Campbell samples the everyman Lotus – Toyota’s MR2 Roadster

| 4 Apr 2013

Having spent the week enviously watching other members of the team troop out to drive their choice of model for our £10k sports car feature, it was a nice surprise to end up with the keys to a Mk3 Toyota MR2.

A few days earlier I had been arguing for its inclusion as a cheaper alternative to the cars on test and Elliott, in a shock move, agreed with me – offering it up as a cut-price substitute for the Vauxhall VX220.

With such esteemed support I was clearly on to something, and so it proved when I took the Roadster out for a spin on an uncharacteristically sunny afternoon last month.

Having owned two original Elans and an Elise, Elliott takes the form of a chain-smoking Yoda when it comes to expressing the virtues of light sports cars. And, straight out of the box, everything I’d heard our leader wax lyrical about made sense in the MR2.

The Mk3 incarnation is the lightest that Toyota has built and it shows. It breezes through the gears in a way that makes other moderns feel like lumbering rugby props, while a pleasing exhaust note accompanies its revy nature.

The benefits of less weight also carry through to the suspension. I’m not going to say the MR2 rides as well as an Elan – no need to give Elliott a seizure just yet – but it is relatively softly sprung, absorbing bumps with panache while keeping a reassuring command of things in the corners.

The MR2 (which has a standard-fit Limited-Slip Differential) inspires confidence and in the dry it’s almost impossible to upset its composure, even at a spirited pace.

As the first mid-engined car I have driven, I sadly can’t compare it to others of its ilk, but the ease with which I grew comfortable with the Toyota serves only to demonstrate its accessibility.

The steering was probably the biggest surprise, light and with bags of communication, though it could feel nervous at first.

In the wet, things were different. The Mk3’s modest outputs – 138bhp and 125lb ft of torque – could, I'd hazard a guess, provoke oversteer, but in the interests of staying employed I was happier to avoid sampling the outer limits of the performance envelope. The balance was there to feel, though.

But does the MR2 deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as a Lotus? I would say yes. Within the constraints of a modern and cheap car, I reckon that it provides many of the thrills offered by a Lotus, but adds to them with an easy-to-drop roof and improved reliability.

Its watered-down Porsche Boxster looks could be better, as could its sea-of-plastic interior – and there’s no boot – but none of these could put me off ownership, especially at these prices.

So, when I handed back the keys to the generous man from Toyota I experienced a glimpse of Elliott’s heartbreak when he sold his baby Elan.

The best cars are more than mere transport – they get under your skin and form a character that make you want to drive them as much as possible, night and day.

That the MR2 shares this quality with James’ Elan is high praise indeed.