TOYOTA MR2 MKIII REVIEW

How to choose a cracking example of this last-generation mid-engine roadster.

Since its launch in 1984, the ‘Mid-ship Runabout 2’ has impressed buyers with a blend of sharp styling and even sharper dynamics.  The first two generations were available only as coupes, although many were fitted with a lift-out T-bar roof, but for the third and final ‘W30’ model Toyota went the whole hog and produced the car solely as a drop-top roadster.  On sale from 2000-2006 it certainly proved a hit with those after good looks and agile handling without breaking the bank, and the same remains true today.  Much of the enjoyment to be had comes courtesy of the delightfully free-revving 1.8-litre twin-cam motor, and while 140bhp might not sound like much nowadays it’s enough to get the lightweight two-seater to 60mph in less than eight seconds.  And while you have to work the engine to get the best out of it, that’s certainly no hardship as it spins to the 6400rpm power peak with real gusto.  A slick-shifting manual gearbox helps to get the best out of it, too, and while there’s the option of a sequential transmission there’s far more fun to be had by swapping ratios yourself.  Wringing the motor out will also introduce you to another facet of the MR2, and that’s the fine handling.  Again, the modest weight pays dividends as it changes direction with real poise and agility, and thanks to the standard limited-slip differential grip is limpet like in the dry.  Slippery conditions are another matter though, and while it’s not especially tricky the combination of short-ish wheelbase, mid-engine layout, and 55 per cent rearward weight bias demands a degree of respect. The accurate and feelsome steering is the icing on the cake, though, when it comes to a twisty B-road.  Things are pretty pleasant on the inside, too, with a snug but comfortable cabin and all the kit you’re likely to need although trim is on the plasticky side.  And while some people complain of limited luggage space, it’s no worse than similar cars in reality.  And you can always pack light to enjoy everything this cracking roadster has to offer. 

VITAL STATISTICS

Engine           1794cc/4-cyl/DOHC

Power            140bhp@6400rpm

Torque          127lb ft@4400rpm

Top speed    130mph

0-60mph        7.9secs

Economy      38mpg

Gearbox        5/6-speed manual/Sequential Manual Transmission

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Bodywork

The majority of the steel panels are bolted on, which makes replacement easier, but it’s well worth checking for any evidence of previous accident damage.  A combination of lively performance and rearward weight bias could have led to some exiting the road backwards so check the history and examine the panel gaps and paintwork for any sign of mismatches.  Parts prices are reasonable, though.

Corrosion doesn’t appear to be a major issue, but with the earliest now fifteen years old a thorough check of the panels makes sense.  Some owners have complained of rot affecting the rear sub-frame and cross-member, and it can be hidden out of sight, so get a specialist to check if you’re unsure.  The same goes for the sills, and you should also check for any signs of interior damp that could have allowed rust to develop: the hood drain holes in the side vents can become blocked allowing water to flow into the cabin.

Engine

The 1ZZ-FED engine is a cracker, but not without issues in pre-facelift cars built before late 2002.  The main one is the potential for the brittle innards of the ‘pre-cat’ – the catalytic convertor located after the exhaust manifold but ahead of the main cat – to break up, with bits ingested into the engine via the EGR system with disastrous consequences.  The cylinder bores get scored leading to high oil consumption and excessive smoke, so ask the vendor whether the engine has been changed or the cats removed.  Not all were affected by any means, but it’s worth checking the history.  Failed oxygen sensors can be common too: three are fitted and it’s often sensible to replace them all at the same time.  OEM items are pricey but best according to specialists.

It’s also worth checking for loose and rattling exhaust heat shields and evidence of oil leaks from around the timing chain tensioner which can be tricky to cure.  The chain itself should be trouble-free as long as oil changes haven’t been neglected.  A fat sheaf of bills gives peace of mind and a well maintained example will cover big mileages without trouble.  Also, these engines respond well to tuning so make sure you’re aware of any work that might have been done here.  The MR2 is well served by specialists and parts suppliers so keeping one in good mechanical fettle will be no problem.

Interior

The cabin is well screwed together, so only abused cars should be showing any significant signs of wear and tear.  Check everything works, though, including the air-conditioning which was standard on factory hard top models.  That top is quite desirable and can be retro-fitted, although a kit is required costing a couple of hundred pounds. Check it hasn’t been damaged by clumsy handling or storage, though.  The convertible hood is a quality item that just need checking for rips and abrasion, but it’s worth noting that if the glass rear window is damaged the whole hood will need replacing.

Transmission

The manual gearboxes are robust unless abused - a six-speed item was standard from late-2002 - but it’s worth ensuring the clutch is healthy as replacement is quite involved.  The facelift also brought the option of the clutch-less Sequential Manual Transmission: it works well on the road but the Bosch electronics can play up and repairs can be costly, so manual is probably best.  A limited-slip differential was standard on all UK cars, and rarely gives trouble.

Suspension and steering

Suspension and steering components can suffer corrosion so examine them carefully, and if the handling isn’t pin-sharp then suspect suspension bushes in need of replacement.  The electric power steering pump isn’t immune from problems either, so be wary of notchiness or uneven assistance at the wheel.  Brakes are trouble-free and just need checking for wear or illumination of the ABS warning light, but the MR2 is tyre-sensitive so look for good quality items that match all round.  The alloy wheels can be prone to corrosion but aren’t expensive to refurbish.

OUR VERDICT

Boasting compact dimensions, sparkling performance, and terrific handling there’s very little not to like about this last generation of MR2.  A cared-for example will be reliable and inexpensive to run, and we’d advise going for a post-facelift example as it benefits from some useful upgrades.  Either way, though, you won’t be disappointed with what this terrific roadster has to offer.

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