Motor Mouth: The pleasure and the plain

Motor Mouth: The pleasure and the plain - The Toyota MR-2 is not the car for the man who has everything. In fact, it is the car for the man who has nothing at all. Sparing a couple of exiguous and inaccessible plastic bins behind its two seats, the MR-2 h

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Toyota MR-2 is not the car for the man who has everything. In fact, it is the car for the man who has nothing at all. Sparing a couple of exiguous and inaccessible plastic bins behind its two seats, the MR-2 has no storage space. You could, if you laid it out carefully, store a solitary unlined linen jacket in the front boot. Other than that, it's the toothbrush of myth and nothing else.

So, it is not a car for doing long journeys that connect different destinations, unless you are the unusual sort who maintains a national network of wardrobe and toilette facilities. It's a car for short, circular journeys. Not even business trips: if you have a companion, there's no room for a document wallet or a laptop. It's hard to know where to put a newspaper.

Intended solely for the discreet pleasure of driving, Toyota's new roadster is in very competitive territory, because the only other cars that make that claim are Ferraris and even the most extreme of these has space for soft luggage and the Herald Tribune. There is another difference, however: the Toyota costs a fifth of a Ferrari Modena. Is it one-fifth of the value?

I'm not sure.

MR-2 stands for the Japlish 'Midship Runabout Two Seater', so you can see why they used the abbreviation. The name is not a snobbish reference to naval tradition but describes the position of the engine right behind the driver. This mid-engine format has been the standard in racing cars since the early '60s because it gives perfect weight distribution and keeps what engineers call the polar moment of inertia in the right place. But that sort of perfection is bought at a price: it brings imperfect packaging. With passengers and engine snug within the wheelbase, the only place for a boot is as front or rear overhang, a solution that makes nugatory the advantages brought by being mid-engined in the first place.

The MR-2 is brilliantly uncompromised or just plain daft, depending on your prejudice. The great advantage is that it handles beautifully. The steering, although pleasantly light, has great bite and feel. There's no lost motion and the ratio between input and response is an exhilarating 1:1. Visibility (with the hood down) is near perfect which, combined with the lack of invisible projections on this very small runabout, makes audacious manoeuvres safe and amusing.

Equally, because low weight was a design objective, there's relatively little momentum to be dumped in emergencies, which is another way of saying that the brakes work exceptionally well.

The engine is nothing special, being coarse and unmusical, but there's ample power and the MR-2 provides a wonderful Nippon tuck experience.

The plain daft school thinks differently. Why, for instance, not make the car ravishing to look at, sacrificing what few practicalities remain on the altar of Beauty? This stratagem has been violently refused: the MR-2 is plain. As in brown envelope. If you were struggling to find words of approval, you couldn't get loftier than 'neat' and 'unpretentious', even if you were a drug-crazed poet.

The same with the interior. Since MR-2 customers are by definition not practical types, there was nothing - except perhaps a lack of available talent - to stop the interior being interesting. Instead, you get Toyota Corporate, which is as boring as it sounds.

But all this harrumphing notwithstanding, it's impossible not to like the Toyota MR-2 simply because it is such a pleasure to drive. If you already had three cars, this might well be the fourth. It's just a shame that so many of the ticked boxes in this assessment are the lost-opportunity ones: luggage, style, interior. At the same time, there are other silly cars with bonkers handling available at similar cost which either have more interesting credentials (Caterham 7) or much better looks (Lotus Elise). And they go much harder.

The question begged by the third-generation MR-2 is whether a market exists for a Japanese sports car. Sales of its more elegant, luggage-carrying predecessor were soft, so the current design represents an incomplete re-think. You can see why they did it, but they did not know the Bulgarian proverb 'If you want to drown yourself, do not choose a shallow puddle'.

There's a good reason why big corporations rarely make successful sports cars: the necessary idiosyncrasy and sod-you mentality is not available in the big corporate environment. Toyota is the world's Number 3 car maker.

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