Toyota MR2 and MR2 Spyder

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Toyota MR2 Spyder

1984 - 2007
4 cyl. DOHC 16V VVT-i
1794 cc
138 kw
5 spd. man
Top Speed:
129 mph
Number Built:
0 star
Toyota MR2 Spyder
Toyota MR2 Spyder
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 3


The Toyota MR2 was manufactured between 1984 until July 2007 when production stopped in Japan. There were three different generations of the MR2: the first was produced between 1984 and 1989, and sported angular, origami-like lines. Next came a 1990-1999 facelift which borrowed strongly from the Ferrari design school. And finally came the 2000 to 2007 Spyder, this time Toyota designers borrowing from another successful European, the Porsche Boxster.

But all models had one thing in common - they were designed to be small, with an economical powerplant, but sporty in style and handling. Basic design elements, such as MacPherson strut front and rear suspension and transverse-mounted inline-four engines, were common to all three generations of MR2, though each generation differed greatly from the next in particulars.

Akio Yoshida

The MR2's life began in 1976 when Toyota launched a design project with the goal of producing a car which would be enjoyable to drive, yet still provide good fuel economy. Initially the purpose of the project was not to design a sports car. The actual design work began in 1979 when Akio Yoshida from Toyota's testing department started to evaluate different alternatives for engine placement and drive method. The choice was finally made to place the engine transversely in the middle of the car.

The first desgin prototype, the SA-X, was completed in 1981. From its base design, the car started to evolve into an actual sports car, and further prototypes were tested in both Japan and in California. A significant amount of testing was performed on actual race circuits such as Willow Springs, where former Formula One driver Dan Gurney tested the car. All three generations complied with Japanese Government regulations concerning exterior dimensions and engine displacement. Toyota finally showed the public the resultant SV-3 concept in October 1983 at the Tokyo Motor Show, gathering a huge amount of publicity both from the press and the audience. The car, scheduled to be launched in the second quarter of 1984 in the Japanese market under the name MR2 (which stands for "mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-seater"), was to become the first mass-produced mid-engined car to come from a Japanese manufacturer.

Series 1 1984 - 1989 Toyota MR2

Wind the clock back to 1984 and the motoring world was offering plenty of cars with sporting ability, but few real sports cars - and even fewer in the affordable price range. If you wanted something sharp, focused and mid-engined you pretty much had to shop Italian Supercar (or Lotus) - and not many could afford that. Machinery such as the Lotus Esprit, Ferrari Mondial and Lamborghini's Countach and Jalpa. At the time all cost in excess of $130,000, which was more than enough to put them out of the reach of most people.

Of course there were plenty that scoffed at the MR2 - mainly because of its price. Some believed you couldn't get a serious sports car for under $100K - but these brand snobs were obviously overlooking the well sorted Mazda RX-7. And from 1984 they were also overlooking the great little MR2, powered by a high stepping mid-mounted 16 valve powerplant, offering very good looks and affording only two seats - as any true sports car should. The best part of the story was that, at launch in Australia, the MR2 sold for less than A$34,000.

A Little Help From Lotus

Toyota named the first generation MR2 as model code "W10". When fitted with the 1.5-litre 3A engine, it was known as the "AW10". Likewise, the 1.6-litre 4A version was identified by the "AW11" code. The small and light MR2 was something no one had expected from Toyota, known for their economical and practical family cars. The two-seat MR2 was definitely not practical as a family car, nor was it intended to be, having been designed instead with style and sport as priorities. The moniker 'Mid-engined Runabout, 2 Seater' was more than a marketing tool - it was the fundamental design philosophy. At its introduction in 1984, it won the Car of the Year Japan Award.

The folded angular lines evoked origami paper sculpture. Other cars with a similar design concept included the Lancia Beta Montecarlo, Fiat X1/9 and the exotic Lancia Stratos were all produced in the 1970s and early 1980s. The MR2's proportions closely mirrored those of the X1/9, although it was somewhat longer - as Toyota engineered the car to be able to accommodate a 2-litre engine. The most important features of the MR2 were its light body (950 kg in Japan and 1066 kg in the US), razor-sharp handling and lightly powered, small-displacement engine. The car was often referred to as the AW11, referring to the chassis code of the most common 1.6-litre, A-engined versions. Some rumors have persisted that the MR2 was designed by Lotus. This was a reference to the Lotus M90 (a.k.a. the X100) project, but this was scrapped after a single prototype was built.

Borrowing From The Corolla Parts Bin

The Lotus M90 used the same engine and gearbox as the MR2. At the time, Toyota, along with the Chapman family was a major share holder in Lotus, but General Motors later acquired majority control. However, the MR2's suspension and handling were designed by Toyota with the help of Lotus engineer Roger Becker. Toyota's cooperation with Lotus during the prototype phase can be seen in the AW11, and it owes much to Lotus's legendary sports cars of the 1960s and 1970s. Toyota's active suspension technology, dubbed TEMS, was not installed. For it's power plant Toyota chose to use the naturally aspirated 4A-GE 1587cc inline-four engine, a dual overhead-cam, four-valve-per-cylinder motor, borrowed from the E80 series Corolla.

