Miata Isn't the Answer? 5 Reasons the Toyota MR2 Spyder Might be the Better Japanese Sports Car
When it comes to enthusiast cars of the last 30 years, there are few models as beloved as the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Since it was introduced in 1990, the Miata has defined the affordable sports car segment with fantastic reliability, classic front-engine, rear drive dynamics, a cheap price and endless aftermarket potential.
Even today with the value of well-kept first generation Miatas starting to rise at a significant rate, the phrase “Miata is always the answer” still rings true for track-day junkies, driving enthusiasts and fans of Japanese sports cars. And for good reason.
But there’s another, lightweight, two-seat Japanese roadster that isn’t talked about as much that can match the beloved Miata in almost every category and actually surpass it in many of them — including that elusive bang for the buck.
That car is the 2000-2006 Toyota MR2 Spyder, better known as the MR-S in its home market of Japan. As a lifelong Miata fanboy and the current owner of an ‘96 NA8 model, the MR2 Spyder had always hung around the periphery of my interests — respected and appreciated but not especially desired.
But that all changed a couple months ago when a free afternoon and an unexpectedly accepted lowball offer saw me becoming the owner of a 2000 MR2 Spyder with 150,000 miles on the clock and a five-speed manual transmission.
Even on my short initial test drive, I was blown away by how fun the car was. In fact, it was fun enough to convince me to make the aforementioned offer.
And after owning it for a bit, my admiration for this platform has only grown. I’ll always have a huge soft spot for the Miata, but having experienced both cars I can lay out five reasons why the MR2 Spyder might be the better choice than an NA or the mechanically similar NB Miata.
The MR2 Spyder, like seemingly every car out there has risen in value in the last couple years. Yet it still delivers great bang for the buck, even when compared to the perennial value champ that the Miata is.
And with nice examples of the NA Miata starting to get into the collector car zone, in a lot of cases the Spyder can actually be cheaper than a comparable Miata. You can still find decent, running examples of the MR2 Spyder for $5,000-$8,000 or an ultra clean one for around $10,000.
By far the biggest drawback of the Miata's small size is the lack of space for larger and taller drivers. There all sorts of tricks out there to make an NA or NB Miata more comfortable for a taller driver, but it's sometimes hard to escape the feeling that you are riding on the car rather than in it.
The MR2 is certainly no Cadillac, but when compared to an NA or NB there is a significant improvement in cabin space — and that can make a huge difference for a taller driver. The cabin is also noticeably wider, although some might be turned off the by the Spyder's lack of a real trunk when compared to the Miata.
Nobody is looking to buy a Miata or MR2 Spyder because they want a fast car — and especially not one that's fast in a straight line. But with that said, the MR2 Spyder isn't actually as slow as you might think.
It only makes 138hp from its 1.8L 1ZZ four-cylinder engine, but with a weight of just 2,200 lbs, it's not a car that needs a lot of power. In fact, it's actually 150-200 pounds lighter than a comparable NB Miata, and while its 0-60 time of about seven seconds isn't quick, it's not the gutless wonder you might think it is.
The biggest difference between the Miata and the MR2 Spyder isn't the performance, it's the feel. Mid-engined cars are hard to come by at any price range and the fact that MR2 delivers this exotic layout with the reliability and temperament of an economy car is pretty great.
"Go kart-like" is a term often used to describe the Miata's fun factor, but the mid-engined Spyder actually feels more like go kart when you drive it, thanks not just to its lighter weight but also to its quick turn-in and distinct balance that you typically find in much more expensive cars.
The "Unique" Factor
That's not to say that the MR2's driving character is superior to the Miata's traditional and proven front-engine layout. It's just different. And really, being different is what the MR2 Spyder is all-about.
The Miata is a known entity, immediately recognizable even by non-enthusiasts. Like a Ford Mustang or a Porsche 911 or a Corvette it's hard to attend a track day or car meet without seeing a couple of them.
The MR2 on the other hand is not an obscure vehicle per say, but a lot of casual observers on the street might not know what they are looking at when they see one.
Two Flavors of Japanese Sports Car
Fortunately though, the MR2 Spyder has a big enough following that there's still a nice amount of aftermarket support for it, even if it can't match the Miata in that department.
Whether its simple upgrades for the stock motor, the popular, bolt-in 2ZZ engine swap or even a V6 swap, the little Toyota doesn't suffer from a lack of options.
For now, I've heard from a number of MR2 owners that set of wider wheels and stickier tires truly transforms the car, so that's going to be my first order of business.
Ultimately, experiencing the fun of the Toyota MR2 Spyder has raised two issues. The first is, why did I wait to long to get one of these cars. The second is trying to come up with excuses as to why I need to have TWO different two-seat Japanese roadsters in my garage.
More From Driving Line
- Want to hear the other side of the story? Here's 5 reasons to love the Miata.