Toyota MR2 – Japan’s Beloved Mid-Engine Sports Car
The Toyota MR2 is one of Japan’s most revered sports cars. First debuting in 1984, the MR2 captured enthusiasts with its unconventional mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout, lightweight, and engaging driving dynamics. Spanning three generations through 2007, the MR2 demonstrated Toyota was serious about building legitimate driver’s cars, not just sensible transportation.
While discontinued today, the MR2’s legacy lives on as an attainable mid-engine classic for autocrossing, modification, and importing JDM versions never officially sold in North America. At a time when affordable sports cars were dying off, the MR2 kept the segment alive for purists on a budget.
Origins – Toyota’s Mid-Engine Experiment
Toyota stunned sports car fans in 1984 when it unveiled the AW11 MR2 coupe. Here was Toyota, known mostly for economy cars, selling a stylish, mid-engine two-seater designed for spirited driving. The MR2’s name stood for “Midship Runabout, 2-seater” reflecting its fascinating layout placing the engine behind the passenger compartment for optimal handling balance.
Power came from a 1.6L 4-cylinder offering a modest 112 horsepower, but the car’s sub-2400 pound weight allowed impressive acceleration. Crisp steering and forgiving dynamics made the MR2 an instant hit with drivers and magazines. Toyota proved it could channel the spirit of Italian and French mid-engine exotics in an affordable package.
Second Generation – The MR2 Turbo is Born
A second-generation SW20 MR2 launched in 1989 carrying over the successful mid-engine formula while adding more power. Naturally aspirated models offered 130 horsepower, but a new MR2 Turbo came packing a 200+ horsepower turbocharged 2.0L engine good for 0-60 times under 6 seconds.
The SW20’s wedge-like styling modernized visually while uprated brakes and wider tires improved handling capabilities. For enthusiasts craving Italian style with Japanese reliability, the SW20 MR2 Turbo was a poor man’s Ferrari for the early 1990s.
The MR2 Toyota Spyder – Lightweight Fun
In 1999, Toyota released the third MR2 iteration – the ZZW30 MR2 Spyder. The Spyder took the MR2 back to basics dropping weight to just over 2000 pounds and went convertible-only with a manual soft top.
Styling was rounded versus angular while the engine downsized to a 138 horsepower 1.8L 4-cylinder focused on affordable fun over outright speed. As dedicated lightweight sports cars fell out of favor in the early 2000s, the MR2 Spyder kept the segment alive with classic rear-drive dynamics.
Legacy of the MR2 Toyota
While Toyota discontinued the MR2 in 2007, its legacy endures by bringing peculiar mid-engine performance to the masses. Prices remain reasonable today, preserving the MR2’s role as a cost-effective classic. The Turbo model in particular stands out for its balance of speed and handling.
More than just another sports car, the MR2 showed Toyota’s engineering creativity in its first steps in building engaging driver’s machines. For an entire generation, it served as an attainable mid-engine dream car. In a class of one, the MR2 proved that for a brief shining moment, Toyota embraced building cars that were fun, first and foremost.