The cars we loved.
The MR2 was not supposed to be a sports car. It wasn’t supposed to be one of the best handling bargains out there, but it was. What started as an ideal for a small economical roundabout in 1976 materialized into a striking show car during the 1983 Tokyo Motor Show. This was not much different from what Pontiac envisioned for the Fiero, but it finally became a sports car just as it was canceled. While Pontaic’s car only made it for one generation, the MR2 evolved in three from its 1985 debut. The MR2 (Mid-engine Rear wheel drive 2 passenger) had settled into the role of no-nonsense sports car.
It was not always like that. The first generation car while fun was buzzy and raucous. The second was larger and more sophisticated. Its Ferrari-like looks made it easily the most attractive low-cost mid-engine car available (the Fiero faded away before the second gen MR2 appeared). Around that time the Mazda Miata was blazing a path as a sports car bargain. It quickly became the petro darling of the press while, almost single handily reviving the small roadster category. It seemed the market was hot for small open top cars, yet the MR2 remained a fixed top coupe for two generations.
While not a convertible, the previous MR2 remained the only low-cost mid-engine car in most markets. The Fiero and X1/9 were long gone and the Miata seemed to have the world to itself. And get around it did as it was sold almost everywhere under various names. Called the MR2 Spyder in America, it had the distinction of being one of the few mid-engine roadsters on the market and certainly one of the cheapest.
Then in 2000 the MR2 finally shed its top in an attempt to become more Miata-like. The new car was characterized by short overhangs that hid the fact that the it had a longer wheelbase than the Miata at 96.4 inches. While still a mid-engine design, it was clearly aimed at the Miata with its more conventional front engine rear drive set up.
Although modern looking, some considered it was aesthetically challenged, unlike previous generation MR2. For those attracted to its performance, but not looks, there were a few body kits available. One of them re dressed the MR2 as a Ferrari-430 like mini clone. Truth of the matter was there were never enough sold to spill over into the hard core tuner community, although it like any other car had plenty of performance parts available. Some even came from Toyota itself in the form of TRD components.
The MR2’s real charm was under the hood. The 1.8-litre engine had only 138 hp, but was lighter than the 1999 car. In addition to lower weight, the engine’s response was aided by Toyota’s slick variable valve timing system called VVT-i. Elsewhere in the world, the MR2 was available with as much as 242 hp, but in America it would continue to be offered with 135hp – slightly less than the Miata’s power rating.
Like the Miata, the MR2’s low weight and well sorted chassis made it fun to drive. In fact the MR2’s performance was somewhere between the Miata and Porsche’s Boxter, a good place to be considering that these cars defined performance at their price points. At only 2300lb loaded, the MR2 could scoot to 60 in under 6 seconds when equipped with the 5 speed manual transmission. It’s only handicap was it looks, while not ugly, it did not inspire long road trips on looks alone.
In contrast to previous MR2, the final generation was rather basic. Its top was a manually folding cloth unit that saved weight. An optional hardtop gave it a fixed roof coupe-like appearance. No SATNAV or talking dashboards here, the car’s features were limited to those that increased performance like four-wheel disc ABS brakes and a fully independent suspension. There was no trunk space to speak of and creature comforts were limited to air conditioning.
As Miata sales increased (or held steady), the MR2 would see its popularity dive slowly after the redesign in 2000. The Miata had slowly evolved to the point that it was easily identifiable as a Miata, while the MR2’s 3rd generation was such a departure from previous designs, that the positive associations of the past were almost disconnected. By the end of MR2’s run in America, slightly more than 6,000 units sold in the final year of 2005. It had the distinction of being the last rear wheel drive performance car sold as a Toyota in America. The 3rd generation MR2 is likely to live in the shadows of the first and second generation cars, although its performance was a step above them. The novelty of a mid-engine roadster did not connect well with American audiences, mostly because it lacked the visual appeal of previous cars. That’s too bad because the 2000-2005 car was the best MR2 yet underneath the skin.