The Toyota MR2 (Mid-engine, RWD, 2-seater). Sometimes called “the poor’s man ferrari”, a term I totally hate because it’s not trying to be a Ferrari. It is a Japanese sports car. It is a Toyota.
You can’t argue that the sleek but square lines of the W10 MR2 are just incredibly well done, being a harmonious design made to last in time. Today we’re going to be talking about the history of this fun mid-engine Japanese sports car (This article does not include the third generation).
It all started in 1976, when Toyota felt the need to develop and work on a fun little car to drive, taking into consideration a good fuel economy. It wasn’t until 1979, when Akio Yoshida (quite a brilliant guy) started working on the design, and the drive-train for this “not-sports car” car (which is totally not true, I mean, partially… I’ll explain later on).
After deciding on what kind of drive train and engine placement to utilize in the new prototype, Toyota launched the SA-X prototype in 1981, which featured a mid-transverse engine placement. This kind of engine placement was used on every MR2 model from then on.
Well that prototype looks great, but can we move on to the actual MR2s? -No, not yet, because Toyota launched yet another prototype, called the SV-3 (which looks absolutely fantastic), this prototype was launched in 1983. One year and a half later, the W10 MR2 would be introduced into the world market, fitted with a 1.5L 3A and 1.6L 4A engine variants. This car was shown at the 1983 Tokyo Motor Showand it gathered a lot of attention, in preparation for the actual launch on the MR2. Now, let’s talk a bit about the first generation W10 MR2, and it’s characteristics.
W10: The First Generation (1984-1988)
Now you’ll get what I meant before with “not-sports car (which is totally not true, I mean, partially…)“. Toyota, when making the car didn’t actually intend to produce a sports car, and ended up with a great one.
The first generation MR2 was a rather lightweight car, with a kerb weight of around 900-940 kgs in Japan and just over a tonne in America (once again, the JDM received a significantly better car, with almost 100kgs less!). Toyota received help from Lotus for the suspension of the MR2s which owes much the sports cars Lotus produced from 1960 to 1970. Toyota had a quite advanced active-suspension technology, called TEMS (Toyota Electronic Modulated Suspension), which was installed on top-level Toyota products with four wheel independent suspension, giving more comfort and stability thanks to its continuous damping control, which was not added to the MR2…
Now for the fun part, the MR2 was equipped with a 1.6L 4A-GE, DOHC, 16v NA Inline 4 engine, Toyota being themselves, equipped the 4A-GE with DENSOtechnology, adding the “T-VIS” system (variable intake geometry), improving low-end torque by changing the geometry of the intake manifold according to the engine’s speed, thus, giving the MR2 a power output of 112 Bhp in America, 120 Bhp in Europe and 130 Bhp in Japan. (Did I mention the 4A-GE is one great engine?) The engine received a lot of good reputation, I mean, there are people still buying and using them. Toyota upgraded the engine some years later to a 4A-GZE with a small roots supercharger, making the car a little heavier than before.
The car was constantly being upgraded, with modifications such as new stetic parts, some new routings for the air intakes and structural rigidity. Interior wise the car was pretty standar, very 80s dials, a three-spoked wheel and some pretty comfy-looking seats.
W20: The Second Toyota MR2 Generation (1989 – 1999)
The new generation of MR2s were heavier and larger (almost 200kg more), but they did compensate with new engines!, Toyota used the 3S family for the second generation with many variants, let’s analyze them.
The Japanese Domestic Market received 4 variants of the W20; the G, which had a 2.0L 3S-GE NA engine making about 165 Bhp, it was the base model of the line-up, featuring pretty standard equipment, like electric mirrors and climate control. After the G comes the G-Limited, which was just a fancy way of saying that your SW20 had a better intake and the not weight reducing electric folding mirrors, fog lamps and a spoiler. After the fancy base model, comes the GT-S, sporting a turbocharged 2.0L 3S-GTE engine, making 220 Bhp, but still had the same equipment as the last one, and finally, we’re left with the GT, which added… alcantara and leather trims… yeah.
Europe got the same versions of the W20, just not turbo-ed. Americans got two models, called -pretty originally- MR2 with a 2.2L 5S-FE making 130 Bhp, pretty low considering the First Generation produced more power while still being lighter. The other named as -even more originally called- MR2 Turbo, featuring the same turbocharged 2.0L 3S-GTE the GT-S used.
Among enthusiasts, it was a pretty known mod to replace the stock 3S-GTE with the 4th Gen 3S-GTE. This mod helped produce a higher output of 265 Bhp and with just a turbocharger boost pressure controller you could get up to 310 Bhp.
Toyota made various so-called “revisions”, which just meant making the car somewhat better in any way possible. I’m not going to go in too deep into these revisions, mainly because there were a lot of changes done in the 10 years of production. The most important of these were adding a Limited-slip differential(on turbo models only) in 1993, it was made unavailable in North America in 1996. A pretty known issue was that the SW20 was very prone to snap-oversteer, so Toyota changed the geometry of the tires, their size and power steering to overcome these issues. The interior was rounder than it’s predecessor and… that’s pretty much it, really.
Of course Toyota did some crazy Motorsport oriented variants, one being the 222D Group S rally car:
Toyota already had the Celica competing in African Group B stages (and being very good at it), the company felt the need to up their game in European twisties (such as Monte Carlo), and they came up with this. The prototype was based on the W10 (having a immensely huge air of a Lancia 037) 222D weighed 750 Kgswhich is stupidly light with a turbocharged 503E (Toyota S engine) racing engine, it -reportedly- produced 750 Bhp. Sadly, the 222D never saw the rough stages of rally, since Group B and Group S was cancelled on 1986, when the prototype could have competed. Though it is worth mentioning, that Toyota did a surprise appearance at the 2006 Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Although I hate the analogy of the “poor’s man Ferrari”, It is quite true to a certain point. When you are comparing sports car of similar characteristics on higher price ranges, you’re really just looking at the brand. This car, along with it’s superbly nice design, is a proper mid-engine sports car. It was in fact, a poor’s man Ferrari. A lot of people bought them because they were good cars in general, plus having a 4A-GE or a 3S-GTE was pretty cool, thus making it a real Toyota classic.
Now, does this car meet the multi-role car characteristics? Yes, well… sort of. They will do very well on a track or at autocross events, thanks to it’s 50:50 weight distribution and low center of gravity, but the difficult part is finding one. You see, these models (specially the W10) are pretty hard to find in pristine conditions, and if you ever wanted to set your SW20 for track events, you’d have to find a 93’ hardtop, since it’s the one that offer the most structural firmness of them all, but… good luck finding one. And if you do, by any chance, find a clean looking MR2, be sure not to pass up the opportunity!