Prime Performance

By J.G. Pasterjak
Apr 13, 2015 | Toyota | Posted in News and Notes | From the April 2015 issue | Never miss an article

What the 1990s lacked in style and taste, they made up for with a Japanese sporty car revolution. The CRX and original MR2 started that revolution in the 1980s, but it exploded in the last decade of the 20th century.

Suddenly we had 300-horsepower, twin-turbo Z-cars, Supras and 3000 GTs, plus Ferrari-baiting NSXs. Topping it all off was a slew of budget hot-hatches that still define an industry standard.

That decade also treated us to a second-generation Toyota MR2. It took everything we loved about the original and seemingly made it better–and added an optional 200-horsepower turbocharged and intercooled engine that moved the MR2 squarely into budget supercar territory.

Smash cut to present day. Grunge fashion that once came for pennies from the thrift store has been replaced by grunge fashion bought at the mall, while U2 records that once came from the mall are now free. But you know what hasn’t changed? Those second- gen MR2s are still darn good cars, despite rapidly approaching the quarter-century mark.

That’s where Prime Performance comes in. Nestled in the quaint New Jersey village of Stanhope– about 45 minutes west of Newark Airport–is a shop providing hope for the future of the beloved SW20-chassis MR2.

Prime was founded by hobbyist Bryan Fox in 2004 as an extension of his love of all things MR2. He was working on his cars, then his friends’ cars, then their friends’ cars, so he thought, Why not turn it into a business? Justin Burnash came along in 2010 as business partner and helper for more of the “clean hands” work while Bryan and crew turned the wrenches.

Over the last couple of years, though, Prime’s business has migrated toward one main specialty: Gen4 3S-GTE swaps. We’ll explain in a minute why these are such a good idea, but first a little MR2 history.

The 1991-’95 Toyota MR2 Turbo was equipped with a 2.0-liter four that sported Toyota’s internal code 3S-GTE. This was the second generation of that particular engine, with the original having appeared in all-wheel-drive turbo Celicas. While the MR2 disappeared from the U.S. market after 1995, it continued in Japan with a third generation of the turbocharged 3S-GTE under the engine lid, this one upping the ante by about 45 horsepower over the second-gen’s 200.

When the MR2 died completely after 1999, the 3S-GTE lived on in a fourth-generation configuration in the Japan-only Toyota Caldina. Picture a Subaru Legacy-looking wagon equipped with all-wheel-drive.

The fourth-gen 3S-GTE engine was far from pedestrian, however. Toyota bumped output to a rated 256 horsepower while adding some modern technologies. Manifold air pressure (MAP) now called the shots for fuel control, replacing the earlier generations’ Air Flow Meters (AFM). The updated engine also used a modern coil-on-plug style ignition system, fired by a solid state distributorless ignition that was triggered from a crank angle sensor. Controlling everything was a new computer that had far more processing power than earlier versions as well as OBDII compatibility.

Basically, it was a thoroughly modern evolution of the same engine that had been gracing SW20 MR2 engine bays since they were introduced. It was, therefore, a natural candidate for a swap.

Prime, now a legit business, was doing more than a few of these Gen4 swaps into neglected MR2s, including those needing new engines. At this point, the swap is basically the core of their business. “We’ve been part of the MR2 community for a while, so we’ve got good connections and we know where to look for stuff,” says Burnash. “At this point we probably do 20 to 30 ‘flip’ cars a year, where we’ll find a car with a blown motor, swap it, get it road worthy and sell it. That’s in addition to 40 or so swaps we’re doing on customer cars.”

The swap is rather straightforward. Essentially it’s the same engine going back into the car, so packaging and mounts aren’t an issue. If anything, the Gen4 powerplant’s distributorless ignition makes for a cleaner, less cluttered engine bay than the original. The Gen4 engines–bought from a JDM importer as takeouts with 40,000 to 60,000 miles on the clock.

