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Toyota MR2 Mk1 illustration

Toyota MR2: Japan’s mid-engined mini exotic

The Toyota MR2, Japan’s first mid-engined production car, caused a sensation when it arrived in the UK in 1985.

Its race-track handling, smooth, high-revving engine and dramatic styling prompted an out-pouring of love from the motoring press.

We look at what made it so great.

Toyota had history in the sports car market, but it had been a long time ago and only partially successful.

The pretty little S800, sold only in Japan from 1965 to 1969, proved they could produce more than mere bread-and-butter motors, while the beautiful GT2000 – a genuine E-Type challenger – could mix it with the best European sports cars.

Toyota S800
Toyota S800

Despite race-track success in the US, the GT sold poorly, with only 337 production units made over four years, in part because of a high price (more than an E-Type or Porsche) and possibly Toyota’s lack of sports car pedigree.

Toyota GT2000
Toyota GT2000

Barring the Celica sporting coupe, that was it for a generation – until the SV-3 prototype showed up at the 1983 Tokyo Motor Show.

By the following year, the new car was in production in Japan as the MR2 – for either Midship Runabout 2-seater or Mid-engined, Rear-wheel-drive, 2-seater – and Toyota had created something remarkable.

Toyota MR2 Mk1
Toyota MR2 Mk1

Development of the MR2

The MR2 started life way back in 1976, when a design project was launched to develop a fun-to-drive, small, fuel-efficient car – not necessarily a sports car.

Chief development engineer Akio Yoshida was put in charge, but the oil crisis of the ‘70s caused a three-year hiatus as Toyota focused on core projects like the new Tercel, and updating the Corolla.

Yoshida persisted and, influenced by a spell working in Los Angeles, the car gradually morphed into a rear-wheel-drive, two-seater sports car.

While driving in the US, he identified the need for a “quick, manoeuvrable car with good acceleration”, noting the number of MGs and Triumphs zipping around the area.

“We (had) received information from Toyota in America suggesting a market for an affordable sports car, so the concept of the compact mid-engine two-seater with good economy, performance and practicality was born,” he said.

The design team studied mid-engined cars like Fiat’s X1/9, Lancia’s Montecarlo, and more exotic machinery like the Ferrari 308GTB and Lotus Esprit.

But it was the less well-known Matra Murena, based on the humble Simca 1100 hatchback with a 1600cc four-cylinder engine, which really impressed Yoshida’s team.

It was an example of creating something special from a humdrum car, with Car magazine journalist LJK Setright describing it as “one of the most sweetly responsive cars that ever offered a driver a choice of how to steer through a bend”.

The decision was made to mount the engine amidships, and design work began in earnest under Seiichi Yamauchi, who drew inspiration from the Japanese katana, a samurai sword characterized by a long, slim, gracefully curving blade.

Several versions were drawn before the first prototype, SA-X, was revealed in 1981, and two years later Toyota unveiled the SV-3 in Tokyo.

Toyota SA-X concept
SA-X concept

On a revolving show stand at the centre of Toyota’s huge display, the SV-3 drew large crowds among the 1.2million visitors who converged on the Harumi Fairgrounds in October and November, 1983.

Toyota SV-3 concept
Toyota SV-3 concept

Unlike the other prototypes and concept cars on show, this one would require only a few minor tweaks – and a name change – to reach full production in its home country the following year.

Technical specification

The MR2 had already been Japan’s car of the year in 1984, so there was a certain anticipation among the UK’s motoring press when they got their hands on test cars the following March.

Toyota MR2 1985
Toyota MR2 1985

They liked the look of the mid-engined concept, and a specification that promised fun to go with Toyota’s burgeoning reputation for reliability and all-round competence.

Power was provided by the 1.6-litre 4A-GE, DOHC twin-cam engine first seen in the AE80 series Corolla GT coupe, mounted transversely directly behind the passenger compartment, giving a 56/44 rear/front weight distribution.

Fitted with Denso electronic port fuel injection, its wonderfully free-revving nature owes much to a ‘two-stage’ throttle with additional, electronically-controlled throttle flaps which opened above 4,650 revs.

The UK version punched out 122bhp at 6,600rpm.

Lotus engineer Roger Becker helped with the development of the MacPherson strut with coil spring suspension, with front and rear anti-roll bars, but the rest of the car was pure Toyota.

Toyota MR2 Mk1 interior
MR2 interior

A functional but smart black dashboard housed analogue dials – digital readouts were considered but passed over – while electric windows, remotely-adjustable door mirrors and a full-length sunroof came as standard.

UK launch and reception

The superlatives soon flowed as the MR2 quickly proved that mid-engined cars don’t need to be cramped and claustrophobic, nor have a contorted driving position like the Italian supercars.

