The Toyota MR2 offers performance potential

While it is the Toyota Supra with a legendary cult following, the Toyota MR2 offers performance potential

While the Toyota Supra is one of the most well known and legendary of Japanese high performance vehicles, there are others that have quite a loyal following and a healthy number of aftermarket performance options. One of these cars is the Toyota MR2.

The Toyota MR2 is a mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive, two seat sports cars manufactured in Japan and marketed throughout the World. Produced between 1984 and 2007, the Toyota MR2 lived on over three generations. It is Japan’s first mid-engined production car.

Conceptualized as a small, economical sports car, the MR2 has straightforward design elements, including an excellent suspensions system, driving dynamics, four-wheel disc brakes, and a tranverse mounted inline-four cylinder engine.

The M in MR2 stands for ‘mid-ship’ or ‘mid-engine’ while the R stands for ‘run-about’ or ‘rear-wheel-drive’ and the 2 is for the number of seats in the vehicle, in this case 2. The first two generations used the MR2 name while the final generation was so named the Toyota MRS.


The origin of the MR2 can be traced back to 1976 to a Toyota design project. The goal of the project was a fun car to drive that was fuel-efficient. Work on a prototype actually started in 1979 and was finally delivered in 1981 as the Toyota SA-X.

Whereas the MR2 did not start as a sports car, it certainly evolved into one in due time. Extensive testing took place at racetracks in California and Japan with some testing in the hands of legendary race car driver Dan Gurney.

The first generation Toyota MR2

The production ready MR2 was codenamed the W10 and produced between 1984 and 1989. Early MR2s were initially fitted with a 1.5 liter or more popular 1.6 liter 3A engine.

The MR2 had a strong reputation as a good handling sports car. This was the result of Toyota’s collaboration with Lotus engineer Roger Becker, who had a hand in the development of the iconic Lotus sports cars of the 1960 and 70s.

In 1986, the MR2 underwent a mid-cycle facelift that incorporated mild changes to the chassis and interior of the vehicle. The big change was an engine upgrade to the 1.6 liter 4A-GE engine putting out 115 horsepower. This was the same engine that powered the legendary AE86 Toyota Corolla.

For the 1988 model year, Toyota introduced a supercharged engine for the MR2. The 4A-GZE used the same block and head as the normally aspirated MR2 but had a small roots-type supercharger and intercooler. The output of the high-performance MR2 jumped to 145 horsepower and 137 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. This was sufficient to propel the vehicle from 0 to 62 miles per hour in around 6.5 seconds.

The second generation Toyota MR2

The second generation MR2, the ‘W20’ was produced between 1989 and 1999. However, we did not receive them in the United States until 1990.

The new MR2 was larger, more luxurious, spacious and had a more rounded body than that of the outgoing MR2. In fact, there were many comparisons to the Ferrari 348 series that was released at the time. This was a valid comparison since the second generation MR2 took several design cues from Ferrari.

Mechanical changes to the second generation MR2 were in the form of a sturdier transaxle and a more durable suspension set up. The US-market MR2 received the 2.2 liter 5S-FE engine producing 130 horsepower.

A turbocharged 2.0 Liter 3S-GTE engine was also available putting out 200 horsepower. Only the normally aspirated MR2 was available with an optional four-speed automatic transmission. The turbocharged MR2 was only available with a 5-speed manual transmission.

Additional mechanical differences between the non-aspirated MR2 and the Turbo include:

  • A strong and heavier gearbox with different ratios and stronger axles
  • A larger fuel pump and radiator

The US Market MR2 was a strong contender in the mid-engine sports car segment at the time. It was able to rocket from 0 to 62 miles per hour in 6.1 seconds blasting through the quarter mile in 14.7 seconds.

Over its 10 year run, there were four mid-cycle updates.  While most updates were minor, many of the components upgraded were accessories or design elements.  However, one update did involve more performance from an updated event.

The third generation Toyota MRS

In its third generation, the MR2 underwent a name change to the MR-S. The ‘S’ was for Spyder as it was only available as a convertible. This was the result of Toyota’s renewed focus on providing the driver with a great driving experience.  In other words, driving experience before performance.

The third generation Toyota MR2 or MRS,, designated the ‘W30’ was manufactured between 1999 and 2007.  However, in the United States, the MRS was discontinued in 2005 because of slow sales and increasing competition.

Whereas the previous generation, MR2 was focused on performance, the third generation MRS was oriented to provide a great driving experience.  The recipe followed was that of ‘low inertia’ and ‘light weight’ according the lead engineer, Harunori Shiratori.

The MRS was available with only one engine configuration, the 1.8 liter 1ZZ-FED. It was an inline four cylinder, double overhead cam engine with four valves per cylinder that produced 138 horsepower and 126 lb-ft of torque. This was less than the previous generation MR2 but since the MRS weighed less, performance was acceptable.

There were several transmission options available in the W30, a four-speed automatic, a 5-speed manual, a six-speed manual or a 5-speed sequential manual transmission.  The latter did not have a clutch.  Rather, it was driven by quickly tapping a shift lever that quickly shifted gears.  Depending upon the transmission configured, the third generation MRS ran the quarter mile in between 6.7 and 8.1 seconds.

The MRS was designed with the goal of delivering a great driving experience.  It is considered to be the best handling MR2 at the limit and for controllability.  However, for some the reduction in power is just too much. For this reason, an engine swap to the 189 horsepower four cylinder 2ZZ-GE engine has proved popular.  This is the same engine found in the Toyota Celica GTS, Corolla XRS, Matrix XRS and Pontiac Vibe in the United States.

The Toyota MR2 in motorsports

The MR2 does not have quite the motorsports history that other Toyotas such as the Celica and Supra do. However, it did participate in Super GT racing within its native Japan.  Specially prepared versions of the MRS were campaigned by several private teams between 2000 and 2008.

In the mid 90s, Toyota worked with Sigma Advanced Racing and Development, (SARD), a Japanese tuner and racing team to develop and race a heavily modified MR2 in the 1995 and 1996 Le Mans race.  The Toyota SARD MC8 was entered into one of the toughest competitions that Le Mans had ever seen.   As a result, the MC8 did not have a chance against the likes of McLaren’s F1, Porsche 911 GT1 and others.

Powered by a twin-turbo V8 engine producing 600 horsepower, it was not sufficient to overcome the competition.  It was retired after the 14th lap in the 1995 Le Mans race.  In 1996, it finished second from last and then relegated to the history books.

To meet homologation requirements, Toyota produced one road going version of the SARD MC8.  It made a public appearance when it was first produced but then disappeared.  However, it resurfaced again in 2015 in a video.

Toyota MR2 mods

Of the three generations of Toyota MR2s, the second generation is the one most favored by performance minded folks.  It is larger and offers more performance than the other generations.

The Toyota MR2 is capable of very impressive performance. There is a second generation MR2 Turbo built by xx that puts out 872 horsepower from a heavily modified Camry block.  The current world record holder puts out 1,126 horsepower using a modified four-cylinder K20Z1 engine from an Acura RSX Type S.  Keep in mind that these engines are in a vehicle that tip the scales at right around 2,300 pounds.

While the MR2 doesn’t have the following or legendary status of the Toyota Supra, the MR2 does nonetheless seem to have a loyal following.  This begs the question, with the recent trend towards reviving older versions of iconic cars and trucks such as the Supra, Bronco and Ranger, is there a fourth generation Toyota MR2 somewhere in Toyota’s future line up?

What is your opinion?  What do you think of the MR2 as a performance platform?  Let me know in the comments below.


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