The original MR2 Turbo transmission is retained and, as with the engine mount situation, it’s a bolt-up affair. The list of custom parts is actually quite short: some exhaust bits, throttle cable, intake piping, fuel lines, polished stainless steel intercooler piping and a few other assorted bits. The most important custom assembly is the wiring harness, a system that Prime contracts out to WireGap, Inc., who uses OEM-style connectors and construction techniques.

Overall, the visual effect is understated, unless custom finishes are involved. Were it not for a single piece of braided hose buried deep in the engine bay, an untrained eye would have great difficulty discerning that this was anything but an OEM engine bay. But the results are fairly spectacular.

A Gen4-swapped MR2 really is a best-of-all-worlds situation. You get the lovely, nimble, midengined MR2 chassis, unencumbered by the high window sills, bulky doors and tiny windshields required by modern safety regulations, powered by a thoroughly modern-feeling engine. While the Gen2 3S-GTE impressed when it debuted in the MR2 in 1990, by today’s drivability standards it feels like quite a throwback. The Gen4 engine, in contrast, has instant throttle response, progressive power delivery, and greatly reduced NVH compared to its ancestor. It really feels like you’re getting away with something.

We had been eying second-gen MR2 Turbos for a while, and found prices all over the place. We have seen rats for $4000, while $16,000 buys a low-mileage survivor.

Then we visited Prime. We were so impressed, actually, we couldn’t leave empty-handed. After thoroughly emptying every local ATM we could find, we made the 1100-mile drive back to Florida in a freshly Gen4- swapped 1991 MR2 Turbo. (Okay, full disclosure: We had arranged the deal prior to our visit. Even in Jersey, ATMs won’t let you get that much out in a day. But this car took us so much by surprise, buying it felt like a mad grab.)

After a few weeks of life with the car, our initial impressions hold up. Prime’s modest, restomod approach provides a whole new lease on life for aging MR2s.

So what’s all this mid-engined goodness going to cost? Assuming you already have an MR2, Prime will sell you a bag of goodies to complete the swap yourself for around $1500. You’ll need to add the engine, computer and wiring harness–they’ll be happy to put you in touch with an engine importer and their harness guy– and you’re down the road.

If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, Prime will do a soup-to- nuts swap on your turbo MR2 starts around $4500. Converting a normally aspirated car will be a few hundred more. The non-turbo cars require hub adapters and a few other bits if you’re converting to a full turco drivetrain, but aside from that everything bolts right in. Drop it off, then pick it up and drive away in a couple weeks.

They also sell built cars like ours pretty much as fast as they can assemble them. After pricing cars on today’s market, we went for the instant gratification.

“We dabbled with doing staged and specific builds on the cars that we swap and flip, but we realized the market wasn’t quite there yet. People still want to personalize these cars–they just want a solid base to start with,” Burnash explains. “If someone wants to consign something specific, we’re happy to build them exactly what they want, though. But right now we sell cars literally as fast as we can build them, so this seems to be where the market is at the moment.

“Even so, we won’t let anything leave that isn’t 100 percent road worthy and solid. We won’t build a car out of a rat or an unsafe chassis. But the overall quality is going to vary a bit based on the car we start with. We fix what’s broken, but we’re not restoring them per se. And, obviously, our actual motor swaps are all done to a very high standard and thoroughly road tested before we even think about letting them leave.”

Most of the complete flip cars that leave Prime’s shop do so in the $7000 to $10,000 range. Ours was priced in the middle and featured an 85,000-mile chassis that looks to have lived a relatively easy life. It took a couple hundred bucks to get the a/c up to spec, but it made the 1100-mile drive home to Florida without a hiccup and while averaging nearly 30mpg. It needs some paintwork to complete the package, but overall the body is straight and shows well.

Best of all, it drives like a dream.

