Itsy-Bitsy Spyder: The Last MR2

How would you like a sleek, mid-engined roadster for the price of a used minivan stinking of spoiled milk and dirty dogs? The Toyota MR2 Spyder may be your answer. As an added feature, it’s built like a Toyota.

The MR2 was the Japanese giant’s most notable on-again, off-again niche sports car. First introduced for 1985, it was an inexpensive, mid- engined two-seater based around the Corolla engine and transmission. A light curb weight and low polar moment of inertia made it thrilling to drive despite its low power and humble origins. A car this fun—and this impractical—was unexpected from Toyota and became an immediate media darling. Sales followed the praise, and the first MR2 sold well during the four years it was available in the States.

The original, sharp-edged car was replaced by a new, more aerodynamic MR2 for 1991. The second-generation model was also larger and more powerful than its predecessor. A powerful turbocharged variant was sold alongside the base model, and its 200 horsepower pushed performance to new levels. Unfortunately, the market was changing. Like the Mazda RX-7, the Nissan 300ZX, Toyota’s own Supra and the Mitsubishi 3000GT, the MR2 was too sophisticated, too expensive and in too small of a niche to win the favor of Japanese automakers. Their halos moved to more profitable, broad-market SUVs and other cars. The MR2 was discontinued after 1995, and that slot in the lineup was left vacant.

Up The Waterspout

Cut to a few years later: It was 1999, and Toyota was facing a buyer demographic problem.

The median age of a Toyota buyer was among the highest in the industry—older than 60—and creeping higher. Realizing the need to appeal to a younger buyer with products that were less expensive and more attractive, Toyota executives launched Project Genesis. The goal: Bring 30-somethings into showrooms.

Project Genesis was based around three products: the relaunched Celica, a subcompact called the Echo, and a new convertible MR2 called the Spyder. The idea was that these three cars would be marketed differently from the rest of the Toyota products, with the hope that they would resonate with the needed younger buyers. The lessons learned from these three products helped shape the Scion brand a few years later. (And we won’t lie—it wasn’t all a giant success story.)

The most unusual of the three cars was the new 2000 MR2 Spyder. It followed the MR2 formula of a compact two-seater chassis, powered by an economy car-derived four-cylinder engine placed behind the driver. Instead of the coupe or T-top roofline of previous MR2s, though, this one was available as a convertible only, with a neat glass rear window and somewhat awkward top profile. It was a stubby car with wheels pushed out to the corners and a bug-eyed fascia. A flat rear bumper accentuated the truncated profile.

Under the skin, the MR2 Spyder used a four-wheel MacPherson strut suspension and modest, 15-inch tires. The engine was the all-aluminum 1ZZ-FED found in the contemporary Corolla and Celica GT, producing 138 horsepower. Initially, the only available transmission was a five-speed manual.

Here’s the big news: In a reversal of most industry trends, this new car was even lighter than the very first MR2 sold 15 years earlier. The Spyder had a published curb weight of only 2195 pounds.

The car was only sold in one version—a monospec in Toyota parlance. There were no factory options, and features such as power windows and locks came standard. About the only thing a buyer could choose was the color.

The upshot to all this lack of choice was an attractive bottom line: MSRP was $23,558 the first year. Unfortunately, import restrictions and opportunistic dealers combined to prevent most cars from going out the door anywhere close to that price.

Down Came The Rain

This car was more of a contradiction than any previous MR2, however. Many things about it confused reviewers, as well as new-car buyers. 

For one thing, Toyota attempted to market it toward a younger buying segment, yet the car’s impracticality ruled it out for most single-car households. Unlike past versions of the MR2, there was no rear trunk cleverly fit between the engine and the tail of the car. The Spyder only had a tiny compartment up front, plus some modest space behind the seats. Basically, it made a Miata look like a Mercury. 

For another, it was sold as a lightweight competitor of the Miata and S2000 but had neither the Mazda’s curvaceous lines nor the S2000’s power. 

When the car debuted, reviewers liked many things about it, but most could not warm to the whole package. The biggest complaints centered around the odd exterior styling, an interior that looked dated the day it launched, and the lack of storage space. 