Motor magazine praised the Japanese for its boldness in taking the mid-engined approach, opening up a market with no direct rivals other than the smaller and cheaper X1/9.

Toyota MR2 Mk1

Like our illustration of the Toyota MR2: Japan’s mid-engined mini exotic at the beginning of the article?

Download a free high-quality poster version here.

“As a package from a country where manufacturers so often play safe, the MR2 is nothing less than a revelation,” it wrote. “It could be improved in detail but, as it stands, it is very, very good – probably the best sports car ever to come out of Japan.

“Here, at last, is the mini exoticar enthusiasts have been waiting for.”

Drivers could enjoy an ultra-slick, ‘knife-through-butter’ five-speed gearbox, and handling and roadholding not far off Lotus Esprit standards.

What Car? described “cornering that has you shaking your head in disbelief” with “limits of handling and roadholding which most drivers will never reach”.

The normally-aspirated 1600cc engine could propel the MR2 to 60mph in just 7.5 seconds with a “surprisingly civilised punch”, and ultimately reach an impressive top speed of 122mph, all achieved with an overall fuel consumption of around 30mpg.

Toyota MR2 US spec

“Its unique combination of race-track handling, smooth injected performance from an engine that’s willing to rev past 7,000rpm, brilliant gear change and sleek shape has made it a very impressive debutant,” wrote the magazine.

Its team of road testers all returned “with their eyes shining and appetite whetted for another shot in what is undoubtedly Japan’s best sporting car to date”.

Enter the T-Bar

To the purist sports car fan, there was one thing the MR2 lacked – wind in the hair motoring.

Toyota solved this in 1986 with the introduction of the T-Bar, which featured two glass roof panels either side of a central brace, connecting the tops of front and rear screens.

Toyota MR2 T-Bar
Toyota MR2 T-Bar

There were other changes too, including the suspension pack, uprated brakes and redesigned fascia from the Japan-only supercharged T-Bar, plus a smoother and longer nose and a deeper front spoiler.

There was also a smaller steering wheel and restyled alloy wheels.

By now, the MR2 was already being described as a “classic in its own lifetime” by Autocar, who said it remained in a class of its own.

“By bringing out the T-Bar, Toyota has ensured that this will not change,” it wrote. “Other manufacturers will have their work cut out to match, let alone beat, the sheer driveability of the MR2.”

Supercharged MR2

Sadly, the supercharged version was never officially sold in the UK, with sales restricted to Japan and, from 1988, the US.

It’s worth mentioning here though, in case you can find an imported example.

Toyota MR2 Supercharger
MR2 supercharger

Based on the same block and head as the standard engine, the 4A-GZE gained a small Roots-type supercharger and a Denso intercooler, with the compression ratio lowered to 8:1.

This all added up to 145bhp at 6,400rpm and an improved 137lb ft of torque at 4,400rpm, enough to propel the car to 60mph in 6.5 seconds – easily enough to outpace a Porsche 944S.

Despite an increase in weight, fuel economy was not unduly affected thanks to the belt-driven supercharger, actuated by an electromagnetic clutch, only kicking in when needed.

Externally, the only clues that this is not a standard MR2 are the discreet vents on the engine cover and small “supercharged” decals on the doors and deck lid.

Once behind the wheel, you notice that the tachometer has a red-striped sector above 7500 rpm, plus a little green light, labelled ‘Supercharger’.

Testing a supercharged MR2 in the US, Car & Driver magazine said the car was noticeably quicker than its standard sibling, with “performance that is both effortless and quite sufficient to embarrass many higher-priced sports cars”.

“There isn’t another 1.6-litre car in the land that can beat Super Two’s 130-mph top speed,” it noted.

Introducing the Mk2

The end of the decade marked the end of an ‘80s icon, with the wedged wonder making way for a more modern, slippery design, with several styling cues taken from Ferrari.

Toyota MR2 Mk2
The sleek new Mk2

The Mk2 was prettier, but also wider, longer, and heavier, with more power from a 2-litre, 16-valve Celica engine, and a better quality finish and interior.

In Europe, the car was offered in three trim levels: the Coupe, with the 2-litre 3S-FE engine producing 138bhp; and the GT Coupe and GT T-Bar, both with the 3S-GE unit producing 158bhp.

The turbocharged GT-S available in Japan was a real rocket, hitting 60mph in just 5.5 seconds on its way to a staggering 155mph.

Its predecessor was always going to be a tough act to follow, as CAR magazine pointed out in a 1990 review of the new car.

“The old model MR2 was the most thoroughly developed, sweetest-handling, most user-friendly mid-engined sportster probably ever built,” it said.

But here’s the kicker when discussing the new car: “So how come Toyota screwed up?”

