PHOENIX - It had been 100 days since the arid Arizona desert surrounding Phoenix had seen a drop of rain. With Murphy's Law being what it is, locals celebrated the end of the drought on the same dayMotor Corp. chose to uncap its two new-for-'01 convertibles.
The nagging drizzle did not persuade most drivers to pull over to raise the tops on's two new, limited-production image-builders: the MR2 Spyder, the highly anticipated roadster, and the Camry Solara convertible.
Rain or shine, the MR2 Spyder - Toyota's third MR2 iteration but far different than its predecessors - proves itself a worthy competitor in the roadster segment. It's just one of a spate of roadsters to debut since the trend picked up steam a couple of years back, generating such entries as theS2000, Z3 and Porsche Boxster.
Toyota's roadster incarnation, however, is the only one to go head-to-head against theMiata, which has enjoyed a decade-long run as the only entry in the affordable roadster class.
Though it doesn't blow the Miata out of the water, the Spyder does provide a nice alternative to the standard-bearer. The MR2, a product of Toyota's defunct "Genesis" marketing division, marks the automaker's first-ever stab at the 2-seat drop-top - the previous-generation MR2s all were fixed-roof coupes. Joining the Echo and new Celica as products designed to reinvigorate the youth market, the MR2 Spyder works hard to appeal to the kids - from a simple body structure to facilitate customization to a low(ish) base price of $23,098.
Keeping it simple, the MR2 is offered only in one trim level and with one engine/transmission choice, and it's the first Toyota ever offered strictly as a convertible.
But the sporty little car goes deeper than image and affordability. The rear-drive roadster appeals to a driver with the desire to shoot across the Arizona desert and be a little daring on the nearby mountain curves. The engine - placed amidship as with the previous-generation MR2s to deliver the theoretical optimum in handling and steering precision - is the new 1.8L DOHC 4-cyl., which also powers the Celica GT.
The 1ZZ-FE engine, mated to a 5-speed manual transmission, produces 138 hp at 6,400 rpm and 125 lb.-ft. (169 Nm) of torque at 4,400 rpm. The MR2 is a featherweight at 2,200-lbs. (1,000 kg), and the power-to-weight ratio helps produce a none-too-shabby 0-to-60 mph (0-to-97 km/h) acceleration time of just less than 7 seconds.
Its braking skills, impressive as its take-off abilities, are backed up by a 4-wheel antilock brake system that can decelerate from 70 mph (112 km/h) to a complete stop in 167 ft. (51 m).
The midengine layout lends itself to dazzling handling, also allowing for the short overhangs, low center of gravity and long wheelbase that create the requisite driving stability. The wheelbase, 96.4 ins. (245 cm), is equal to the Z3, beats the S2000 and Boxster by an inch, and registers a full 7 ins. (18 cm) longer than the Miata.
The long wheelbase also provides for the MR2's stand-out styling. "Cute" might describe Miata, but MR2 designers wanted more of a tough-guy image, with sharper angles, straight lines and oversized, triangular headlights. The look carries well into the industrial, chrome-accented interior.
The Spyder is not for the road-trip minded. Due to the midengine layout, trunk space is almost non-existent, but Toyota incorporates storage compartments wherever possible.
Toyota only plans to sell 5,000 units annually, far less than Miata's sales of some 17,700 in 1999. The low output may make for buzz-creating waiting lists at the dealers, though.
The Camry Solara convertible couldn't be more dissimilar to its scrappy younger brother. But it is just as pleasing, appealing to the Camry fan who, every once in a while, likes to feel a breeze. The Solara convertible is upscale, roomy and serene, reminiscent of the family-oriented soft-tops of the 1950s new suburbia.
Toyota says the Solara convertible is meant to appeal to the successful 40-year-old who is feeling nostalgic about the sports cars of his youth but needs a comfortable car that can fit the entire family. In other words, a mid-life crisis kept in check.
Toyota indeed achieves its goal to compete at the top end of the midsize segment. Directly derived from the Solara Coupe, the convertible is powered by the same 200-hp, 3L DOHC V-6 also available in the Camry.
All Solara models are built at the Toyota Motor Mfg. Canada (TMMC) plant in Cambridge, Ont., and the convertible model will be built in conjunction with ASC Inc., which set up shop nearby. The convertibles get a workout before ever hitting pavement: the coupe body shell is built at TMMC and then moved to the ASC facility, which summarily removes the roof and installs structural reinforcements. The car then returns to TMMC for a paint job, running gear and an interior, before returning once again to ASC for trim, quarter windows and installation of the power-folding soft-top.
A top-down drive at top speeds reveals that all stability measures were well worth it - nary a shimmy, shake or irritating vibration - usually par for the course in midsize convertibles. What's more, the convertible achieves somewhat of a miracle in airflow: The driver emerges unmussed, hairdo intact, and ready for the business lunch or parent-teacher meeting.
Toyota ensures the driver need not sacrifice any of the coupe's luxury and comfort, even installing a JBL sound system that adjusts treble and bass ranges depending on whether the top is up or down.
Toyota sold 448,000 of its Camry models in 1999, making it the country's top-selling car. Some 52,000 of those were Solara coupes. The automaker estimates it will sell just 3,500 Solara convertibles this year and 6,000 in subsequent years. It is available in two trim levels: the SE, which bases at $28,008, and the SLE, which starts at $30,488.