Despite its flaws, reviewers loved the new car’s excellent handling, good power-to-weight ratio and glass rear window. The stiff chassis received high marks for minimizing any handling quirks that might arise due to the convertible top. They also noted the low price and the fact that it was made by Toyota, which implied a high level of reliability. 

Maybe the MR2 didn’t out-Miata the Miata, but it was Mazda’s first real competition. Today, the MR2 still makes a great alternative to that other roadster, especially if it won’t serve as a primary vehicle. Looking for a reliable, zippy autocrosser or track toy? The MR2 Spyder may be the one.

Out Came the Sun

The first year, more than 7200 Spyders left dealer floors. By sales alone, the car was a success, although most buyers were not in the coveted younger age bracket. Unfortunately, no other year managed to repeat the first year’s success: Sales tapered off until production ended in 2005, when only 720 MR2 Spyders were sold.

The MR2 wasn’t totally consigned to the history books, as Toyota kept it in production for overseas markets for two more years. Overall, it was a success in terms of creating a youthful halo for the Toyota brand, but the MR2 Spyder never seemed to generate the same kind of following as previous MR2s. That’s a shame because there are very few cars before or since that handle as well, regardless of price.

Things to Know

The Toyota nameplate and limited production numbers conspire to keep depreciation in check somewhat. The earliest MR2 Spyders are still selling a bit north of $5000 and the latest ones are getting a little more than twice that. Because the car changed so little during production, however, the year can be less important than the overall condition. These are Toyotas after all, and seem to be aging well. 

How you intend to use the car might very well dictate the year sought. For street, we’d simply buy the nicest, newest one possible. If it’s going to become a modified autocrosser or track rat—or receive an engine swap—then we’d seek the least expensive one out there. Stock-class autocrossers face a bit of a dilemma: Go with the lighter, lower early cars, or sacrifice some weight and handling to get one fitted with a limited-slip differential? The community hasn’t fully answered that question yet.

Engine and Drivetrain

The 1ZZ engine can be very long-lived, as long as it's kept happy. Some issues that make it unhappy include excessive oil consumption, oil starvation and failing precats. 

A few engines have experienced excessive oil consumption—more than a quart every 1000 miles. This is not a death sentence for the engine: As long as the level is kept up, the car will probably still run forever. 

Warning: Do not starve your engine. The 1ZZ engines can have oil pressure issues. If taking one on track, keep an eye on the oil level.

Like a few other cars from that era, the exhaust manifold-mounted catalytic converter, or precat, can break up from heat, vibration or a combination. The extremely abrasive ceramic can then get sucked back through the exhaust valves and damage the cylinder bores. This is a rare occurrence, but it can—and does—happen. The earlier cars seem more susceptible to this problem.

A cat-back exhaust is an easy way to shed some weight from the back of a tail-heavy car. 

We really can’t recommend one of the sequential-shift (SMT) cars. The upshifts are dog-slow, while the unit’s longevity is just too big of a question mark. 

The 1ZZ engine takes to boost very well, with both supercharger and turbocharger kits available. The TRD supercharger intended for the Matrix can be made to work in the Spyder—with some cutting of the firewall, the supercharger or both. Turbo kits are available from a number of sources.

A potentially more cost-effective solution is to swap in the 2ZZ engine from a Celica, Matrix, Corolla or Vibe. It’s nearly a bolt-in swap, and depending on the ECU and accessories, you’re looking at 164 to 189 horsepower. That engine also comes with a six-speed manual that can be adapted to the MR2’s linkage. Budget Lotus Elise, anyone? Also, a side note: We’ve noticed that swaps don’t really impact selling prices. 

Wanna go a bit nuts? We’ve seen people swap in Toyota’s quad-cam V6.

Body and Interior

The top has some fragile straps in the rear corners. Inexpensively made replacement straps will cure the problem. 

Suspension and Brakes

The factory tire and wheel package is very conservative: 185/55R15 up front and either 205/50R15 or 205/45R16 in rear. Tire clearance is moderately good, meaning you can get a 225mm tire mounted on a 15x9-inch wheel under there. Fender rolling is always an option.

Autocrossers tend to favor the Addco or Saner front anti-roll bar. If the rules allow, remove the rear bar, too. 

For track use, we like 600-700 lbs./in. front springs, paired with 400-500 lbs./in. rears. 

