Mid-Country Runabout

It all started innocently enough as far as these things go. First, you have a friend who has a friend, and so on. The next thing you know, you have logged in to Paypal and are a few hundred dollars poorer, and your wife is asking, "What just happened?"

You try to explain, but she doesn't understand and likely never will. Something she says snaps you out of it, and you start wondering whether you did the right thing and if everything will work out. In your mind, you see yourself stranded at night in the middle of the desert, wondering what is lurking in the shadows.

This is what it could be like, or at least how it was for me, when you put down a deposit on a nearly 25-year-old car located halfway across the United States.

For me, the car was a 1988 Toyota MR2. In my travels to Houston, Texas, earlier in the year, I ran across the under-appreciated beauty while filming some other more-current MR2s. I instantly fell in love with its hard, angular lines and told myself that when the time came to own a new daily driver, I would scour the internet to find a first-generation MR2.

The amount of grip surprises me, and it seems almost unlimited. The recovery from turn to turn is lightning quick and exhilarating.

That moment came a mere four months later, after a move to Los Angeles. At the time, I decided it was time to start a new chapter in my automotive history. As luck would have it, the very same car I lusted after in Houston came up for sale, so with a deposit delivered and a plane ticket purchased, I laid the foundation for a journey that most people wouldn't understand.  

A few weeks after my down payment, the day of my trip to Houston was finally here, and though 4:30 AM is awfully early for me, it probably feels a lot earlier for my wife, who was planning to drive me to the airport to make my 6:30 AM flight.

After standing in the long security line and taking off my belt and shoes, I realize that none of my fellow travelers would comprehend what I was doing. In fact, I am sure most of them would question my sanity. In fact, even some of my fellow car enthusiasts told me I'm not all there for wanting to fly to Houston from Los Angeles and then drive 27 hours home for a MR2. But when I know what I want, I just know it, and there isn't much that can be done to talk me out of it.

Truth be told, this isn't the first time I've flown to Houston to purchase a car.  Why Houston, you ask?  Well, it definitely isn't because I love the humidity.  It has just happened to work out that way in the past—my first time buying a car from Houston was two years ago.  Once I went down the path of purchasing an out-of-state car, it continued to get easier and easier to justify my behavior, and suddenly I am down the rabbit hole.

At what point would I stop? How far is too far? These are silly questions running through my head, and I push them away. I think I know the answers, but I am too afraid to confront them, because others might not understand how far I would go to buy a car. Maybe there is therapy for this? Maybe that is what car forums are for?

While waiting for my flight to board, I gaze at the photographs that the seller had provided and have no reservations regarding what I'm about to do.  

The plane touches down, and I text the seller to let him know I'll be out front in 15 minutes. The walk to ground transportation seems to take forever, and I remind myself that I will have nearly two waking days of driving ahead of me. I anxiously await the seller at the curb of passenger pick-up and finally see him pull up in a grey van. He apologizes for being late and tells me that he went back home to get his van since he wasn't sure both us, my luggage, and my camera equipment would fit in his car. With the 4-AGE engine dominating the space in the rear of the car, it dawns on me that my luggage might be too big to fit in the narrow half-trunk of the MR2.

We arrive to the seller's shop, where he stores his MR2s, and I am excited and nervous as we enter in the office. What if the car isn't as I remember it? We walk through the door, and as soon as I see the dark silver body, I know I have made the right choice. It is just as I remember it, and I feel like it is waiting for me to fire it up and start my journey back to Los Angeles.

The owner and I discuss all the little details, test whether my luggage fits (it does), maintenance records, and title for an hour. Then we sign everything, and I make my payment.  The keys are mine, and just as fast as this has happened, I am on my way out of the shop door and onto the freeway.

