Reprinted from Sports Car Illustrated, Dec., 1988
The narrow ribbon of black stretches ahead for nearly a mile. Through the glass panels above our cockpit, aircraft on final approach are visible. We pull onto the pad at the end, blackened by the forces of tarmac against tire. We do a quick engine run-up, check the gauges, make sure our launch path is clear. We firewall the engine, the compressor section making itself heard. As the revs climb through 80 percent of max, we launch.
A bit more than 15 seconds later, it’s all over. We haven’t left the ground, nor did we intend to. We’re not testing the Air Force’s latest interceptor, and we’re not on an airfield. Above, airplane drivers on final approach are still pointing their Lear jets at the threshold of Palomar Airport’s runway, a scant two miles away. But it’s doubtful that they’re having any more fun with their hightech toys than we are with ours. We’re at Carlsbad Raceway, testing a TRD-modified Toyota MR2 Supercharged.
We tested the stock MR2 Supercharged last January At that time, we found
it an excellent sports car, with plenty of power and competent handling. We called it “a genuine performance car” and “the best performance value available today.’ The subject of this test is all those things, and more.
The MR2 Supercharged tested here has been modified by Toyota Racing Development (TRD for short). The modifications to the already excellent 1.6 liter 16-valve supercharged and intercooled engine were limited to different size pulleys to speed up the supercharger drive, forcing even more air into the engine, and a high-flow exhaust system to let it all out again. TRD claims a two psi boost increase, upping the power 30 to 40 bhp, as well as greatly improving mid-range torque.
In the handling department, wider, super-sticky Yokohama AOO8R tires - 205/50 compared to the stock 185/60 - were mounted on attractive alloy rims an inch larger in diameter and one-half inch wider. The suspension modifications include TRD’s own springs, struts, and bushings, brake pads, and braided stainless steel brake lines.
Of all these bits and pieces, the wheels and tires take the biggest chunk out of the enthusiast’s checking account, at $1 600; the engine mods are $550, suspension $450 and brakes $200, all not counting installation. All things considered, a quite reasonable price.
What you get is even more of a kick when the throttle is opened or the wheel cranked over. Out on the drag strip, living out our fighter pilot fantasies, we tested both SCI’s box-stock long-term MR2 Supercharged and the TRD version of same. The numbers were surprising, but not the way you might think.
Both the stock car and the TRD machine went to 60 mph in exactly the same time, 7.21 seconds. The TRD car was quicker through the quarter mile, at 15.49 seconds and 89 mph, compared to the stock car’s only slightly slower 15.66 at 88 mph. Had we run them against each other instead of the clock, the TRD car would have won by only about 20 feet, Not quite what one would expect from a 40bhp increase. Yet the numbers make sense. The 60 mph time is largely dependent on what happens in the first few yards of the run, when both cars had ample surplus power to spin the tires. Add to this the fact that the TRD car has lived through 16.000 hard miles at the hands of a mixed bag of journalists, car testers and would-be racer types. The synchros for second and third gears were pretty well shot, which slowed down our shifts and added to the times. In fact, the transmission had already been scheduled for replacement after we returned the car.
We found that the best launch technique was to put the car in first gear, keep the clutch down, and snap open the throttle from idle to engage the clutches on the supercharger. The idea is to have the engine under load when launching, which may not be the case if the revs are held constant at a high level; Toyota’s automatic supercharger clutch and air bypass might then be disengaged just when you want them to be on-line, when the clutch hooks up. As the revs shoot upward, the clutch is let out at about 6000, just in time to grab at 7000 rpm. There is no clutch slip as the slack is taken up by the smoking, spinning tires. This method was so easy and fool-proof that it delivered consistent and repeatable quarter mile times. This car would be an ideal bracket racer for Saturday night drags
In braking, both cars came down from 60 mph in about 135 feet, consistently and without drama. Those are outstanding numbers. in the range which one normally expects from ABS equipped cars, or after a lot of practice with non ABS systems. The brakes on both cars were easy to modulate at impending lock-up, so there was no learning curve involved— Just easy, consistent, excellent stops. The TRD brakes were less prone to smoking and fading after repeated hard stops, and are a must for serious driving on race courses or mountain roads; for normal use, the stock brakes are excellent.