The parking brake cables can freeze up during winter. Solution: Don’t use the parking brake during winter.

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Comments
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NickD
NickD PowerDork
9/16/19 9:41 a.m.

Good lord, are you guys reading my brain? I drove one of those last weekend at an autocross in E/Street (he had just wheels and some BFG Rivals on it, no sway bars or exhaust or brake work) and it was such a delightful car to drive. So, now I've been out looking for cheap ones so that I can retire my supercharged Miata from autocross and have my PAX work for me instead of against me.

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/16/19 9:47 a.m.

Am I the only one who likes these?

sleepyhead the buffalo
sleepyhead the buffalo Mod Squad
9/16/19 9:55 a.m.
Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/16/19 10:25 a.m.

In reply to sleepyhead the buffalo :

Good news! 

NickD
NickD PowerDork
9/16/19 10:45 a.m.

In reply to Jordan Rimpela :

I also really like these. Of all the Mister2s, I want one of these. Also, forum member Carbon has a badass ~225whp, ~1800lb one that I've ridden in. It's a little rocket ship

MadScientistMatt
MadScientistMatt PowerDork
9/16/19 1:34 p.m.

This one's always puzzled me as to why it never left the factory with the 2ZZ-GE to begin with.

Vigo
Vigo MegaDork
9/16/19 3:01 p.m.

I have a E36 M3ty MR-S and a E36 M3ty pile of disassembled 2zz engine.  Some assembly required. blush

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/16/19 3:03 p.m.

In reply to Vigo :

Still waiting for that 1980 T&C build thread...

CyberEric
CyberEric HalfDork
9/16/19 7:16 p.m.

I love these... sadly they are really expensive when I see them for sale. 

Carbon
Carbon UltraDork
9/16/19 7:55 p.m.

I have a pair of them, a 1zz turbo one and a 2zz turbo one. Both are ridiculous fun. Both have been very reliable despite copius track use and hard street use. Both are ftd cars at most events.

I took another 6lbs out of the silver car, it weighs (with a 1zz turbo and a six speed/lsd swap) 1929lbs. Ready to drive, in street trim, with stock seats. A N/A one with a 5 speed would be even lighter. 

Carbon
Carbon UltraDork
9/16/19 7:57 p.m.
CyberEric said:

I love these... sadly they are really expensive when I see them for sale. 

Wait..... what? Theyre all over the place for between 3k and 5k. Thats cheaper than any rust free miata I can find. 

Carbon
Carbon UltraDork
9/16/19 8:00 p.m.
NickD said:

In reply to Jordan Rimpela :

I also really like these. Of all the Mister2s, I want one of these. Also, forum member Carbon has a badass ~225whp, ~1800lb one that I've ridden in. It's a little rocket ship

The one you rode in was the heavy one (1929lbs) lol. It got a trd lsd/ and six speed, and a bigger turbo (tomei arms 7660) since you rode in it. 

BlindPirate
BlindPirate Reader
9/16/19 8:01 p.m.

So, what are they like to work on? Would it be tough to do some stuff in the garage on jack stands? I have been eyeing these for awhile but mid engine maintenance has held me back.

Carbon
Carbon UltraDork
9/16/19 8:47 p.m.

Theyre not bad, its like working on a backwards carolla. 

BlindPirate
BlindPirate Reader
9/16/19 9:12 p.m.

Who is the Flying Miata of the MR2 world?

Vigo
Vigo MegaDork
9/16/19 9:20 p.m.

Pretty sure there isn't one, per se. 

Dootz
Dootz Reader
9/17/19 1:48 a.m.

In reply to MadScientistMatt :

So that people would have a reason to buy its platform mate the Elise

NickD
NickD PowerDork
9/17/19 5:18 a.m.
BlindPirate said:

Who is the Flying Miata of the MR2 world?

At least for the MR-2 Spyder, I would say Monkeywrench Racing. They sell turbo kits, all sorts of 1ZZ internal upgrades, 2ZZ swap kits and Honda K-series swap kits.

sleepyhead the buffalo
sleepyhead the buffalo Mod Squad
9/17/19 6:20 a.m.

