Mid-engine Rear-wheel-drive 2-seater – or MR2 for brevity – is all about Toyota’s small sports car, produced from 1984 through 2007. The MR2 came out at around the same time that Honda and General Motors launched their sports models – the CR-X and the Pontiac Fiero, respectively.
Its production ended after three generations, but speculations were rife in 2018 about bringing it back. With the revival of the Supra and the strong presence of the 86, an MR2 return may not be a very distant possibility after all.
The MR2 was well-loved for its responsive handling, traditional on-road performance, and fuel economy. Let’s see how it developed from the earliest concepts to its souped-up production versions before it disappeared from the market.
In 1976, Toyota envisioned to build a fuel-efficient car that would be fun to drive – not necessarily a sports car. Their work revolved around the SA-X prototype with a transversely-mounted mid-engine. This project was going to be Toyota’s first mid-engine car. Eventually, it progressed towards sporty prototypes, culminating with the completion of the SV-3 sports concept car which Toyota unveiled at the 1983 Tokyo Motor Show.
The production car came out in 1984 wearing the nameplate MR2.
1st Generation: W10 (1984–1989)
Toyota’s design manager Seiichi Yamauchi drew up the design elements of the second-generation MR2 (coded as W10) with emphasis on performance, simplicity, and fuel economy. During its launching year in Japan, Toyota’s first mid-engined car promptly won the 1984 Japan Car of the Year award.
The W10 is a two-door coupe with removable side panels and roof assembly called a T-top. It weighed 1,066kg, about the same weight as superminis like the Kia Rio, while the Japan-market version weighed 950kg. Under its rear lid was a 1.6L naturally-aspirated dynamo teamed up with a 5-speed manual gearbox. The version released in Australia, coded as AW11, had these specs:
- 1.6L 4A-GE DOHC T-VIS I4 petroleum engine – rated at 88 kW and 139 N⋅m, with fuel consumption of 7.2L/100km (combined driving)
The version released in Japan, coded as AW10, came with a 1.5L 3A-LU I4 power plant rated at 61 kW. In 1987, Toyota introduced a supercharged version albeit not available in Australia. The supercharged AW11 engine could churn up to 108 kW peak power and 186 N⋅m peak torque and could do a 0-100km/h in 6.5-7.0 seconds.
The MR2 received several facelifts and modifications through the first generation. These modifications were informally coded as MK1a and MK1b, entailing changes to the interior, chassis, and powertrain. For the 1988 model year, some markets received the supercharged version and colour-coded side mirrors. All 1988 variants received full-length side skirts as standard trim.
For MY 1989, these were some of the changes: T-top mirrored panels, colour-coded door handles and side mirrors, aerodynamic wing mirrors, and LED strip on the rear spoiler. Even with these series of facelifts, the first-generation MR2 retained its angular corners and sharp edges nonetheless.
After its initial production run, the MR2 received recognition from various motoring circles, including the following awards:
- Favourite Sports Car (1988) – Australian Wheels magazine
- Import Car of the Year (1985) – Motor Trend
- Ten Best list (1986 and 1987) – Car and Driver magazine
2nd Generation: W20 (1989–1999)
Toyota’s chief designer Kunihiro Uchida and chief engineer Tadashi Nakagawa designed the W20, better known as the second-generation MR2. Compared to the W10, this generation was larger, heavier, and more luxurious. It exceeded the first generation in many aspects – a spacious cabin, streamlined look, larger engine, and quality of mechanicals. Its design hinted at some Ferrari design elements, earning it the nicknames Baby Ferrari and poor man’s Ferrari.
The MR2 exchanged its angled edges for more rounded corners. It retained its lean, muscled build and, most of all, its agility and responsiveness on the road. Different 2.0L engine versions were available depending on market requirements, which included a turbocharged variant for Japan and USA. In Australia, the sole model (base model) came with this powertrain:
- 2.0 L 3S-GE 16-valve DOHC fuel-injected I4 petrol engine churning 117 kW and 190 N⋅m channelled through a 5-speed manual transmission system; with fuel consumption of 8.1L/100km (combined driving)
In 1994, Toyota introduced two higher-grade models – the Bathurst and GT variants. The base still came with the 117-kW engine, while the two new models came with an upgraded engine:
- 2.0 L 3S-GE 16-valve DOHC fuel-injected I4 petrol engine rated at 125 kW and 186 N⋅m and fuel consumption of 8.15L/100km (combined driving)
Standard equipment included ABS, central locking, fog lights, power mirrors, power windows, 14-inch alloy wheels, rear spoiler, and 6-speaker radio/cassette. The Bathurst and GT models came with 15-inch alloys, upgraded sound system, and revised suspension and steering wheel. The GT model came better equipped with driver’s airbag, anti-theft alarm system, CD player, power steering, and leather-accented upholstery. Before this period ended, a power sunroof was added to the Bathurst model and cruise control to the GT model.
3rd Generation: W30 (1999–2007)
Coded as model W30, the third-generation MR2 entered the US and Australian markets as MR2 Spyder, Europe as MR2 Roadster, and home Japan as MR-S. The MR2 of this era shed off significant weight and weighed 996 kg, coming very close to the original AW10.
This scaling off came as a result of Toyota’s third-generation design goals – a low-inertia and lightweight sports vehicle with a long wheelbase, customizable body, and mid-engine layout. All markets received the same powertrain with specs detailed below:
- 1.8L 1ZZ-FED DOHC VVT-I I4 petrol engine – rated output is 103 kW at 6,400 rpm and 170 N⋅m at 4,400 rpm with 7.25L/100km and 6.8s to 8.7s sprint time from standstill to 100km/h
The Australian version came with a 5-speed sequential manual transmission (SMT) in the first few years from launch. In 2002, a 6-speed SMT replaced the previous 5-speed. Cruise control came standard with the SMT.
The trims featured in the Spyder included dual front airbags, pretensioner seatbelts, ABS, engine immobiliser, limited slip differential, central locking, anti-theft alarm, adjustable steering wheel, leather steering wheel, power steering, power mirrors, power windows, heated rear window, CD with 6-CD stacker, 4-speaker sound system, sports seats, and alloy wheels.
Some drivers and enthusiasts disapproved of the down-rated power (from 125 kW to 103 kW), but they couldn’t complain about the Spyder’s fuel efficiency, agility, steering precision, and near-perfect handling.
In 2004, Toyota announced its decision to discontinue the MR2 due to low sales and increasing competition. Production stopped in 2007.