Toyota's 1991 MR2 is a grown-up, full-fledged sports car that is roomier, more luxurious and better styled than the one it replaces.
Plus it has performance in spades when ordered with the turbocharged engine that is optional this year.The original MR2 had a lively, twin-cam engine that begged to be driven hard. It was quick, but not necessarily fast. Its angular body was tightly creased, and the tiny trunk held a golf bag and little else. Clearly the emphasis was on driving fun, not comfort and livability.
Now Toyota has evolved the original concept into a bona fide sports coupe that looks as if it could have been designed in Italy instead of Japan. It's curvy where the other was angular. And the side strakes in front of the air intakes reflect a Ferrari influence, which is carried on in the design of the rear window and engine cover.
Maybe the MR2 secretly wishes it was a Ferrari.
Pounce on the throttle of the turbo version and you'll be convinced it wants to be a Ferrari. There's a solid kick in the pants, and the well-balanced handling and plush interior tell you that this is a sports car that gives away little to its competition.
It lacks the hatchback utility and hushed quiet of the Supra, but it appeals to those who like the cut-and-thrust agility of a mid-engine design.
This MR2 is more fully developed than the old one, and that shows through most in the suspension. The ride is firm without being jarring, and the handling is top-notch. The suspension is not quite up to the standards found in some high-dollar German cars such as Porsche, but it's not far behind.
There's a bit of choppiness at slow speeds on rough roads, but as speed increases the ride smooths out. That taut feeling on the highway imparts a sense of security, and helps the MR2 disguise just how fast you're really going. As is often the case with truly capable cars, it feels relaxed at high speeds. Like a thoroughbred horse, it knows your moves almost before you make them.
Adding to its high-speed composure are ventilated disc brakes that haul it to a stop with little fanfare, which is the idea. Anti-lock is optional.
There are two engine choices, turbo or non-turbo. The non-turbo engine is a 2.2-liter four-cylinder, with 16 valves, fuel-injection and 130 horsepower.
For those who want a boot in the backside, the turbo is the obvious choice. The two-liter, four-cylinder pumps out a frantic 200 horsepower, enough to propel it to 60 mph in 5.96 seconds, according to Toyota. If you have a track handy it could hit nearly 145 mph.
The combination of a turbo with a high-revving engine creates a broad powerband that ranges from 2,000 rpms to 7,000. A small turbo gives the midrange power a significant boost, and by 5,000 rpms most of its effect is gone. This is like two engines in one.
Near maximum revs this engine is loud and somewhat noisy, but the available power makes up for that.
The gearshift is still stubby, and can be shifted with a flick of the wrist. If anything, the shift pattern is so close that sometimes you're not sure you're getting the gear you want.
Make no mistake, the turbo is a fast car, but its handling is so adept that it never feels over its head. Most drivers won't approach its handling limits without a racetrack.
Rounding out the grown-up nature of the MR2 is an interior that is well thought out and simply designed. It was inviting without being overdone, heightened by the optional glove-soft leather of the test car.
Base price of the MR2 turbo is $18,228. The test car was loaded with options such as a seven-speaker stereo and compact disc player, leather seats, sunroof, electronic power steering, anti-lock brakes, air-conditioning, cruise control, power windows, power locks and floor mats.
Power mirrors, driver's side airbag, interval wipers, rear defogger, tilt steering wheel and tinted glass are standard.
The sticker price was $23,918.