You know the Supra and Celica as classic Toyota sports cars, but their third sibling, the midengined MR2, is just as deserving of its own legend.
1988 Toyota MR2 – pressroom.toyota.com | Shop Toyota MR2 on Carsforsale.com
You might be under the impression the Honda S2000 is the hipster alternative to the Miata, but that would be wrong. The real cool kids at Cars & Coffee roll up in Toyota MR2s. Compared to the Miata, the MR2 is equally accessible, almost as light and well balanced, and carries the added cachet of a transversely mounted mid-engine layout.
The MR2 is the “fun” uncle of Toyota’s classic sports cars. It was conceived and designed as a compact, affordable version of the mid-engine supercars of its day. The result was a quirky, fun, perhaps even edgy sports car. While not as famed as either the legendary Supra or the much-lauded Celica, the MR2 has earned its own spot in the pantheon of Toyota JDM classics.
The MR2 is best remembered for its mid-engine layout, engaging driving experience, and classic styling. Like the “fun” uncle, the MR2 could have ended up the black sheep of the Toyota family, a little too original for its own good next to its more buttoned-down brothers. But in the end, the MR2 proved just too charming and too reliable to deny.
We’ll dig into the history of the MR2 in a bit, but first we need to discuss what made Mister Two so notorious.
It pays when buying an enthusiast car to know its weaknesses. Over the years, cars gain clear reputations for engine or suspension issues, problematic head gaskets, short-lived transmissions, or any number of other gremlins. And while it is known for a susceptibility to body rust around the side skirts and rear fender, the MR2s main deficiency isn’t mechanical so much as it is a design “flaw” (you’ll see why that needs qualifying in a moment).
That flaw is the MR2’s habit of snap oversteering. Because of the MR2 RWD mid-engine layout, the weight distribution shifts forward when you reduce speed during cornering. This can lead to a loss of traction in the rear. In fact, most RWD mid-engine and rear-engine cars can be tail happy, the MR2 just happened to be more tail happy than average, especially when drivers would let off the throttle while cornering (resulting in “lift off” oversteer). Decent reaction time and correct throttle management go a long way toward reducing oversteer issues. The MR2 was built to be a fun, affordable mid-engine sports car, and like the Ferraris it was emulating, it demands respect from those behind the wheel.
The TL;DR of it is this: early MR2s are not for noobs or the faint of heart. Some have gone so far as to call the MR2 the most dangerous car you can buy. It’s important to linger on that last part because the real reason they can be considered dangerous is because they are affordable. The low bar for entry means you can get yourself in Lambo-levels of trouble on a $10,000 budget. Is that a note of caution or a selling point? You decide.
Though the W10 MR2 began in development as chiefly a fuel efficient 2-seater seeking but swiftly morphed into a devoted sports car, eventually receiving testing form the likes of Dan Gurney and Roger Becker to refine the suspension and handling. Beyond the lightness and balance, the MR2 was also good looking. The quintessentially 80s boxy angularity evoked Italian supercars of the era and today carries a lot of the same visual charm as the all-time great BMW E30. Plus, it featured pop up headlights.
The first-generation Toyota MR2 featured a transversely mounted 1.6L inline-4 making 112 horsepower. This was paired with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. The five-speed was and continues to be one of the main attractions of the first-generation MR2, and like the Miata, perhaps the only proper way to experience the car.
The McPherson strut front and rear suspension wasn’t the most revolutionary, but it had the benefit of being compact. The MR2 also featured disk brakes all around, optional T-tops, and a curb weight of 2,350lbs.
In 1987, the MR2 received a major update with the addition of an optional intercooled supercharged engine. This bumped up the horsepower to 145 and the torque to 140lb.-ft. Though the additional components upped the weight of the car to 2,500lbs., the zero to sixty time dropped to 7 seconds.
