a small roadster with a high-revving engine.
Toyota made a good choice in keeping the existing 138 hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, rather than upping the horsepower ante. The engine, also offered in the heavier Celica GT, makes plenty of power to take advantage of the capable, light chassis (its curb weight is just over 2200 pounds) without turning it into a fright ride that needs an array of electronics to keep the power on the road.
Toyota’s VVT-I (intelligent variable-valve timing) system helps give the engine a little more smoothness and torque at low revs, but it’s still definitely happier in the upper ranges of the tach. The engine is a little noisy when pressed—and it doesn’t have the aural delight of Honda’s VTEC engines—but it fits with the MR2’s racy-but-not-over-the-edge image and has more character than the Miata’s similar-size engine.
2002 Toyota MR2 Spyder
Easy up, easy down
The new F1-inspired sequential manual transmission uses a series of actuators to operate the clutch and shift action, but otherwise it’s the exact same gearbox. An electronic throttle control uses accelerator-pedal position to judge how aggressively to engage the clutch, and the whole system is interlaced with the engine control computer, which momentarily cuts power during shifts for smoothness (and probably aids clutch life).
The shift knob had an odd staircase gate, with reverse in the forward left position, neutral in the middle, and the forward gears in the back right position. In the forward gear position, a simple tip forward of the shift knob goes up a gear, while tipping the shifter back brings you down a gear. You also have the option of using two sets of shift buttons on either side of the steering wheel. The buttons facing the driver shift up a gear, while those on the back of the steering wheel shift up. In case you forget what gear you’re in, an LCD display on the tachometer gauge face reminds you.
How does it all work? Amazingly well. Shifts are completed faster and cleaner than most drivers could ever do it, and most are completely free of any shudders, jerks, or hiccups. During gradual acceleration shifts, the clutch engages gradually and daintily, while full-throttle shifts are motorcycle-like and nothing but purposeful. Sometimes, on moderate-throttle takeoffs, shifting from first to second, we encountered a little jerkiness just as the clutch engaged second gear, but with a little more or less throttle, it wasn’t noticeable.
In terms of acceleration, the system adds half a second or more to the MR2’s zero-to-60 time, mainly because the SMT doesn’t do clutch drops from a standing start. Once on the move, it accomplishes all the shifts faster than all but the best professional drivers—and without wrecking the transmission.
2002 Toyota MR2 Spyder
And does it take the fun out of shifting? I’d say that not having a clutch pedal takes a little bit of the fun away, but if I had been in gridlock, stop-and-go traffic, I’d probably concede that the sequential box is a worthwhile compromise.
The fact that the sequential manual transmission is relatively idiot-proof makes it a little more attractive to non-shifters, but a little less appealing to those used to being completely in charge of their gears. If you forget to downshift to first at a stoplight and leave it in third, fourth, or fifth, it makes the shift for you. It will let you start from a stop in second gear and provide lots of clutch slippage to do it, but it won’t let you choose, say, fourth gear and try to start from a stop. Alas, for those brain donors who wish to be totally surprised by the gear they’re in, there isn’t a “Drive” position.
In normal driving, we noticed that the SMT slips the clutch far more than most experienced drivers would. It makes for a smooth ride for bringing your grandmother to Sunday brunch, even if her hair scrapes the convertible top. But will this cause premature wear on the clutch? Probably not, because there are so many variables that factor into clutch life. The system tends to be easier on the clutch in performance driving than most drivers would be, and it also eliminates shifting blunders, so we’d guess clutch life would be similar to a regular manual.
When the SMT would really come in handy is in driving all-out on a tight, curvy road or an autocross course, when the timing of shifts is everything and smooth clutch engagement is often difficult while thinking about applying opposite lock at the right time. The system would also redeem itself in heavy traffic, when your cramped left leg begins to tire and smooth clutch coordination goes to the wayside. We’ve all had times like that — some of us not even in cars.
2002 Toyota MR2 Spyder
The convertible top fits snugly, without much wind noise or draftiness. Wind buffeting is good with the top down, and even at highway speeds there’s enough relative calm to carry on a conversation with raised voices. Taking the top down isn’t an operation you can do from inside the car (it requires a hand to guide the glass rear window to the right fold, and a firm press downward to lock in place), but it’s easy, and pulling the top back up can be done while inside the car if you have strong arms.
Weekend whiz kid
The steering is incredibly direct and responsive, and it feels very linear, without the usual dead spot on center that many cars have. The quick ratio and precision of the steering makes Mister Spyder feel nervous on center if you don’t have a firm hand on the wheel or if you’re on an uneven surface and have to make small corrections. The electric hydraulic power steering works well, boosting unobtrusively only at low speeds when it’s needed.
Nevertheless, the very quick steering ratio and hard struts at all four wheels make the MR2 feel very much like an oversized go-kart. With the engine mounted mid-ship, just behind the seats, the MR2 has a near perfect weight distribution. Slightly wider tires in the back (205/50R15, versus 185/55R15 in the front) likely make the Spyder more neutral and forgiving at the limit than if the same size were used all around. Powerful four-wheel vented discs provide short stopping distances and powerful fade-free braking.
Keep in mind that the MR2 has a very tight interior, and it just isn’t roomy enough for large people. Oddly, the hard grab bar for the door comes close to the rim of the steering wheel, and it’s easy if you’re not paying attention to slam the door and mash your knee between the door and steering wheel. After the first time, you’ll probably remember due to the pain. It also seems as if Oprahesque types would have trouble fitting in the seats, because they’re very thin and narrow, with the console tightly wedged in the middle. Two large drivers could very well make the handbrake disappear entirely.
2002 Toyota MR2 Spyder
There are a lot of reasons to be turned off by the MR2. There’s no real trunk, front or back, only a small space next to the spare tire in front and a couple of storage compartments behind the seats. Engine noise turns into a drone at cruising speed; there’s also a lot of cowl shudder over big bumps, giving you a less-than-secure feel as you ride next to semi trucks and see the car two lanes over; and the ride over potholed surfaces is bum-busting at times.
But none of those are reasons to rule out the MR2—if those matter then you shouldn’t be looking to buy one in the first place. The MR2 is at its best on a tight, smooth-surfaced mountain road. We found bliss in the MR2 on a riverside country lane on a mild sunny winter day, with the top down and the heater vents giving us enough warmth to savor the breeze through our hair, which is actually someone else’s, but that’s beside the point.
We couldn’t help but think of the MR2 as a mini Porsche Boxster. It’s smaller, of course, but it has the same basic layout, sharp reflexes, and basic level of appointments, except without the one-of-a-kind sound and personality of the Boxster’s flat-six engine—all at about half the price of a well-optioned Boxster.
The MR2’s sequential manual transmission truly is a one-of-a-kind in the U.S. market, and it’s a relatively inexpensive option at $780. The only other similar gearbox available is that of Ferrari’s 360 Modena F1. You can have a whole fleet of MR2 Spyders for the price of one Ferrari F1. Grab one before every enthusiast with a little cash figures it out.
2002 Toyota MR2 Spyder
Price: $23,735 base, $25,726 as tested
Engine: 1.8-liter four, 138 hp
Transmission: Five-speed sequential-shift manual, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 96.5 in
Length: 153.0 in
Width: 66.7 in
Height: 48.8 in
Curb Weight: 2215 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 25/30 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Air conditioning, glass rear window with defroster, power windows, locks, and mirrors, cruise control, cassette/CD sound system
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles