- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

With its midengine design and nearly nonexistent luggage space, the two-seat Toyota MR2 Spyder is about as pure a sports car as you can find.

It's a toy, pure and simple, but no more so than the Porsche Boxster, which it resembles and which costs about twice as much. But toys sell well in happy times, not sad, and some potential buyers have been shying away from sports cars in the depressed economy following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

To help spark renewed interest in its little roadster in 2002, Toyota offers for the first time on any of it cars a sequential manual transmission.

Though it's a mouthful of words, it's actually not very descriptive. If you shift up or down through the gears on any manual transmission, it's sequential. What's more important about the Toyota SMT is that it gets the job done without a clutch pedal.

As interesting as it is, the concept is nothing new. Way back in the 1960s, you could buy a Saab with a Saxomat manual transmission, without a clutch pedal. Volkswagen also had a pedal-free manual, the Automatic Stick Shift, on the old rear-engine Beetle.

Those early efforts operated the clutch with hydraulics. Touching the shift lever activated the clutch so you could shift gears. It worked after a fashion, but the idea never caught on.

Toyota's answer to the question hardly anybody asked was to adapt racing technology. Its SMT uses computers to operate the clutch, help shift the gears and control the throttle. SMTs are used on some race cars because they offer split-second gear changes without human error.

If you've never used an SMT before, it takes a bit of learning. There's a shift lever where you'd expect it, but it has slots only for reverse, neutral and forward. In the forward setting, you tap the lever back for each shift up to the next highest gear. To downshift, you tap the lever forward.

You can also accomplish the same thing from the steering wheel. There are two sets of buttons for the right and left hands. The buttons on the back of the steering wheel upshift, and the ones on the front downshift.

Like a manual gearbox with a clutch, it takes a bit of practice to smoothly shift the five-speed transmission up and down. It feels more intuitive at first to use the floor shifter because that's what you do with a standard stick shift, but the buttons are easy to learn.

The SMT does have one automatic function: When you come to a full stop, it automatically puts the transmission back into first gear, regardless of where it was when you were moving.

But it doesn't downshift automatically when you just slow down, as when you're going slowly around a corner, so you have to remember to downshift or the engine starts lugging.

The operation is similar to those automatic transmissions that have manual-shift modes. But the SMT definitely is not the same. For example, when you're pointed uphill at a stop sign, with the transmission in first gear, the car will still roll backward if you take your foot off the brake, just as it would with the clutch pedal depressed on an ordinary stick-shift car.

Of course, the upside is that you don't have to do the dreaded manual transmission exercise of starting on hills with the hand brake on, one foot on the gas and the other on the clutch.

To start the MR2 Spyder with the SMT, you have to have the transmission in neutral and your foot on the brake. Then you can shift into forward or reverse. On cold mornings, however, the test car refused to follow orders. It would stay in neutral even though the lever had been engaged. Eventually it would make the transition, but it was an annoyance.

Bottom line: Unless you are extremely challenged on left-foot dexterity, you'd be better off to stick with the regular five-speed and save the $780 extra for the SMT.

The other huge downside with the SMT is that you can never leave your car at valet parking. The vast majority of car jockeys would have no clue how to operate it and might even do some damage.

Shifting aside, Toyota's MR2 remains one of the best values around for pure driving joy. The test car, with the SMT and leather upholstery, had a suggested sticker price of $25,000. A standard five-speed with cloth upholstery starts at $23,494.

For that, you get a fast (zero to 60 in under seven seconds) and nimble-handling sports car with an easy-opening manual top that even makes its own tonneau cover.

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