It strikes me funny that even though I've just bought an MR2, I've never actually been behind the wheel of one, and I really have no idea what to expect. Is this an exceptional MR2 or a normal MR2? How does this car's steering compare to other MR2s? I really have no idea, but it all feels right. My seat was designed to be positioned in such a way that everything is within reach, so the interior is reminiscent of the cockpit of a plane. I realize that all of the design is decidedly '80s, and that it is exactly what I want. The car revs happily, the suspension is firm, the A/C cool, and the MR2 darts around the highways like a little rocket. One of the first things I notice about the car is that the steering is surprisingly heavy, and after a while, I begin to appreciate its deftness in my hands.

Unfortunately for me, the roads in West Texas are of the flat and straight variety, so I won't be able to test out the MR2's canyon-handling abilities for a while, but luckily for me, the cruise control works like a dream. For fun, I head towards the town in which I was born but can't remember, Alamagordo, New Mexico.

I would be lying if I said that the drone of the engine behind my head didn't get a little old after an hour, but I remind myself that cruising the vast distances of West Texas isn't what this car was designed for. Anyway, that is where earbuds and an iPod come in handy, especially since the speakers of the MR2 are so small, due to the lack of placement options in such a tiny cabin.

After a brief stop in Dallas to meet up with a friend and shoot a video of some cars, I steer my car for Highway 82 through the Lincoln National Forest, which seems the best route for the MR2 to flex its handling prowess. It takes nearly ten hours before the elevation rises, the roads start to bend, and for the desert to melt away. I head up to a ski resort called Snowflake, where the the road winds, and the cars are sparse. It's finally time to unleash all 122HP on the road and learn more about the mid-engine handling I have heard so much about. This is my first time really driving a mid-engined car, and I find the feeling familiar yet different than the likes of my BMW 2002. The amount of grip surprises me, and it seems almost unlimited. The recovery from turn to turn is lightning quick and exhilarating. My 2002 is set up well, but this MR2 seems to be ahead in how quickly it can navigate turns. I don't push the MR2 too hard on these roads, as I have heard that when traction breaks, it comes quickly and can be more difficult to recover than when driving a front-engined car.  

The road leading up the mountain are mainly fast sweepers, so in no time I reach the ski resort at the top of the summit. The road leading down the mountain gets tighter for a stretch, and the steering wheel darts left and right in rapid succession. The road straightens back into sweepers, and I quickly descend into the desert below in order to catch the last bit of waning light for a quick MR2 photo shoot. I find a spot as fast as I can, but I am pretty much too late and am only able to snap a few usable photos of the car. I don't care too much, as my mind is back in the mountains with the engine happily revving behind my head. I begin to think of all the canyons back in Los Angeles, with which I'll be able to recreate this experience.

I stop for the night at a hotel, since I still have hours of driving through the endless deserts of Arizona and California. Exiting my room the following morning, I stop mid-walk to admire my new MR2 glinting in the morning sun, and my happiness in the moment makes the prospect of driving for 14 straight hours seem easy. Amidst the countless hours of landscapes filled with sagebrush, cactus, semi-trucks, and increasing traffic, my affection for my '80s angular beauty grows as I realize how much thought and care went into making a real drivers car. Everything was thought out, the controls are easy to reach and don't require stretching of the arm, and the pedals are angled and close together for a real driving experience.

As I park in front of my house in Los Angeles and kill the roaring engine with the turn of my key, I reflect that buying a car from all the way across the country was somewhat daunting, but I'm glad that the distance didn't hold me back. Buying an out-of-state car and driving it home is an experience that all car guys should be able to have and is one that they won't regret. Driving a car home across multiple states is a great way to get to know a car inside and out.

I think to myself that this car is a great mix of reliability, affordability, and fun, and I calculate that I even managed to get 36 mpg over the course of the road trip. The little mid-ship runabout, two-seater delivers a fun drive without costing an arm and a leg. I reflect that the reasoning someone bought this particular generation of MR2 back in the 1980s was very likely an economical one, but in this case, economical didn't mean watered down: this car isn't bland, and it hasn't been compromised.

If you're inspired to fly off and drive back with a first-generation MR2, check out the ones here on eBay.



View comments