2002 Toyota MR2 Spyder SMT

Toyota's new Sequential Manual Transmission is cool, but it's not a performance option yet

First of all, we hate manu-matics. They're clumsy, slow to shift and pure marketing bunk. We still haven't driven one that offers the control of a real manual transmission, contrary to what the ads claim.

Going in, we thought the new Sequential Manual Transmission in Toyota's MR2 Spyder was going to be more of the same. We figured it to be just another automatic with a slapstick shifter like the one Toyota offers on the Celica. Man, were we wrong. The new SMT is a real clutchless manual transmission, which operates on the same principles as the sequential transmissions found in the Ferrari 360 Modena F1 and Aston Martin Vanquish--both mondo-expensive supercars.

What makes it so cool? Well, it downshifts and matches revs perfectly at the touch of a button or flick of the shifter. Every time. No mistakes. It makes the years we spent learning to heel-and-toe downshift seem wasted.

The key ingredient in the MR2 SMT is the manual gearbox, which is the same manual gearbox found in the five-speed version. We didn't dyno the SMT for this reason. It's realistic to expect dyno numbers between the two cars to be the same. Shifting is handled by simple hydraulic cylinders and a hydraulic pump. In fact, short of those bits, the only other change to the MR2 SMT's powertrain is a drive-by-wire throttle, which is coupled to the SMT's shift logic and used to match revs during downshifts. Which, not coincidentally, is the only time we could tell the throttle isn't controlled through conventional means.

In practice, the SMT is unlike any gearbox we've ever driven, but surprisingly, driving this techno-savvy hot rod becomes intuitive quickly.

Just getting it to turn over requires some fiddling. Toyota has programmed the car to start only in neutral, so you must first select neutral with either the gear selector or the steering wheel-mounted shift buttons.

Once fired, motion is a simple matter of selecting first gear and opening the throttle.

We found ourselves using the gear selector rather the shift buttons on the wheel most of the time--especially during hard driving.

Unlike every manually shiftable automatic we've driven, pulling backwards on the shifter rather than pushing forward initiates upshifts. This is far more intuitive when accelerating. Conversely, you push the lever forward for downshifts, which is another sign this car was put together by real driving enthusiasts. Shifter karts and CART Champ cars use the same set-up.

Once underway, the SMT upshifts and downshifts on command with imperceptible delay, unlike most manu-matics, which think about shifting for a while before they actually do it. But it's also important to note that the SMT drives nothing like a conventional automatic or manu-matic. It doesn't creep from idle when it's in gear or shift unless you tell it to. Need to ride the redline for a few seconds to make it to the next corner? No

problem. The SMT won't do anything you haven't asked for--just like a real manual.

Things aren't perfect however. Yank the lever back a click and the SMT begins to grab the next gear instantly, but the shift takes entirely too long to complete. Upshifts are painfully slow. The system cannot differentiate between city driving and a full mountain road assault. Every upshift takes the same amount of time.

Real enthusiasts will be as frustrated with this aspect of the high-tech tranny as they are impressed with its awesome downshifts. And they are truly awesome. Charge into a second-gear corner in third, slap the shifter forward a click, and the SMT matches revs, shifts down and you're ready to exit under power. Plus, you get to hear the 1ZZ-FE revving its brains out right behind your head.

It's foolproof. Slap the shifter from too high a speed and the SMT simply ignores the request, forcing you to try again once you've slowed enough for the gear you want. Bang it down to first at speed, and the engine gets a double blip before the clutch is engaged. Clearly, the shift logic is carefully calculated by the SMT's computer. Trick stuff. It even defaults to first gear when you stop the car.

Still, the slow upshifts can't be ignored. Our quarter-mile testing illustrated the dramatic difference between the SMT and five-speed MR2's acceleration times. Using a conventional launch, the SMT MR2 is, on average, 1.2 seconds slower through the quarter mile. A closer look at the data shows the SMT to take, on average, almost three times as long to complete an upshift as does our test driver (0.23 seconds vs. 0.61 seconds). Multiply that difference over the length of a solo course or drag strip and you're talking about a lifetime. This simple fact will keep the SMT from being a real performance option. For now, at least.

The SMT's launch technique is so conservative it gives up 0.7 seconds in 0 to 30 mph acceleration relative to the five-speed MR2.

We couldn't stand it, so we tried a few unconventional launches. You've heard of a neutral drop before, right?

