The Toyota MR2 Spyder is a gorgeous, mid-engine roadster that delivers about 75% of the Porsche Boxster driving experience for a mere $25,660. It's being discontinued in the U.S. after the '05 model year, along with the Toyota Celica, another wonderful sports car.
Mighty Toyota, throwing in the towel? What gives?
In real estate, it's location, location, location. In automotive, it's supposed to be product, product, product. But even the best cars or trucks can't save you in a segment that's drying up.
The most glaring example is the MR2 Spyder, which I'd targeted as my midlife crisis car after my son graduates from college. The engine is a bit thrashy, and it has less storage space than many motorcycles, but a semi-exotic mid-engine sports car for less than $26,000 speaks to my aging Baby Boomer psyche and wallet like few others.
Unfortunately, it's not on speaking terms with many of my peers. Toyota sold 2,934 MR2 Spyders last year. In 1985, it sold 32,314. The Celica has seen an even more precipitous fall. In 1980, Toyota sold 140,000 copies, last year, only 14,856. As late as 2000, sales were a respectable 52,406.
Both these cars changed significantly over the years as Toyota fought to make them more relevant.
At no time during their multiple iterations were they considered mediocre cars, yet they are dying nonetheless.
These two follow a long list of once-desirable, affordable sporty cars that have been canceled, including the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird and Fiero and the VW Corrado, to name only a few. Ward's Senior Technical Editor Bill Visnic gets teary-eyed when he talks about the demise of the Honda Prelude.
Joe Barker, manager-North American Sales Analysis for CSM Worldwide, says demand is fading for such cars because aging Boomers who want to splurge on something fun are gravitating to more expensive image cars such as the Mercedes SLK or Nissan 350Z, while youthful consumers are choosing to move further downscale to entry-level or used cars so they can spend more money customizing and “individualizing” them.
That leaves room for one enduring star, the Ford Mustang (the only car boasting big numbers, 140,350 last year), the Mazda Miata, Hyundai Tiburon and not much else in a segment whose best days were in the 1980s.
Rather than spend more money fighting a losing battle, Toyota is killing the Celica and MR2 and focusing its energies on making the Scion tC and its new youth-oriented Scion brand a success.
This is a sobering lesson in an era when many preach that great products are the magic elixir that will cure all automotive problems. If you build it, they won't always come. You need a growing segment, too.
Drew Winter is editor of Ward's AutoWorld