This engine was also equipped with DENSO electronic port fuel injection and a variable intake geometry ("T-VIS"), giving the engine a maximum power output of 112 hp (84 kW) in the US, 128 hp (95 kW) in the UK, 116 or 124 PS (85 or 91 kW; 114 or 122 hp) in Europe (with or without catalytic converter), 118 hp (88 kW) in Australia and 130 PS (96 kW; 128 hp) in Japan. Japanese models were later downrated to 120 PS (88 kW; 118 hp). The engine had already been introduced earlier on the AE86 Corolla, gathering a lot of positive publicity. A five-speed manual transmission was standard and a four-speed automatic was optional. Road tests delivered 0-60 mph times in the mid- to high-8 second range, and 1/4 mile times in the mid- to high-16 second range, significantly faster than the four-cylinder Pontiac Fiero or Fiat X1/9.

In the home market, the AW10 base model was offered, which used the more economical 1452cc 3A-U engine rated at 61 kilowatts (82 hp), but it attracted few buyers. In 1987 (1988 for the US market), Toyota introduced a supercharged engine for the MR2. Based on the same block and head, the 4A-GZE was equipped with a small Roots-type supercharger and a Denso intercooler. T-VIS was eliminated and the compression ratio was lowered to 8:1. It produced 145 horsepower (108 kW) and 140 pound-feet (190 Nm) and accelerated the small car from 0 to 100 km/h (0 to 62 mph) in 6.5 to 7.0s. The supercharger was belt-driven but actuated by an electromagnetic clutch, so that it would not be driven except when needed, increasing fuel economy.

Curb weight increased to as much as 2,494 pounds (1,131 kg) for supercharged models, due to the weight of the supercharger equipment and a new, stronger transmission. A fuel selector switch was also added in some markets, to allow the car to run on regular unleaded if required to. In addition to the new engine, the MR2 SC was also equipped with stiffer springs, and received special "tear-drop" aluminium wheels. The engine cover had two raised vents (only one of which was functional) that visually distinguished it from the naturally aspirated models. It was also labeled "Supercharged" on the rear trunk and body mouldings behind both doors. This model was never offered in European or Australian markets, although some cars were privately imported.

The MR2 In Australia

When launched in Australia in 1987 the MR2 looked like a brand-new design, however it had in reality already been kicking around Japanese showrooms for three years - and on home turf the Japanese could even option a supercharger. Toyota bought the car to Australia to coincide with its then latest facelift - although the changes were basically cosmetic. From any angle the MR2 was an interesting car. Styling was the then very popular (almost mandatory) wedge with a hint of RX7 around the front bumper, elements of other Toyota models and an overall shape similar if different to the Subaru Vortex - although much prettier. The wheels were the alloy "Aero" type with holes for cooling the four wheel disc brakes.

A choice of two color schemes were available for the interior, a dark blue or basic black. Velour was featured on door trim inserts and roof lining while the supportive seats were| covered in cloth. Instrumentation was complete and, while the car was fitted with a very thick leather wheel, the rim did not obscure the essential dials. That steering wheel would receive plenty of praise from motoring journalists and owners alike, with some even claiming it to be the best then fitted to a car for anything under $100K. Because there was no need to cater for rear-seat occupants, Toyota designers could instead concentrate on getting everything perfect for those up front. There was only a very small thin space behind the front seats for stoage which was seriously eroded if the | driver was tall.

The engine obviously lived where the back seat would have been in a normal car but extended further back than a rear seat would have. That meant that the rear boot was tiny by any standards and would not accept anything other than soft luggage. Naturally, the space under the bonnet was left vacant by the mid-engine layout but only a shallow luggage cavity remained once the spare wheel had been added. So it was OK for an overnight stay, but you needed to take clothes for a 2 week vacation you needed to ship your clothes seperately to the hotel.

Behind The Wheel

The gearshift was a novel shaped arrangement with a padded shaft rather than a knob of any sort. It was functional though, and drivers learnt that shifts were made with the arm horizontal because of the ultra-high centre console which ran the length of the cockpit. At first observation many thought the console sat too high, however it was a design necessity as it needed to be high enough to carry the gearshift linkages to the gearbox which was mounted in union with the engine behind the passengers' shoulders and drove the rear wheels. Footwells were deep and passengers sat low, which, when combined with the high console, gave a very closeted environment and added to the sporty feel.

The MR2 was powered by the familiar 1600cc twin cam engine used in the twin cam Corollas. The engine was mechanically almost identical to the one used in the Corolla apart from the exhaust system which allowed it to extract a few more kilowatts - in this case 88 at 6600rpm. The extra kilowatts were, however, offset by the addition of a few more kilograms, making the MR2 a little slower than the Corolla in the in-gear increments - although standing start times were hardly affected because of the superior traction of the MR2. Nonetheless, the MR2 was a quick car. The 1.6 litre engine was a gem, spinning freely to the redline or slugging away in fifth from as low as 60km/h.

