This nimble little sports car was designed to be both fun and fuel efficient. Conceived in 1976, amid tightening emission regulations and rising fuel prices, the little 2-seat prototype underwent numerous changes before it was officially released in 1985. Lotus engineer Roger Becker helped design the suspension, and its mid-engine layout helped the little speedster to carve up a winding road with surgical precision.
The first-generation MR2 was commonly referred to as the AW11, which was the A-Series engine chassis code. The 4A-GE 1.6L engine provided 88kW of power, but the much faster supercharged Mk1 Toyota MR2 was never officially imported here. No worries about power though. The AW11 Toyota MR2 follows the Lotus ethos of lightness and simplicity, so the normally aspirated 1.6L engine has no problem pushing this 1050kg sports car down the road.
When it was launched, the international motoring press praised Toyota for making such an innovative, fun-to-drive sports car. Known internally as the mid-engine Runabout 2-seater (hence the MR2), the Toyota MR2 was hardly the first sports car to have its power plant mounted mid-ship. At the time of its conception, similar mid-engine sports cars included the Fiat X 1/9 and Porsche 914. But those cars had glaring reliability issues, and were already discontinued by the time Toyota unveiled its reliable little fun machine. Similar to the modern Toyota 86, the MR2 wasn’t the first car of its type, but it wound up being one of the best.
The all-new MkII Toyota MR2 was unveiled in 1990, and two models were offered here: Toyota MR2 Bathurst and Toyota MR2 GT. The former was a lightened ‘stripper’ model, ideal for racing or modification. The Mk2 Toyota MR2 Bathurst weighed 30 to 40kgs less than the standard car, thanks to lightweight seats, no ABS, no power steering, and the omission of some interior trim. The top-spec Toyota MR2 GT, on the other hand, came fully loaded.
Now much larger than its predecessor, the MkII Toyota MR2 was said to resemble the Ferrari 348. But having your car compared to a Ferrari is hardly an insult. The new car did, however, weigh 160 to 180kg more than the outgoing model. In 1992, models received a revised rear suspension, designed to limit the car’s tendency to sudden oversteer in a turn. Many claimed that this change reduced the car’s sharpness, and driver behaviour was to blame for lift-off oversteer.
The third and final Toyota MR2 (W30) launched in New Zealand for 2000, followed by the Toyota MR2 Spyder in 2002. Called the Toyota MR-S, the new mid-engine sportster featured a 138kW 1.8L engine, with a clutchless 5-speed sequential manual transmission (SMT). Drivers could change gears manually by rocking the shift lever back and forth, no clutch or H shift-gate needed, which was an amazing feature at the time.
Perhaps inspired by the MR2, Porsche’s mid-engine Boxster offered a similar mid-engine sports car experience, with the panache of the famous Stuttgart badge. Sales of the similarly styled Toyota MR2 MkIII began to dwindle, and it was finally discontinued in 2005.
The Mk1 Toyota MR2 was powered by an 88kW 1.6L engine under the bonnet, which sent power to the rear wheels through a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic. Both the Mk2 Toyota MR2 and the top-of-the-range Mk2 MR2 GT got 117kW from the 3S-GE 2.0L engine. The 1994 Toyota MR2 Turbo made 179kW, but it and the supercharged Mk1 W10 Toyota MR2 model were not officially imported here.
The Mk3 W30 Toyota MR2 got a 138kW 1.8L engine, backed by the 5-speed SMT transmission. In addition to having the most power of the 3, the Mk3 also has the best fuel economy of the group at 8.7L/100km, while the Mk1 and Mk2 come in at 9.4L/100km and 9.8L/100km respectively.
Standard equipment on the MkI Toyota MR2 included air-conditioning, alloy wheels, and a rear sway bar. Optional kit included a sunroof, automatic transmission, leather, and a T-bar roof.
The Mk2 Toyota MR2 saw power steering, ABS, and a turbo added to the options list. Dual airbags were also available, along with the T-bar roof. The Mk3 Toyota MR2 was sold in New Zealand as the Toyota MRS, and it came standard with the SMT transmission. The 5-speed SMT was upgraded to a 6-speed in 2003.
The Toyota MR2 had few rivals until the Mazda MX-5 came along. The little Mazda offered a traditional front-engine/rear-drive setup, along with a convenient folding soft-top for those nice summer days, but the Mazda MX5 lacked the handling precision of the mid-engine MR2. After a complete redesign, the third-generation Toyota MR2 was intended to compete against Porsche's new mid-engine Boxster, but it lacked the panache and driving acumen of Stuttgart’s new drop-top.
The Toyota MR2 remains an affordable sports car that is as reliable as a Toyota Corolla. While it may not get the respectgiven to more conventional sports cars, the Toyota MR2 is still one of the best driving cars on the market.