There’s a lot we like about what Prime is doing. First, they’re preserving some exceptional cars that would otherwise probably rot away. They’re applying the “restomod” model–so popular among domestic hot rods and some European classics– to a breed of car that many of us grew up with. For a lot of us in our 30s and 40s, the MR2 Turbo was our E-Type or Shelby Mustang. Prime is giving us that delicious 1990s Japanese sports car cake– and letting us eat it, too.

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View comments on the GRM forums
T.J. UltimaDork
4/13/15 9:35 a.m.

U2 records aren't just free, they are forced down your throat against your will and make you jump through hoops to get rid of once they are on your phone, like some sort of Irish-themed virus.

pinchvalve MegaDork
4/13/15 9:45 a.m.

I love U2 and liked the free album. You can follow up with free albums from any other 80's supergroups whenever you want Apple overlords.

bravenrace MegaDork
4/13/15 10:18 a.m.

So that's how that U2 album got on my iPad. I don't care for U2, so I deleted it. I thought one of my kids did that.

T.J. PowerDork
4/13/15 10:30 a.m.

I deleted if like 5 times and the E36 M3 would keep coming back. I find U2 boring. I had to go to some special I-tunes page to get rid of it for good. More involved than it should've been. U2 and Apple owe me about 15 minutes worth of my time as far as I see it. I wonder what would happen if I sent them an invoice.

bravenrace MegaDork
4/13/15 10:35 a.m.

In reply to T.J.:

I haven't checked to see if it came back, but it really pisses me off that they do that. BTW, I agree about U2. "I" consider them one of the most over-rated bands ever.

Wallie MegaDork
4/13/15 10:36 a.m.

In reply to pinchvalve:

I hope the give me something from the original Supergroup, Asia.

Bruce MegaDork
4/13/15 10:53 a.m.

I thought this would be about Prime wheels:

I'm delightfully corrected :)

Schump New Reader
4/16/15 1:05 a.m.

I LOVE these cars. I think I even fit into them being 6'4 like I did in my 1973 914 2.0 daily driver, the 3141st 2 liter built. (OK, so I had to take out the seat cushion of the fiberglass seat to pass the Polishing Club of America's roll bar rule for the track with my brain bucket on, but so be it.) Time to try one on again, then decide what car I should buy, E36 M3 vs MR2 Turbo vs 2004 or newer Boxster or Cayman (I don't fit in 1st gen 986's, and BTW although Porsche NEVER advertised the Boxster as the reincarnation of the 914, funny how 8+6=14.)

For all those who didn't already know, the 1st gen MR2's dash was a copy of the Coutach's, and MR2=Mid Engined RWD 2 seater. Yeah, that last part is pretty bloody obvious!

MCarp22 HalfDork
4/16/15 2:28 a.m.
Schump wrote: For all those who didn't already know, the 1st gen MR2's dash was a copy of the Coutach's, and MR2=Mid Engined RWD 2 seater. Yeah, that last part is pretty bloody obvious!

It's actually "Midship Runabout" ...and I just wasted a good 10 minutes trying to find some sort of similarity between the Countach and Mk.1 MR2 dashboards, and aside from "boxy instrument hood" I couldn't come up with anything.

turboswede MegaDork
4/16/15 7:45 a.m.
MCarp22 wrote:
Schump wrote: For all those who didn't already know, the 1st gen MR2's dash was a copy of the Coutach's, and MR2=Mid Engined RWD 2 seater. Yeah, that last part is pretty bloody obvious!
It's actually "Midship Runabout" ...and I just wasted a good 10 minutes trying to find some sort of similarity between the Countach and Mk.1 MR2 dashboards, and aside from "boxy instrument hood" I couldn't come up with anything.


Fiat X-1/9:


I'm not convinced.

Schump New Reader
9/26/15 7:35 p.m.

I was told this by a friend whose older sister owned one and he, at the time, knew a lot more about cars than me. I agree with you, the only other similarity I see is the left dash vent and the angle of it being similar in the Countach and MR2. "Midship runabout" sounds pretty Toyota-esque though it seems the translation was aimed at the British market as I've never heard an American call a car a runabout.

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