Obviously by writing this I'm dooming us all to a prolonged spell of wet weather. Sorry for that. But if the spring sunshine has you pondering summer road trips in an open top car permit me to present you with a temptingly cheap option. So long as you can get by travelling light. As in 'spare pair of pants and a toothbrush' light.
MAY 09th 2017
Dan Trent: Toyota MR2 – the ultimate impulse summer buy?
Think cheap Japanese roadster and you'll inevitably be picturing some form of Mazda MX-5. I should know. I bought one on a whim six years ago and haven't looked back since. But here's one you might have forgotten about, one that arguably plays the proper baby sports car more convincingly and gets you a taste of Lotus Elise-style handling for a fraction of the money.
Yup, I'm talking Mk3 Toyota MR2. One of those cars that seemed quite a regular sight at the time but has kind of vanished from public consciousness already. To the point there is a good selection of cars around from just £1,500 or so. Yes, really. That's cheap enough to stick on a credit card, pack in a couple of summer road trips, a track day or two and then sell on before the leaves fall from the trees.
And look at what you're getting. A mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive roadster – good. Toyota reliability – better still. And the kind of lightweight, minimalist driving thrills you thought were the sole preserve of specialist brands based in Norfolk. Because although it's only got 139bhp the MR2 is a sub-tonne car (just), runs on nice skinny tyres and is therefore a lively, playful little car with realistic performance you can enjoy to the full on the public road without troubling your licence.
OK, they're not beautiful cars. But there's a functional appeal to the blocky lines and, like many cars, look a load better with a little ride height chopped out of the stock chassis settings. Cheap and easy enough to do and the standard five-spoke wheels are attractive and just 16-inch in size, meaning tyres are cheap. This would be another investment worth making, the MR2's delicate balance meaning a matching set of quality rubber and carefully monitored pressures can have a transformative effect on the way it drives.
Post-2002 cars are worth seeking out, these having six-speed gearboxes, extra body stiffening and modifications to the engine to prevent the ovalisation of the cylinder bores and subsequent habit of sucking the lining of the 'pre-cat' emissions system into the engine. All you need to know about that is you don't want it to happen. Other than that the zingy 1.8-litre engine is typically Toyota reliable and related to the unit later used by Lotus. As such engine swaps for more powerful supercharged motors are relatively straightforward if you want more power.
Sub-£2K cars are around if you want to go the route of truly disposable fun but spending double that gets you a broader range of more appealing cars. Still peanuts for a mid-engined sports car, this black, one-owner car with what sounds like a decent history is very appealing for £3,995. I'd have to check the exact age but as a 2004 car it should have the additional body bracing added as an update and further improving body stiffness and handling.
Bringing us back to the practicality thing. Famously the luggage space in these cars is restricted to a couple of tiny cubbies behind the seats and a small bin in the front, though that's mainly taken up with the space saver spare. This was much moaned about when the car was launched but for a second or weekend car the kind of thing you could live with I'd venture. Pack light, hit the road and make the most of the sunshine!
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