Performance wasn’t the problem – it was quick, hitting 60mph in 7.2 seconds and going on to 135mph, much quicker than the hot hatches of the time.

Toyota MR2 T-Bar
MR2 T-Bar

At issue was the Mk2’s handling, which felt less agile than the Mk1 and was prone to “snap oversteer”.

CAR found the new car lacking when pushed hard at Castle Combe, “like an intermediate skier trying his first black run”.

“It loses its balance at speed. Its controllable understeer is rather brusquely transferred into a sloppy, difficult-to-control, tail-happy slide/ I have never had so many spins in a road car as I had at Castle Combe during the two days we spent there.

“We wanted to love this car so much. But afterwards, the disappointment almost hurt.”

Curing the car’s ills

Toyota took the rash of complaints about the handling to heart, and set about significantly revising the suspension.

Alterations included relocated and lengthened rear trailing arms, a lower ride height, stiffer anti-roll bars and bushings, and revised castor, trail and camber angles.

Toyota MR2 interior Mk2
High quality, roomier interior

There were also larger wheel diameters, wider rear rubber, quicker steering gear and larger brake discs.

While some drivers thought the changes neutered the MR2, Toyota made the changes “for drivers whose reflexes were not those of Formula One drivers”.

The Revision 3 cars from 1993 saw an increase in power to 173bhp and a few tweaks to the body styling, while the Rev 5 cars of 1998 saw power boosted to 200bhp.

Sadly, like the Mk1, the turbo was never sold by Toyota UK, but some JDM cars did find their way into the country via private importers.

This car has considerable success in motorsport in its homeland’s GT Championship and various US competitions, as well as forming the basis for Toyota’s 600bhp, SARD MC8-R Le Mans Car.

About 140,000 Mk2s were sold globally, and Toyota Racing Development (TRD) also offered an official body kit from 1998 to match its TRD2000GT race car, along with many other tuning parts.

Toyota MR2 TRD2000GT
Toyota MR2 TRD2000 GT

There was also a small run of SW20 Spider cars produced by Toyota TechnoCraft between 1996 and 1999, featuring a retractable, cloth roof, wingless trunk lid and a unique engine lid.

Toyota MR2 SW20 Spider
Toyota MR2 SW20 Spider

A few of these found their way to the UK.

The soft-top MR2 Spyder

For the third generation, Toyota took aim at the Mazda MX-5, a pure soft-top roadster replacing the previous coupe and T-Bars – but the engine was still very much in the middle.

Toyota MR2 Mk3 roadster
Mk3 roadster

It was smaller, lighter and more nimble than its predecessor, and was first seen as the MR-S (Midship Runabout Sports) concept at the 1997 Tokyo motor show.

Chief engineer Tadashi Nakagawa described it as breaking the “cycle of growth” of the car industry, the new car weighing just 975kg, considerably less than its predecessor.

The engine was the all-aluminium alloy, four-cylinder 1.8-litre VVT-i from the seventh generation Celica, producing 138bhp at 6400rpm and 127lb ft of torque at 4200rpm.

At launch, the car came with a five-speed manual, with an auto option soon following, and the manual upgraded to a six-speed box from 2002.

Suspension was pretty straightforward, with MacPherson struts at each corner, but the handling was nonetheless impressive, Evo magazine rating it higher than even the Lotus Elise.

Like our illustration of the Toyota MR2: Japan’s mid-engined mini exotic at the beginning of the article?

Download a free high-quality poster version here.

Toyota MR2 Mk3

“It reacts incredibly sharply, cutting left and right with keen precision, the smallest of steering inputs bringing minute but crucial adjustments to the car’s attitude,” the magazine wrote in March 2000.

Although it had less power than the Mk2, its much lighter weight and more nimble handling made up for it, while the free-revving engine was a welcome return to the Mk1’s extra “zing”.

Toyota MR2 Mk3 interior
Mk3 interior

Falling sales of convertibles in the early 2000s marked the death knell for the MR2, with Toyota announcing in 2004 that US sales would cease in 2005.

Sales continued in Japan, Mexico and Europe until 2007, with a limited run of 1,000 V-Edition cars for Japan and the UK, marked by different colour wheels, minor body tweaks, a limited-slip diff, and titanium interior accents.

Toyota MR2 V-Edition
MR2 V-Edition

There was also a special TF300 for the UK to mark the final 300 models sold here, each individually numbered and featuring custom leather and Alcantara upholstery and twin sports exhaust.

Toyota MR2 TF300
Inside the TF300

There’s no doubt that the MR2, through three generations, was one of the greatest sports cars to come out of Japan, from the razor-sharp Mk1 to the powerful and sleek Mk2 and the fun little roadster that put a smile on the face of anyone who drove it.

As for the future, there have been various rumours over the years of a return for the MR2, but nothing has yet come to pass.

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