Revving the engine to about 4500 rpm, we slid the gear selector from neutral into the "plus" gate and gritted our teeth. What the MR2 did next ranged between oddly abusive and completely unpredictable. The car would hesitate for an unpredictable amount of time and then shoot off the line with the stench of burning clutch and some truly awful sounds from the drivetrain. It quickly became obvious that driving it like we stole it isn't advisable, but it is quicker. It shaved four tenths of a second off the car's 0 to 30 time (down to within 0.3 seconds of the five-speed car). The SMT, by the way, worked flawlessly during the remainder of our time with the car, despite the abuse.

At the end of the quarter mile, our not-so-advisable technique was 0.4 seconds quicker than a conventional launch in the SMT but still 0.8 seconds slower than the five-speed. Abuse aside, the main problem with this technique is that there seemed to be no consistency between the time we'd drop the car into first gear and when it actually began moving, which makes it unusable for drag racing or Solo II competition.

It seems Toyota tuned the SMT conservatively to eliminate warranty hassles down the road. Maybe aggressive shifting would lead to long-term durability problems in the MR2's five-speed transaxle, we don't know. And neither did anyone we spoke with at Toyota. Fact is, it might bet a simple matter of software calibration to tune the SMT for aggressive shifts, which begs the question of a sport-shift mode. Why isn't there one? This option, which could be manually switched on by the driver, and default to the off position at startup, would allow enthusiasts to have the best of both worlds--fast, aggressive shifts when they want them and the convenience of clutchless shifting for everyday driving.

The real magic of this system, however, is its value. The SMT-equipped MR2 Spyder costs only $780 more than a comparably equipped five-speed model. While it's not what we would call F1-level execution, it's certainly an exciting step forward for enthusiasts. Those who will accept no compromises in their driving experience will still buy the manual. But the SMT will introduce a new generation to performance driving, and make it a lot easier for them to go relatively quickly.

Ultimately, with quicker shifting, systems like this will be the answer for any die-hard driving geek who regularly has to deal with traffic. Sequential transmissions like this one have potential to offer enthusiasts the best of both worlds. And who doesn't want that?

2002 TOYOTA MR2 SPYDER SMT
Estimated Price : $24,515

Engine
Engine Code : 1ZZ-FE
Type : Inline four, aluminum block and head
Valvetrain : DOHC, four valves per cylinder, VVT-i
Displacement : 1794 cc
Bore x Stroke : 79.0 mm x 91.0 mm
Compression Ratio : 10.0:1
Claimed Crank Hp : 138 hp @ 6400 rpm
Claimed Crank Torque : 125 lb-ft @ 4400
Measured Wheel Hp : 122 hp @ 6400 rpm
Measured Wheel Torque : 112 lb-ft @ 4300 rpm
Redline : 6750 rpm

Drivetrain
Layout : Transverse mid engine, rear-wheel drive
Transmission : Five-speed manual
Gear Ratios
1 : 3.166:1
2 : 1.904:1
3 : 1.392:1
4 : 1.031:1
5 : 0.815:1
Final drive : 4.312:1
Differential : Open


Chassis
Chassis Code : ZZW30

Exterior dimensions
Curb Weight : 2,215 lbs.
Weight Distribution F/R : 45/55
Overall Length : 153.0 in.
Wheelbase : 96.5 in.
Overall Width : 66.7 in.
Track F/R : 58.1 in./57.5 in.
Height : 48.8 in.

Suspension
Front : MacPherson strut, anti-roll bar
Rear : MacPherson strut, anti-roll bar

Brakes
Front : 10.0-inch vented discs,
single-piston sliding calipers
Rear : 10.3-inch vetned discs,
single-piston sliding calipers
Wheels and Tires
Wheels : Front: 15 x 6.0 in. aluminum,
Rear: 15 x 6.5 in. aluminum
Tires : Bridgestone Potenza RE040
Front: 185/55R-15 , Rear 205/50R-15
Performance
AccelerationConventional launchDriving like you stole itManual transmission
0-30 mph:3.0 sec. 2.6 sec.2.3 sec
0-60 mph:8.7 sec.8.3 sec.7.0 sec
30-50 mph: 3.3 sec.3.3 sec.2.8 sec
50-70 mph: 4.7 sec.4.7 sec4.0 sec
Quarter Mile time:16.3 sec15.9 sec.15.1 sec
Quarter Mile speed: 84.8 mph84.8 mph89.1 mph
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