Toyota gets a lot of flak among motoring circles for mostly making passionless economical cars that have as much soul as an office photocopy machine. But, the truth, I suspect, is much more devious.
You see, they get it right when they want to, as evident in the Supra, Celica, AE 86, FT-86 and when the tarmac ends, their off-road examples are at par with the best in the world.
Toyota makes boring cars because that’s what moves, like plain white bread. Wholesome, full fibre-bread with nuts is wonderful and everyone should be eating it but white bead fills a simple repetitive need affordably.
I would not be surprised to come across a folder locked away in the annals of Toyota HQ marked white-bread commuting solutions. They strictly follow a proven formula of reliability, efficiency and please-everyone inoffensiveness. That’s the reason everywhere you turn you see a Toyota.
But, every once in a while, the management gives engineers and designers carte blanche to raid the vast financial reserves and resources to make a car that reminds everyone that they can make pant-wetting cars if they want to.
This was clearly what happened when they made the Lexus LFA, which took five years to develop and then just as they were about to release it, decided that the aluminium body was too heavy and decided to take another five years making it out of carbon fibre and having the engine note tuned by Yamaha.
The development cost was so high that they made a loss with every car sold but the point was to make a point, not a profit.
But you don’t have to sell your kidney to have a great sports car from the Japanese marque and one of the very best is also one of the most affordable: the Toyota MR2.
Stick to the second generation, the first is fidgety and the third, though a looker, has the wrong gearbox. What you want is the second generation, which at first glance looks Italian and was dubbed the poor man’s Ferrari on account of being strikingly similar to the 355, specifically, the Japanese market GT-S.
This came with a turbocharged 230 horsepower 2.0-litre engine and a manual transmission. Which is what I had. It sits and rides more comfortably than both the first and third gen cars and, the smooth curved silhouette is better to look at.
On the inside Toyota employed small-car wizardry that ensures even at six foot one, you’re comfortable with a wonderful wide view of the road. The interior, unfortunately, is classic Toyota: boring, bland and uninspired.
Turn the key and you literally feel the engine thrumming through the steering wheel, pop it into first and it feels heavy and mechanical and in five metres, you know that this is a special car.
You don’t pose in this because it’s not a poser’s car. You fill it up with petrol and point it at a corner, and then you find another corner and point it at that and when the petrol finishes you fill it up again and find some more corners.
At 3,000 rpm, it sounds like a billion bees buzzing in your ear, accentuated by the whoosh of the spinning turbo and sticks to the racing line like a guided laser. You always feel where the front wheels are and the electro-hydraulic steering is so full of feel that if you were to run over an insect you could tell what gender it is. And if it had had lunch.
Most modern sports cars are cocooned in safety and comfort and, as a result, feel distanced from the organic essence of a man driving a machine. In the MR2, it’s the only thing there is. Turn the nose in and the car pivots on the apex of a corner with the agility of a pole dancer.
On straights keep the revs up and it scampers like an exited puppy while the engine note urges you on an on. It’s not particularly fast and will be left in the dust by anything from the turn on the millennium, but you’ll be having a bigger smile than anyone else.
The best part about it is that underneath all that driving flamboyance, it really is just another Toyota: still practical, efficient and reliable. The only difference is that it has fire burning in its pop up headlights. Poor man’s Ferrari? Yes, please!