ZZW30 Toyota MR2 Spyder
(Submitted by Car Lust reader and commenter Tigerstrypes)
“It’s ugly-looking. And girly-ish.” Those were my (slightly politically incorrect) thoughts when I looked at the ZZW30 Toyota MR2 Spyder around the mid-‘00s. So imagine my surprise when my Uncle goes out and buys a used one. He’s a strange one. Depending on the deal, he has no qualms on changing a street machine for a 4x4 or vice-versa. Threw me for a loop a couple of times. But an MR2 Spyder?
This wouldn’t matter so much if a certain event hadn’t taken place. In an earlier date, I was flaunting my beloved hand-me-down car magazine that I own. In it, there was a comparison between the Mazda Miata and the Toyota MR2 Spyder. Intrigued, Uncle asked who won.
“The Miata.” I said proudly.
"Really? Get real!” he answered in disbelief.
Back then I didn’t think much of the Miata (I also thought it was girly and didn’t have a clue how important it was to the sports car community), but I preferred its looks over those of the Spyder. The Mazda won, end of story. Who was he to judge the final verdict of the Car and Driver staff, I very, very naively thought, believing that all car magazine writers’ words were infallible.
Could it be a touch of nostalgia that swayed to the midship way of thinking? He once owned a new-ish, pre-owned AW11 (first-gen) Toyota MR2 that belonged to a friend of his, albeit briefly, as he almost got killed by another driver. Yet, during those blissful moments of ownership, could they have been enough to consider the AW11’s ugly, metrosexual grandson?
Looking back at that beloved old magazine today, I realized that I haven’t read it in at least 6 years. It may have been longer for the Miata vs. MR2 Spyder article. By the article’s date, the Miata had gotten fatter and the MR2 was brand-new. While re-reading it, it came to my attention that the MR2 was indeed the sportiest, lightest, and ergo, just slightly more fun to drive than the Miata, if you were into oversteering. Yet the reason it won was because for what (very) little sportiness that was given up, it made up for being a more, ahem, practical vehicle. This instantly gave me a knee-jerk reaction to prefer the MR2 Spyder over the Miata. Add to that the fact that in the first 2 years, it only came in manual trans-only, and I was almost sold! Almost. By the way, in ’02, the sequential manual transmission, SMT, came up so one could play F-1 fantasies, first in 5-speeds, then 6. I’m not sure if they all came with the nifty chrome ball gear selector on ’em, and all info found on their performance has been mixed.
Deciding to not only focus my finding on just one magazine’s findings, I dug around a little in the web. What I found was surprising. Even though the ZZW30 MR2 Spyder was down in power compared to previous generations and only came in convertible form, it was considered to be a more pure sports car than the previous model, the SW20 MR2 (seeing that I’ve only begun to pay attention to the existence of that car, I personally cannot say if this theory holds water). Gone are the turbochargers from the SW20 and the supercharger from the AW11 in favor for a N/A I-4. The disappearance of a solid roof also meant the disappearance of T-tops. Said options on previous generations’ added weight, the W30 lost that weight, making it lighter than the original U.S.-spec N/A AW11. How often does that happen in the car world?
The same morning my Uncle appeared with the MR2 Spyder for the first time, he offered me a drive. I accepted. Despite what I thought about the car’s appearance, by this time I knew a little bit more tech on cars. I knew that because of the engine layout, the car would handle unlike anything I have ever had the opportunity to ride shotgun in. It was, in engineering terms at least, much more of a racecar than my Uncle’s previous steeds, which included standouts like Chrysler Conquests and Buick Grand Nationals.
I also learned (and forgot shortly thereafter) that “MR” in MR2 stood for Midship Runabout.
The Spyder ranks as one of the lowest cars I’ve ever ridden in. It holds a couple of "automotive firsts." One is the ride. It was stiff. Being raised in a family that drove minivans and SUVs made that observation MUCH more dramatic. It took me a while to get used to it. I believe it was also the first convertible I had the opportunity to experience with the top down. Or just the first convertible, period.
But what happened next took me completely by surprise. My Uncle accelerated. “Peppy,” I thought. It definitely sounded sporty (read: loud). But Uncle didn’t slow down. Instead he took the corner full throttle! No tire squeal. All the drama was unraveling on my stomach to be specific. I felt this sensation that I’ve never felt before. “What the h@!! is going on?” I asked myself. Then it was all over. We took a much slower road and headed home. My stomach? No, it wasn’t my breakfast becoming unsettled. I believe those were cornering G-Forces, the first I’ve ever experienced in an automobile.
The second time I rode in that car it was just to run an errand to somewhere I can’t recall. A pool store? Anyways, the guy working there was a friend of my Uncle (Uncle has a lot of friends). By this time the Spyder had sporty black aftermarket wheels that, in my opinion at the time I believed looked out of place. I remember talking to Uncle about them (like, “Why?”). I’ve naturally forgotten most of the conversation, but I do remember not following him (something about wheel balancing, weights, and vibration, perhaps?). Oh, well.
For at least a good half-hour, my Uncle and his friend bench-raced (well, to what I paid attention to anyways). It seems this friend also had an MR2 (I assume it too was a Spyder). Ideas of possible modifications were thrown. Some subtle, some not. Suggestions and prices were mentioned. It seems that a couple of pieces in carbon fiber weren’t that expensive at all. After saying our farewells, Uncle drove me back home. It was the last time I rode in that car…
…But not the last time I’d see it. After a very short ownership period, Uncle sold it to another friend of his. He was totally OK with it, as he later told me he got a very good profit margin because of it (it seems that’s all he remembers of the thing!).
The new owner lives nearby from me and to this day I still see it from time to time. The stock wheels came back (Uncle told me his friend ruined the sporty black ones). The ‘MR2’ letters disappeared one by one as years rolled by; the headlights have yellowed; there’s a scuff on the left corner of the rear bumper. It has become a 15-20 footer, a 10+-year-old car. I decided to not get a picture of it because it just looks factory-stock. Also (read: mainly), it would be very weird that a lanky young man claiming to be a relative of a friend of said owner came out of nowhere to take a picture of his used, sorta-daily driver. It would be too troublesome. Plus, the guy is a lawyer, so…
Up until I wrote this, I’ve taken the Spyder (look, no more sarcastic pronunciation through italics!) for granted. I got more respect for the thing now, though, admittedly, while it has moved a peg or three in rankings of my personal wishlist, I don’t see myself in one. Then again… If I fit in one today, my ZZW30 MR2 Spyder will definitely have the rare hard top and some deep-dish wheels. Maybe some fender flares if need be. J-spec badging on the nose and steering wheel (if I leave it) would be sweet. And sporty exhaust system (especially if it’s an ’00-’02 model, their pre-cats are troublesome). Wonder how difficult would be a RHD conversion, just for the h@!! of it… Realistically, the wildest thing I would probably do would be to get an European domestic market (EDM) MR2 Spyder 6-speed manual and a limited-slip differential. Celica GT-S (180hp vs 140hp) engine swap? Nah. Turbo? Ehh… Perhaps get a rollcage and bucket seat as I don’t want history to repeat itself (Uncle got T-boned in his AW11, remember?). And I definitely gotta do something with those headlights…
Image credits: MR2 taking a right: TheCarConnection.com. Euro-spec MR2 pic link: CarAndDriving.com. Overhead MR2 suspension pic link: GoAuto.com. The Kenny Chieu/KINOD MR-S pic link: i135.PhotoBucket.com.
For more ZZW30 love, and the Miata vs. Spyder road test, go here: The Car Lounge.