Despite the engine's positioning behind the driver's left ear, it never became intrusive, even when wrung out to the 7600rpm redline. So smooth was the power delivery that the car was barely more vocal at 160km/h than the Corolla at the same speed - although the driver was still aware of where the noise was coming from. Suspension on the MR2 was independent all round, naturally enough. Struts were used on all four corners, with coils and low pressure gas dampers. Anti-sway bars were used at each end. Australian spec MR2s had specially designed larger capacity dampers to cope with the expected increased workload. The front suspension was located transversely by a lower control arm and a forward angled torque tube. Double transverse lower links and a single trailing link did the same job at the rear. As well as tougher dampers, Aussie cars were also fitted with a full brace between the front shock towers.

On The Road

The mid engine layout made for very good weight distribution - in this case 45 percent front and 55 percent rear. That alone, combined with the low centre of gravity and the sophisticated suspension, gave the car enviable flickability on most surfaces. But weight distribution favoring the rear - no matter how slightly - did involve a trade off. Backing off sharply through corners would make the MR2 squirm noticeably and sometimes savagely as the rear ran wide. Fortunately, the movement was, in most case, soaked up by the grip of the Bridgestone Potenzas, but always was the feeling that the car could bite the unwary very hard. The sensation was not dissimilar to a Porsche 911. Oversteer would also make itself felt through corners under power.

The low weight over the front wheels meant the car turned wide under power initially - especially if the surface was anything less than perfect - but the attitude switched to predictable oversteer as the car passes through the apex. The power was probably insufficient for this brand of oversteer to ever be a real problem - past owners would know for sure better than us and we invite their opinions in the Reviews section at the bottom of this article. The ride was firm over short, sharp bumps, but compliant over the majority of surfaces. Body roll was not as well controlled as expected but the leaning was soon caught by the springs and halted before it could be called excessive. The car was so well damped that it was difficult for the driver to tell whether the suspension was nearing the end of its travel.

The main upset to the ride quality was a rather high level of lateral pitching across bumpy roads. The MR2 would start to rock on such roads with alarming frequency with the motion apparently pivoting on the same axis as the steering column. Steering was rack and pinion, and in all Australian MR2s unassisted. That was not such a problem, as there was not that much weight across the front axle - even at parking speeds the non-assisted steering could not be described as heavy. A reasonable level of feel was transmitted to the driver on most road surfaces although for an unassisted system, road testers of the time did note that a little more precision should have been expected at the straight ahead.

On the road, the car came together as a responsive machine which was both precise in its movements and fun to drive. And in the context of a limited use sports car like the MR2, it was fun to drive - a pretty essential quality in a sports car, after all, it does need to be fun to drive. That fun was of course limited to day trips from your home base, as there was bugger-all space to take enough clothes for an extended break. A weekend escape machine then, but limited in practicality. So .... a real sports car then. We think so.

The MR2 went through a complete redesign in 1989 (though North America did not receive them until late 1990 as 1991 models). The new car was larger and weighed 350 to 400 pounds (160 to 180 kg) more than its predecessor. The body styling was now much more rounded and streamlined, bearing a resemblance to both the Ferrari 348 and the Ferrari F355. Because of this, the new MR2 was labeled by some as "The poor man's Ferrari". Despite this, the new look was generally well-received, and undoubtedly helped sales.

Toyota MR2 Spyder

The MR2 Spyder was Toyota's attempt to return to the lightweight, reasonably priced roots of the original sports car market - and to take some sales away from the enormously succesful Mazda MX5 Miata. The styling was an interpretation of the classic mid-engined proportions with a very short hood and a stretched tail. The car rode on a wheelbase that is 7 inches longer than the Mazda MX5/Miata wheelbase. It is even an inch or so longer than the Porsche Boxster and Honda S2000 wheelbase.

Despite the obviously different nose, the MR2 Spyder looked a little like a Porsche Boxster, especially in black, because the dark colour camouflaged the surface differences. The manual convertible top worked easily, and could be lowered from the driver's seat. A nice detail was that the roof collapsed into the boot as a parallelogram, instead of the usual flip-over and collapse setup. That meant that, like the Boxster, the roof settled into place exposing only the top section, which rested flush with the body so no boot was needed to cover it.

Unlike the Boxster and the Honda S2000 for that matter, the MR2 Spyder featured a glass rear window with an embedded defroster, which made it much easier to live with in the winter. An unusual aspect of the MR2 Spyder was Toyota's use of a space frame with bolt-on fenders. The MR2 Spyder had the same engine as the Toyota Corolla and Celica GT. The engine was rated at 138 kW, but the engine's performance didn't quite live up to the car's appearance.

Toyota's VVT-i engine used variable valve timing, but it didn't generate a big surge of power when it switched to the high-power cam profile. And on the road it didn't feel as quick as a Mazda MX5. Toyota claimed a 0 - 100 km/h time of just under 7 seconds. Helping re-sale values and almost certainly ensuring this car quickly became a classic was the fact that Toyota only planned to sell just 5,000 MR2 Spyders a year.
1988 Toyota MR2
Toyota MR2 Spyder

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Also see:

Toyota Car Brochures
Toyota Car Commercials
Kiichiro Toyoda
The Toyota Australia Story
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