I was discussing somewhere else that one of these (probably w/ the 2zz) would make an interesting GLTC car... since it's lighter/wider/lower-drag and mid-rear compared to the miata which has 'semi-dominated' GLTC so far

mad_machine
mad_machine MegaDork
9/17/19 9:07 a.m.

back in 1999 when I bought my one and only new car. It came down to the MR2 spider and a Hyundai Tiburon. The only reason I went with the Tib was because I needed the storage space the MR2 lacked. I was doing 20,000 miles a year as a video editor and I was often carrying equipment with me. If it had a rear trunk like the previous two MRs, it would have been all over it

Carbon
Carbon UltraDork
9/17/19 6:18 p.m.
NickD said:
BlindPirate said:

Who is the Flying Miata of the MR2 world?

At least for the MR-2 Spyder, I would say Monkeywrench Racing. They sell turbo kits, all sorts of 1ZZ internal upgrades, 2ZZ swap kits and Honda K-series swap kits.

They are definitely not on par with fm in terms of quality or service imho. But they’re ok, and they support the platform consistently for decades now. 

CyberEric
CyberEric HalfDork
9/17/19 7:35 p.m.

In reply to Carbon :

Really?! That’s great to hear because in my area they are hardly ever for sale, and when they are, they’re Toyota-taxed like crazy. Miatas are half the price around here (SF Bay). I can pull up a half dozen nice-ish NBs for less than 4K. Not a single Spyder for sale. Last one I saw was $6k. Where do you see them so cheap?

BlindPirate
BlindPirate Reader
9/17/19 7:52 p.m.

I have been spoiled by the Miata aftermarket and the info out there. In my limited research today on a mostly street suspension what info I found was a bit confusing. Tire size, staggered set up or square, a good spring, shock or coilover seems to be you are more on your own to figure out.

Niannone
Niannone New Reader
9/17/19 9:45 p.m.

I went from an NA to a spyder. The aftermarket is absolutely frustrating. Seems to be only low tier coil overs or custom crazy expensive stuff. Currently running BC coils which I really dislike and make the car a handful to drive. The car has been extremely reliable though. 

Carbon
Carbon UltraDork
9/18/19 11:06 a.m.
CyberEric said:

In reply to Carbon :

Really?! That’s great to hear because in my area they are hardly ever for sale, and when they are, they’re Toyota-taxed like crazy. Miatas are half the price around here (SF Bay). I can pull up a half dozen nice-ish NBs for less than 4K. Not a single Spyder for sale. Last one I saw was $6k. Where do you see them so cheap?

Massachusetts. I went on fb marketplace to prove myself wrong and found ten right off the bat that are asking sub 5k. Several were 3k and two were 1+k needing engines. $3500 should buy a reliable fixer upper here.

MadScientistMatt
MadScientistMatt PowerDork
9/18/19 12:33 p.m.
Dootz said:

In reply to MadScientistMatt :

So that people would have a reason to buy its platform mate the Elise

The timeline doesn't fit - the 2ZZ-GE version of the Elise didn't show up until the 2005 model year, long after the MR2 Spyder had been sold in the US.

java230
java230 UltraDork
9/18/19 12:50 p.m.

I have a Cheap ish one for sale.... In the PNW if anyone is looking :D

 

they are great little go karts! But I needed more seats.

NickD
NickD PowerDork
9/18/19 12:50 p.m.
Carbon said:
CyberEric said:

In reply to Carbon :

Really?! That’s great to hear because in my area they are hardly ever for sale, and when they are, they’re Toyota-taxed like crazy. Miatas are half the price around here (SF Bay). I can pull up a half dozen nice-ish NBs for less than 4K. Not a single Spyder for sale. Last one I saw was $6k. Where do you see them so cheap?

Massachusetts. I went on fb marketplace to prove myself wrong and found ten right off the bat that are asking sub 5k. Several were 3k and two were 1+k needing engines. $3500 should buy a reliable fixer upper here.

There's a scruffy black one with 120k miles for $3500 in Fairfield, CT on FB Marketplace that I would absolutely be picking up if I had room for a third car

mad_machine
mad_machine MegaDork
9/18/19 4:44 p.m.

I would love to see Toyota bring the MR2 back as a hardtop hybrid 2 seater sports car

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