Vintage Views: Toyota MR2—Mid-Engined Magic for the Masses

Conventional wisdom insists that Japan’s first mid-engined sports car was heavily designed by Lotus. However, conventional wisdom really isn’t always right.

Sure, it’s easy to see how the Toyota MR2 could be a clandestine Lotus project. Its mid-engined layout, relatively light weight, and capable MacPherson strut suspension made for an exceptionally good-handling car with more character than we had come to expect from Japanese cars of the era.

The truth is that the MR2’s development was controlled entirely by Toyota, although they did seek some outside consultation from Lotus engineer Roger Becker. Some of the development work (also known as track thrashing) was farmed out to Dan Gurney’s All American Racers team, giving the MR2 a worldwide pedigree most any car would be proud to bear.

The MR2 was revealed to the public at the 1983 Tokyo Motor Show as the SV-3 concept car. The production model that was released in Japan in late 1984 as a 1985 model was nearly identical to the displayed prototype.

The U.S. got the MR2 a few months later, also as a 1985 model. The only engine choice was the now-legendary 4A-GE 1597cc, twin-cam, 16-valve powerplant that we had previously seen in the Corolla GT-S. With a redline of 7500 rpm and output of 112 horsepower, the 4A-GE seems pedestrian by modern standards, but in the low-revving world of 1985, it was a revelation as sweet as the surprisingly edgy chassis of the mid-engined MR2.

Prodigious grip and sporty handling landed the 1985 MR2 on numerous “best car” lists across the auto-journosphere, but that sharpedged handling also earned it a neutering from Toyota: They removed the rear anti-roll bar from the 1986-and-subsequent models to tame the tail-happy handling.

The first-generation MR2–frequently referred to by its chassis code, AW11– remained largely unchanged mechanically until it checked out after the 1989 model year. In 1988 a 145-horsepower supercharged model was added, and in 1989 the rear anti-roll bar reappeared on the supercharged MR2.

Today MR2s enjoy good enthusiast community support and better-than-average parts availability, although some bits and pieces are beginning to become precious as age takes a toll. Good used examples are beginning to increase in value a bit, more from scarcity than collectability–although the former usually begets the latter at some point. Still, $2500 will buy you a driver and $3500 will buy you something that you could actually be a little proud of.

And when that 4A-GE ceases to impress with its 112 horsepower, there’s plenty of JDM and USDM Toyota-sourced swaps available–and a good knowledge base out there supporting them.

Shopping and Ownership

Racing Strong Motorsports grew out of the MR2 Owners Club message board and has been offering MR2 performance parts since 1999. Bill Strong, the owner of RSM, gave us these tips.

The earlier models are lighter and less optioned. For autocrossing, road racing and track days, the basic hardtop model is always preferred, as it’s the lightest car. The supercharged MR2s from 1988 and 1989 are highly sought after. They’re the quickest Mk1 model sold and are getting harder to find, which raises their value.

Look for rust when shopping. Open the rear trunk, lift the carpets, and look down into the side buckets. When the trunk seal leaks and the buckets rust, you will see the ground. If the car was ever rear-ended, the metal here will be bent or stretched. You should also be able to see signs of repair.

The brake and clutch master cylinders can leak into the trunk, causing brake fluid to drain into the floor under the spare tire. This will lift the paint and allow the car to rust.

T-top seals can leak. Look for rust and mold around the seats. New body panels are no longer available from Toyota. If you need bodywork done, Twos R Us sells patch panels.

Thunks in the suspension can mean the strut tops need to be replaced. If the chassis has a lot of miles, check that the bushings are still okay.

Rusted chassis bosses for the front and rear engine mounts can cause the mount to break free of the chassis. This allows the engine to move around and cause a rear-steer effect, making for a serious pucker moment.

Coolant hoses showing their age can indicate that a car has not been well maintained.

Be gentle on launches when you have slicks or are going to the drag strip. The stock C-series transaxle just can’t handle the abuse. Keep a basic metric socket set, Philips screwdriver, pliers, and a 1.25-inch radiator hose repair kit in the car. Also, get a AAA membership; that’s always a good thing to have for a 30-year-old car. The 4A-GE engine was a rocket compared to what was on the market in 1985. Today, it’s a 112-horsepower engine trying to move 2400 pounds. It does it well, but not like today’s engines do.

Headers and intakes just don’t work on this engine like they do on other imports, so don’t expect any real increase in power. You’ll just get more noise. Cams and compression really bring the most bang for the buck, but check your class racing rules and your local emissions laws before making these changes.

The most popular engine swap is the famed Mk1.5 hybrid. Stuffing a 3S-GTE turbo engine from a Mk2 car into this chassis transforms it into a rocket. Engine mounts are available from Speed Source. They also rent a jig so you can easily place the mounts in the correct position and weld them in. Installation is simple, and Wiregap Corporation has wiring harness adapters. The Toyota MZ-series V6 is also a popular swap. Torque really wakes up this car.

The best performance upgrade for the money involves the suspension. New Koni struts with Suspension Techniques springs and anti-roll bars make for a nice-handling car. Replace all the old rubber bushings with either new OE rubber, or upgrade to urethane bushings.

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View comments on the GRM forums
M3Loco Reader
1/1/14 8:34 p.m.

AWESOME! Thanks for the encouraging info! I'm 98% done sorting my 87 AW11 T-Top..

classiccarsrule85 New Reader
4/7/14 7:32 p.m.

Great stuff! Though should note there is a height requirement for these cars. I would love to own one (among many other small cars) but being 6'5" tall I could not even swing my legs in. Unsure if there is a way to remedy this but just something to note.

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