Can you name a modern, small, light-weight, and sporty convertible? The most common answer you are likely to receive is: Mazda Miata. Now, how about all those features plus a mid mounted engine? This one may require some extra brain scouring, but a likely answer might be: Porsche Boxster. However, in the years leading up to the millennium, Toyota Corporation decided to look away from its assembly lines on mundane Corollas and Camrys and produce a limited quantity of fun to drive sporty cars.
They tend to do this once or twice every decade. They put the Miata straight in their sights and proceeded to make a mid-engined, rear wheel drive, very light weight, and affordable roadster. Were they successful to match or beat the mighty Miata? This is up to fierce debate, but if nothing else the MR2 Spyder definitely made Mazda engineers take notice and keep on their toes.
This Spyder was not a major sales success, but it’s not for the lack of design or capability. When the MR2 hit the North American show rooms in 2000: it cast a smaller shadow than the Mazda, weighed 137 fewer pounds, had better power to weight ratio, and could hold its own on the track and the street. However, it also had a couple dings in it’s armor. It was about $2500 more expensive and had non-existent trunk space and thus less practicality. Also, some enthusiasts will tell you that the Spyder sits too high off the ground and its 138 hp four banger is not quite enough to make it the ultimate autocross star.
A weekend racer can remedy all of these shortcomings with an available turbocharger kit, lowering and stiffening components; and who needs a trunk anyway when your goal is to go fast. On the other hand, some automotive critics called this Spyder the best handling roadster at any price.
The Miata and this Spyder fill a void in the automotive landscape left by the small, lightweight, and mainly British roadsters from the mid 20th century. The only other car in this category in the current Lotus Elise, but it is in a much higher price bracket. This Spyder’s desirability is not universal, but in the current world with increased emphasis on heavy safety equipment and luxurious features – it’s not clear if a near 2000 lbs roadster is even possible. This makes the MR2 Spyder unique and interesting.
Over the six years of production a total 27,941 Spyders reached North American market (reference Production Numbers). As with most niche vehicles, the years subsequent to introduction saw many upgrades and lesser production totals. MR2 received a clutchless Sequential Manual Transmission (SMT) in 2002 and a total 5,109 examples were built that year. The SMT was both bad and good: the bad was a slower 0-60mph acceleration, but it rewarded the driver once under way with wheel mounted shifter buttons and throttle blips on downshifts. The Spyder received a facelift and an extra gear in 2003 and a total 3,249 were built that year.
A limited slip differential was added for the 2004 model year with 2,800 of those produced. And inevitably, the 780 examples of the final production year received the final tweak – the 6-disk CD changer. There were up to nine exterior and four interior color choices and they come together for some peculiar and rare color combinations. The numbers listed here are North American production and there were whole other populations of European and Asian versions. This car is not ultra rare, but later model years with more desirable options are difficult to find.
The used car listings have several very low mileage and meticulously cared for examples, there are several Spyders with fewer than 20,000 miles on the odometer and one with 3,500 miles. The average asking price for an MR2 Spyder is significantly higher (around 15% higher) than a comparable Miata. You can find cars with more than 150,000 miles, so reliability is not a problem.
There are also cars with extensive modifications and tuning, so be on the lookout for this and make sure that the upgrades are well documented and professionally done. The MR2 Spyder is a true driver’s car and is sure to maintain its appeal.
Andre Smirnov is a Software Engineer by trade and a life-long automotive enthusiast. On the weekends – you may find him at a car show, an auction, watching a race, or tinkering in the garage. When not working or spending time with the family – he often scours the internet and other media for various automotive, mechanical, and computer related information.