Middle Men

These Budget-Friendly Mid-Engine Missiles Push All the Right Buttons

The Pontiac Fiero, first-generation Toyota MR2 and Fiat X1/9 are a trio of unloved mid-engine misfits ordinarily overlooked by the collector community.

But just take a look and see if one of these little beauties can't wedge its way under your skin. Not only are all of these mighty mites underrated charmers, each also comes with a story to match its character.

On a moody, bitingly cold day, all three assemble on a pier in Horseshoe Bay, north of Vancouver, British Columbia. One week earlier, the tail of a typhoon lashed the coast with rain, and the rocky outcroppings of the surrounding cliffs are spidered with tiny waterfalls.

So far, however, our luck is holding as a bulwark against the weather forecast, and the cars seem to pop out from the rainwashed scenery, ready and eager to head out into the wild.

The Sea-to-Sky Highway runs north from here, winding its way high above the waters of Howe Sound before disappearing up into the mountains as it heads toward the ritzy winter vacation spot of Whistler. We'll be ditching the slopes midway for a secret backroad run, a wriggling, canopy-enclosed serpent worthy of the nimble handling a well-sorted mid-engine car provides.

First, the MR2. Newest of the trio, it's a 1987, the last model year of the first-gen you could get with a naturally aspirated engine. It's lighter than both the supercharged versions and the larger second-generation MR2 Turbo that followed. This is the essence of mid-engine purity, scaled down and marketed to the masses.

Originally conceived of as a commuter's special, the lightweight MR2 was designed around the same durable 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine you could get in a Corolla. It made 112 horsepower in U.S. trim which, it hardly needs to be said, is not very much at all.

Yet the Toyota is easily the athlete of our group. During development, the chassis was tuned by racing legend Dan Gurney on roads like the Angeles Crest Highway in California. What the twin-cam engine lacks in power it makes up for with a sprightly appetite for revs.

Owner Gordon Cooper has fitted various period-correct TRD bits to the suspension and shift linkage. He's a Toyota nut through and through, who started out racing a first-generation Corolla at the old Westwood circuit in the 1970s. “The first new car I ever bought,” he says. “I tuned it up, did slalom racing for a while and then took it road racing at the track.”

Engineered with input from an ex-Formula 1 driver and tweaked by an old amateur road racer, the MR2 slings through the corners flat and composed. Steering is unassisted and razor sharp, and the darty responsiveness of the chassis belies its age. The drive is analogous to a 2/3-scale Acura NSX, and it's little surprise to hear that one of the previous owners of this car was an Air Force pilot.

Like the later Acura, the MR2's cabin has a cockpit-like feel, with a raised instrument panel for the driver and a drop-away panoramic view out front. The ride's a little rough with the TRD suspension, and space is at a premium, but Cooper uses the car for medium-distance club touring with his MR2-owning friends. After 42 years working at a Toyota parts counter, it's a well-earned joy to drive.

Of our three everyman sports cars, the MR2 doesn't really need its reputation rescued. The Fiero, on the other hand, is a sadly maligned machine. Any time some automotive entity decides to put together a “worst-of” list, the poor Fiero finds itself dragged in front of the crowd and mocked.

That's a shame, because while the Fiero is certainly a flawed machine, it deserves better. Of the three cars gathered, this early 1985 2M6 SE model is the easiest and most comfortable to drive. The 2.8-liter V-6 doles out torque where the MR2 needs revs, and the suspension remains compliant as the pavement becomes choppy and broken.

Like the MR2, the Fiero was intended to be a fuel-sipper that was also fun to drive. However, instead of a fizzy small-displacement four, cost considerations saw GM's mid-engine wedge saddled with the 2.5-liter “Iron Duke” four-cylinder. It made all of a disappointing 92 horsepower and provided leisurely performance that was cause for initial panning by critics.

Happily, this later 140-horsepower V-6 version has the straight-line chops to match the Fiero's looks. A little lighter than the GT models, the 2M6 SE is about as quick as the Fiero ever got. Later models suffered from a mild horsepower loss thanks to the introduction of more stringent emissions controls.

“In many ways, this car really defines my life,” says owner Ken So. A systems analyst, So pre-ordered his Fiero as soon as he heard a V-6 version was on the way. It was the first car he bought with his own money; he waited a year to get it and has been driving it for more than three decades.

