“The answer is always MX-5,” is what some quarters of the Internet would have you believe. And when you look at the breadth of options on offer, it’s hard to argue that the little Mazda Miata is unbeaten when it comes to affordable transport for the average petrolhead.
Want a modern classic beauty with pop-up headlights? That’ll be the NA. A bargain-basement roadster? Look no further than a tidy NB, if you can find one. The NC is looking more tempting by the day as prices fall, and if you want a brand sports car that costs not much more than £20k and isn’t a barebones Caterham Seven, the current ND is the only thing ticking that box.
And if you want something very powerful yet very light, all of these cars make great platforms for modifications. Turbochargers, superchargers, ITBs, full-on engine swaps - the world’s your oyster.
However, when it comes to keeping things standard, there is another strong but often overlooked contender for the best affordable sports car - the third-generation Toyota MR2. The ‘W30’ is somehow a car that’s escaped me up until now, but having at last had a go via the Toyota GB heritage car we had in for a recent YouTube shoot, I’m fully sold on the Mister Two.
Certainly not for the interior. The cabin arguably looked dated even when the W30 was launched way back in 1999, let alone by the time this particular example left the factory in 2006. It’s a see of chunky plastics and straight lines, but at least everything feels reasonably sturdy.
Naturally, the roof comes down before I depart, which involves undoing two latches that look remarkably similar to those found in older MX-5s. The fabric hood folds manually and clicks into place just behind the cabin, where you’ll also find some surprisingly big storage bins. A good job too, as you don’t get much luggage space elsewhere.
Warmed up and on the move, the MR2 quickly makes an impression. The 1ZZ-FED VVT-i 1.8-litre inline-four engine energetically spins up to its 6400rpm peak power point, sounding surprisingly burly as it nears the redline a few hundred revs later. This being a unit that makes a modest 138bhp, there’s no obvious variable-valve ‘kick’ as it comes on cam, but the W30 still feels nicely brisk under full load.
The reason for this is weight - the MR2 tips the scales at just under a tonne. It’s over 70kg lighter than the NB MX-5 it rivalled earlier on, and more like 120kg less bulky than the NC it went toe-to-toe with later on. As a consequence, the 0-62mph time is comfortably under seven seconds.
Modest peak torque of only 127lb ft coming in at 4400rpm means you need to work it hard to get the best from it, but that’s half the fun. Not just because of the noise and the N/A responsiveness, but also the gear change - each of the six ratios slots in beautifully with a short and accurate throw. It’s one of the best-shifting cars I’ve ever driven, at least on par with a potentially a little sweeter than an MX-5. It’s even more satisfying when shifting back down again, thanks to a set of pedals that are ideally placed for rev-matching.
Slow steering with a bit of a dead spot in the middle is usually the thing that dates an older car’s dynamics the most, but you’ll find none of that here. It’s a reasonably quick 2.7 turns lock to lock, and the power assistance feels nice and natural.
It responds nicely off-centre, but the only problem is, it seems to take a moment or two for the car to catch up. This is a soft, surprisingly high-riding car in its stock guise, something you’re reminded of every time you want to change direction quickly.
In the dry, though, both grip and traction are decent. On the latter front, there simply isn’t enough shove from the fizzy 1.8 to trouble the rear wheels, particularly with the standard-fit limited-slip differential on UK cars effectively doling out the torque. Although I’m yet to try one in the wet, I’m told soggier conditions bring out the MR2’s sketchier side - a light, mid-engined car with a short wheelbase is going to require much more attention than the average rear-drive sports car.
That’s the way it should be, don’t you think? It’s one of the main reasons MR2 trumps MX-5, but certainly not the only one. The W30 also sounds better, feels more exotic given the engine placement, seems less of an obvious choice, and importantly, it doesn’t rust as much.
That doesn’t mean ownership is guaranteed to be trouble-free. Even the newest ones are nearing 15 years old, and there’s the notorious pre-cat failure issue to worry about. This potential engine killer generally affects pre-facelift cars, but later ones aren’t immune. We’ll take you through this and the MR2’s other foibles in an upcoming buyer’s guide.
Be smart and spend a bit more money, though, and you’ll have a gem of a sports car that shouldn’t give too many headaches. It’s a joyful, effervescent car to drive, and yes, it proves that MX-5 is not always the answer.