Like the rest of the automotive industry, the second-generation Toyota MR2’s visual design smoothed out all those 80s hard angles in favor of better aero. The rake of the front end still had a Ferrari-esque flavor of a F40 or 355.
The new SW20 MR2 featured two engine options. The first was a 2.2L naturally aspirated inline-4 making 130 horsepower and achieving a 0-60 time of roughly 8 seconds. The second option was a new 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder making 200 horsepower, netting a 0-60 time of 5.8 seconds. This was paired exclusively with a five-speed transmission, capable of handling up to 350lb.-ft. of torque (an important note for any of you out there contemplating an engine swapped MR2 in your future). The second-generation MR2 also came with a new staggered wheel set up on all models.
Midway through the MR2’s second generation, in 1993, Toyota took steps to mitigate the snap oversteer issue. These included larger 15-inch wheels, a more robust anti-roll bar, upgraded suspension components, bigger brakes, and wider tires. While these efforts were largely successful in addressing the issue, some criticized the changes as taking some of the “fun” out of the MR2’s handling.
The third-generation W30 MR2 was a departure from the prior two generations. The MR2 Spyder lost a bit of power, its pop-up headlights, and its roof. As you may have guessed from the Spyder name, the MR2 became exclusively a convertible in 2000. It also lost some weight in the process, now tipping the scales at just 2,200lbs. A longer wheel-base helped improve stability but also increased the turning radius, which is significantly wider than you’d expect from a car the size of the MR2.
The MR2 also went back to natural aspiration with a 1.8L inline-4 making 138 horsepower and 126lb.-ft. of torque with options for either a five or six-speed manual transmission. The loss of horsepower wasn’t as drastic on the MR2’s speed as you might expect, losing about a second to its 0-60 time, now up to 6.8 seconds. Still, the MR2 was a fun drivers’ car with sharp, responsive steering and excellent balance.
The next few years saw additions to the MR2 including a “Sequential Manual Transmission” in 2001. A 2002 refresh beefed up the staggered rear wheels to 16 inches, added a sixth gear to the SMT as well as extra bracing and a retuned suspension. 2003 saw the addition of a Torsen limited-slip differential.
The MR2 would survive until 2007 and join the ranks of the Supra and Celica as a member of Toyota’s classic sports car triumvirate.
In 2019, following a cryptic comment from Akio Toyoda saying he’d like to see a return of Toyota’s “three brothers” (the Supra, Celica, and MR2), there was speculation that the “fun uncle” MR2 might see it’s own redux just as the Supra and the Celica had (the latter in the form of the GT86). The rumor mill has continued to churn in forums and Toyota dealerships, with the likelihood growing that we will indeed see a new MR2 nameplate, perhaps as soon as 2024.
A good deal of digital ink has been spilt over the idea that Toyota might go either hybrid or even full electric with a new MR2. A compelling possibility that would make perfect sense given how Toyota has gone about resurrecting the Supra and Celica/86. Both of those projects were collaborations, with BMW and Subaru respectively and Toyota’s tendency to slow-walk their adoption of new technology means they may seek to leverage the knowledge (and R&D overhead) of a partner company.
2002 Toyota MR2 Spyder – carsforsale.com | Shop Toyota MR2 on Carsforsale.com
The question then is who Toyota might tap to help build a new MR2. Porsche is one possibility as they’re increasingly experienced in both sporty hybrid powertrains like the in the Panamera and in full-EV technology like in their Taycan. Another and perhaps more likely possibility is Subaru. The two companies are already working together on a joint electrification effort and, if the their newly redesigned 86/BRZ is any indication, they’re also simpatico when it comes to sports cars.
As far as we’re concerned, a new electric version of the MR2 might be just the vehicle to finally bridge their longtime success in hybrids into the future of full EVs. Whether it’s a traditional internal combustion engine, hybrid, or full electric, we’d live to see a reimagined MR2 on lots.
And if not, there’s still plenty of affordable used MR2s out there just itching for an engine swap.