Though obviously well cared for, the interior of the Fiero feels a little dated next to the MR2. It's much like that of a Lotus Esprit or DeLorean DMC-12, with padding throughout and a large central spine between the seats. It's also surprisingly roomy.

The V-6 sounds growlier than its modest power rating would suggest, and it's quite smooth. The four-speed gearbox has long throws and a tall fourth gear. It's entirely suitable for highway cruising, though the steering is a little heavy for easy daily use. It's not as engaging as the MR2, but it's certainly less frenetic.

“Fiero” roughly translates to “haughty” in Italian, or “fierce” in Spanish. Truth be told, the car is neither, but that's no bad thing. The initial success of the Fiero was in its accessible nature and sporting looks. The charm of this particular car is in its constancy in its owner's life, always tucked away in the garage and ready for a drive.

“I bought it with the first paycheck from my first job out of university,” So says. “I had test-driven a Fiat X1/9, but when I went back with money a month later, the dealership was gone!”

Poor Fiat, ever plagued by urban legends of rust and unreliability. Not that some of those legends weren't true...

However, our oldest car has both the youngest owner and has traveled the farthest distance in the recent past. Josh Epp is just 21 years old, but he restored his 1978 X1/9 from a complete wreck and has driven it more than 35,000 miles over the last year. Last summer, he took a month off and drove deep into Colorado, Montana and the Great Plains, camping out beside his little car and seeking out the twisty roads to nowhere.

Stepping into the cabin of the Fiat is like going back an age. The stubby shifter pokes up like the antenna of some 1950s sci-fi robot, the tachometer swings counterclockwise, and it's the most reluctant to start.

Start it does, though, bursting to life with the sound of twin Webers added by Epp. Unlike our other two, this car wears regular usage license plates; it functions as a daily driver and has been modified from stock. The exterior has some mild cosmetic back-dating, and the engine and transmission are a later 1,500-cc and five-speed, respectively.

Like the Fiero and the MR2, the X1/9 sought to take ordinary components and assemble them in a configuration that provided accessible fun for everyone. Famously, it was built to survive tough new U.S. crash test regulations, and it did so, performing as well as contemporary Volvos.

Mind you, the 1970s were a long time ago, and today's lifted pickups now loom like monster trucks on every highway in the land. Epp hasn't let modern traffic or anything else intimidate him, however; he moved to the West Coast from his prairie hometown of Winnipeg just four days after completing his self-taught restoration. In winter.

The X1/9 is louder inside than either the Fiero or MR2, the steering has a degree or two of slack, and slotting into third gear requires a little delicacy. The pedals are slightly offset toward center, and the estimated 90 horsepower available needs to be carefully managed to keep momentum up.

But give the throttle a tap while changing down under braking and the twin Webers respond with a satisfyingly instant honk of induction. It is deft and tiny, looking like a Lancia Stratos and sounding and going like most of a Dino.

Epp’s story is as good as his car. He found the X1/9 as a rusty wreck while still in high school and painstakingly brought it back to life, turning to forums and YouTube videos to learn. “The Fiat X1/9 community was so helpful,” he says. “People would help source parts and make suggestions. I think they were just really excited to have a young guy working on a car like this.”

Epp currently works for RWM Restorations, bending sheet-metal for Alfa Romeos and wiring Rolls-Royces; he got the job when the owner met him and heard his story. While he's not sure that restoring cars is going to become his career, he recognizes that he's building a classic car toolbox to last a lifetime.

Parked in a log-sorting yard, hammering down a back lane, cruising the sweeping curves of the Sea-to-Sky, each of our vintage mid-engine machines catches the eye — none more so than the bright-green little Fiat. Just as it was then, good ones today are thoroughly unique machines, and not beyond a modest budget.

“Sometimes a guy in a Ferrari will give me a nod,” Epp says, as we head back toward the city with the sun hovering low over an iron-gray sea. “The older Ferraris, anyway.”

Ten minutes later, as if summoned from the ether, a stunning Grigio Titanium F355 coupe pulls alongside the convoy. It is perhaps the owner's last dry Sunday drive of the season, and he slows to give the thumbs up to Epp before blasting onward with a V-8 yowl.

It's the recognition of something universal in car culture, something unrelated to price, provenance or performance. It is passion, and it’s all that matters.

The Fiat is an adventurer's ship, the Fiero a constant companion, the MR2 a return to the joys of youth. They all drive so differently. But each car holds that same enthusiasm at its core.

They may be small, but each of our mid-engine machines has its heart in the right place.