Combining minimalist sports car thrills with Japanese reliability, Toyota’s MR2 offers a lot of bang for your buck
Squeezing a remarkable amount of driving enjoyment from the bare minimum of component parts, the MR2 can rightly take its place in the sports car hall of fame. Toyota's engineers were certainly onto a good thing when they readied the baby coupé for its 1984 launch; a mid-engined layout, small but zippy 16-valve powerplant, razor-sharp handling and up-to-the-minute styling.
Others, such as the Fiat X1/9, had already explored this layout, but the MR2’s great strength was adding Toyota’s legendary reliability into the mix. When the first examples started to appear on British roads, they boasted a five-speed gearbox and a gusty 1.6 litres, although overseas markets also received a supercharged version. The more rounded Mk2 version took up the MR2 baton in 1989.
Power (bhp@rpm) 122bhp@6600rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 105lb ft@5200rpm
Top speed 118mph
Gearbox 5-speed manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Although better protected at the factory than many modern classics, rust can still strike with the MR2. Start your inspection checking for evidence of cabin leaks. Whether the car you’re looking at has a T-bar and removable roof panels, or simply a sunroof, water ingress from either will result in damp carpets; check the floor pans for signs of the resultant rust damage. Windscreen pillars can corrode from beneath the bonded-in windscreen.
Inspect the bottom of the rear quarter panels, particularly where they adjoin the B-post. Although most of this area is covered by plastic trim, be on the lookout for bubbling paint around the trim edges; a tell-tale of hidden corrosion. The same can be said for the plastic sill trims, fitted to all but the earliest Mk1s.
Toyota’s engines are famed for their toughness and reliability, and the MR2’s powerplant is no different. UK-spec cars were fitted with a revvy 16-valve, 1587cc, four-cylinder lump. Mileages well in excess of 150,000 miles can easily be achieved, although a lack of correct maintenance won’t have done the engine any favours.
Ask the vendor how often the car has been serviced, and also ensure that the cambelt has been renewed every 60,000 miles. Failure to do so could have expensive consequences. Look out for signs of moisture in the cooling system, indicating a blown head gasket. With an alloy cylinder head, the correct level of anti-freeze must be maintained.
With a tough five-speed gearbox handling the engine’s power, the transmission is as reliable as the engine. On your test drive, watch out for a heavily worn ‘box that jumps out of fifth gear under hard acceleration. Repair is possible, but it may make more sense simply to exchange the entire unit.
Warped disc brakes on early, pre-1985 cars are common, so feel for judder when braking. Later cars were fitted with beefier items at the factory, so are less susceptible. Listen out for knocking while on the move, which could be caused by tired anti-roll bar drop links, or worn-out steering rack or tie-rod end bushes. Bounce each corner of the car in turn; if the car takes time to settle, a damper could be at fault.
Hard-wearing plastics give little cause for concern, while later leather items can be repaired or re-trimmed, at a price. The controls can give a clue to the car’s true mileage; do a well-worn steering wheel and pedals back up the odometer reading?
Test the electrical functions, as non-functioning electric windows are costly to put right. Also check the operation of the central locking button.
If ever there was a car that proved that you don’t need a colossal power output and a huge price tag to make a good driver’s car, then the MR2 is it. Absurdly low values mean that, if you choose sensibly, you can track down a driving machine that you will not only enjoy, but will last for an awfully long time. That mid-engined, rear-wheel drive, two-seater layout endows the MR2 with surprising poise, yet its light weight and diminutive size results in a modest thirst.