2002 Toyota MR2 Spyder SMT new car reviews

So you want a real sports car, one that has an engine hooked to a traditional flywheel and clutch, but you believe using your left leg to shift is just plain overrated? Well, until recently, your only choices were to either live in your bitter little world, or go drop nearly a quarter mil on a Ferrari 360 with the nifty F1 shifter package. But since you're too lazy to even use your left leg, you probably don't have that kind of coin to spend on wheels.

Fear not: Toyota has lopped a zero off the price of the shiftless sports car with their introduction of the 2002 MR2 Spyder's optional sequential manual transmission setup.

Aside from the new shifting arrangement, it's like any other MR2 Spyder: beyond-excellent handling, typically awesome Toyota ergonomics, less-than-zero storage space, tight-fitting soft top, zippy 1.8-liter engine, well-spaced transmission ratios and cool styling reminiscent of a Lotus Elise.

The difference with this package is that that well-ratioed five speed is shifted through a combination of electronic and hydraulic doodads that make your left leg all but superfluous. This technology adds just 20 pounds to the car.

Inside the roomy, yet cocoon-like cockpit, you'll find a stylish, chrome-topped shift lever in the normal location. This lever, however, doesn't sprout from the traditional H pattern; instead, it's hooked to a gate that more closely resembles one you'd find with an automatic transmission.

On the left side of the pattern are positions for neutral and reverse, but when you move the lever toward the right, it goes into the Up or Down select mode. Simply pull back to shift up, or push forward to shift down. Anyone who has ever driven a motorcycle, shifter kart or a Legends car will be instantly at home. The transmission can also be shifted via buttons on the steering wheel, allowing full hands-on driving.

Clutch operation is left entirely up to the car's computer. When first gear or reverse is engaged and no pressure is applied to the throttle, the car simply acts as if the clutch is depressed. Give it some gas, and the computer automatically engages the clutch with a smoothness that most drivers only dream of. Clutch engagement is proportional to throttle application: Drive away gingerly, and the clutch is slipped to allow for a smooth takeoff; nail the gas, and the car waits until around 3000 rpm to drop the hammer.

Unfortunately, the clutch's smarts are not shared by the shift mechanism. While shifts are smooth, they are always completed at the same rate of speed, regardless of how aggressively you are driving the car. And that rate isn't exactly lickety split: It takes the MR2 more than half a second to complete a shift. This may not be a big deal when you're just puttering around town, but the feeling is downright unsettling when you're doing a full-throttle upshift. No matter what the car and engine speed, however, the computer performs perfect heel-toe downshifts.

While this auto-shift system isn't perfect, it is exceedingly cool and quite smart. We never "fooled" the system into a missed shift or unusual clutch engagement, and we tried everything: hills, left foot braking and sloppy throttle application, and nothing fazed the car.

So this may not be an ideal solution for autocrossing, where times would certainly suffer due to the slow shifts, but it is a glimpse at the future-and it could be an ideal car for anyone who can't drive a traditional manual transmission due to medical or other reasons. Toyota has brought the masses a technology that until recently was only available in exotics. Their first shot is pretty impressive, and our guess is that it's only going to get better from here.

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