We did try to document the improved mid-range power by testing the engine flexibility. Starting the tests with
wide open throttle at about 25 mph, we programmed our test computer to measure the time required to go from 30 to 60 mph in third gear. The stock car came in at 6.68 seconds, the TRD was a bit quicker at 6.28. So there is definitely more midrange response, but hampered in this case by the relatively low revs for this test. Performed in second gear, a greater difference would have been noted.
So much for the sterile, straight-line data. How does this little wingless fighter plane feel on the road? If the stock car was excellent, this one is outstanding. In our January story, we commented on the lack of roll exhibited by the stock car: the TRD suspension mods underscore that point. The A008R tires are extremely grippy, and exhibit high cornering forces at low slip angles. In plain English. that means the steering wheel has to be turned less to get the same work out of the tires. We’ve noticed this effect on other cars, such as a 911 Carrera with ordinary (not “R" AOO8s, and found it again in the MR2. In fact, many of the MR2’s handling characteristics are similar to the 911’s but, thanks to its midship engine, without the Porsche’s terminal tail-happiness. The engine location nearer the center of the car also adds to the handling response. The moment of inertia is less than for an otherwise similarly sized car with its weight concentrated at the ends, so tire forces can change the car’s direction more rapidly Translation: it’s more agile.
The TRD car exhibited generally neutral handling behavior, which could be modified by power input. There’s plenty of power to break the rear end free at low and medium speeds, so the car can be steered with the throttle—something that no front-driver does very well, Back off the power in a high-speed sweeper, and the back end will get light, but it can be caught up easier than the Porsche, with decreased steering or increased throttle inputs. This is a car that demands to be driven through a turn under power: power stabilizes the back end. Incidentally, our test car and the SCI long termer are both first-generation 1988 models; the 1989 gets a rear anti-roll bar. Driven on a mountain road, the car squirts from turn to turn without turbo lag, is hauled down by the excellent brakes, corners precisely, going exactly where the driver points it, and comes out ready for the next hairpin. The steering and tires are so responsive that the car feels like a go-kart or Malibu Grand Prix rent-a-racer. Just think “apex” or “lane change” and you’re there.
The fighter plane analogy is emphasized by the airy greenhouse and removable glass top panels. No part of the supporting structure forward of the driver, including A-pillars, header or 1-bar, is wider than two inches. Combined with the large, steeply raked windscreen, this lends a very open feeling. Although some reviewers have criticized the view past the C-pillars and the unnecessary spoiler, I found the all-around visibility excellent. There are no blind spots, if you take the time to check your six visually and don’t rely on the mirrors. The driver needs to be aware of all the other craft around him, because the responsive engine and han dling encourage using the tiniest holes in traffic to move ahead. Inside the cockpit (and that overused term applies more tothis car than almost any other), the dials are legible. and the strictly no-nonsense controls are in all the right places. The seats, with adjustable side bolsters and lower cushion angle, offer good support for the hard driving which this car will encourage.
The MR2 Supercharged is an enthusiast’s bargain, at $17,308. Our car did not have any power options, nor did we miss them, but power windows and door locks would cost $480, leather seats $790. Cruise control at $220 and a choice of radios ($280 and $435) round out the options menu. By exercising some restraint when checking the options list, an outstanding two-seat performance car using the TRD mode can be put together for a little more than $20,000.
So for about the cost of a decent but older Cessna, you can have a brand new fighter of your own, with a few special tweaks to give you that extra edge. Once strapped in, you’ll be flying your own F-16, P-51 Mustang, Corsair, de Havilland Mosquito, or whatever creates your fantasy of flying on the ground.
With this machine, anybody can play Top Gun on the freeways. You face the risk of getting grounded if you use this car the way you—and it—would prefer, but you’re not likely to be shot down by any of those other, less agile small winged fighters. That’s the problem with being Top Gun: there’s always somebody trying to shoot you down. Let ‘em come.