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Toyota MR2 MKI

Baby Ferrari Published: 6th May 2011 - 1 Comments

Toyota MR2 MKI

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Genuine UK cars
  • Worst model: Bodged imports
  • Budget buy: They’re all cheap!
  • OK for unleaded?: Yes
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): 3970 x 1570 x 1180mm
  • Spares situation: OK
  • DIY ease?: Generally good
  • Club support: Excellent
  • Appreciating asset?: Very gradually
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Good buy
Sharp suited MR2 still looks the part, although rust can be a problem. T-bar provided genuine wind-in-the-hair motoring Sharp suited MR2 still looks the part, although rust can be a problem. T-bar provided genuine wind-in-the-hair motoring
Interior is very ‘80s’ but weathers well save from splitting gear lever gaiters Interior is very ‘80s’ but weathers well save from splitting gear lever gaiters
Rock sure Toyota engine but electronics may play up Rock sure Toyota engine but electronics may play up
Rust around windscreen and sunroofs is common Rust around windscreen and sunroofs is common
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With its exotic styling and mid-engined layout, Toyota’s MR2 offered affordable supercar thrills. And almost 25 years on it’s even better value as a classic buy!

Pros & Cons

Agility, affordability, performance, reliability, club support
Relative lack of practicality, good ones are hard to fi nd
£500 - £4000

The problem with classic cars is that there’s always a catch. You can have a fantastic chassis with poise, grip and balance, but it’ll be at a huge financial cost. Or it’ll be unreliable unless it’s serviced every week. Or it just doesn’t handle, stop or go that well regardless of the penalties. Unless it’s an MR2 – because you really can have it all with this baby Toyota sportster that fi rst saw the light of day in prototype form two decades ago. Admired by the press and punters alike, the mid-engined Toyota went down a storm with all who drove it; between the car’s introduction and its demise in April 1990, around 14,000 examples were sold in the UK, although many more have been imported from Japan since then. Whether originally supplied in Japan or the UK, there are some true dogs around along with quite a few corkers. The problem is telling the two apart; here’s how to do it.


One dealer md mothballed his soon as he got it home

When the SV-3 design study was fi rst seen at the 1983 Tokyo motor show it looked just the same as the car that would go into production a year later, as the MR2 – or Midship Runabout two-seater, on account of its rev-happy 1587cc fuel-injected engine mounted behind the two seats and driving the rear wheels. Although the MR2 entered prodction in 1984, the fi rst UK cars didn’t arrive until March 1985. However, by October there had already been a minor facelift, with colour-keyed bumpers, spoilers and skirts and central locking all being standardised. From this point there was also the option of a T-bar roof, while all MR2s got a deeper front spoiler, longer nose and revised tail lights plus an air intake. There were also suspension tweaks, but the big news was the availability of a 145bhp supercharged edition for markets outside Europe. There was little development after this; from 1988, leather trim became standard on the T-bar MR2 then in 1990 a completely new MR2 was launched - to mixed acclaim.


This is why you buy an MR2 – because of the fabulous driving experience. It’s down to a combination of winning factors, the key ones being superb weight distribution, great agility thanks to a low kerb weight and a brilliantly rev-happy twincam engine. Indeed, when Car magazine tested the MR2 at launch, the magazine’s testers struggled to fi nd anything to criticise – the packaging, build quality, equipment levels, handling, braking, performance, economy and practicality were all worth writing home about. And at just £9295 it was a bargain. The steering getting light above 100mph was all they could come up with, but of course back in the real world you can learn to live with such things… Such capable performance was down to the MR2’s twin-cam four-pot engine with a quartet of valves for each cylinder and a 7600rpm red line. The key was a two-stage throttle set-up which took advantage of the engine’s effi cient top-end breathing without compromising its running at low revs. 122bhp was on offer and along with 104lb ft the car served up a top speed of 119mph and was capable of despatching the 0-60mph sprint in just 7.7 seconds. What’s more, as long as the car’s been looked after it should still be able to deliver that and around 30mpg or better.


The MR2 is so great in standard form that upgrades aren’t really necessary. However, you can fi t later (leather) interior trim if you can fi nd some, while brake upgrades are also worthwhile if you’re a hard driver. A simple swap to grooved discs and harder pads is possible, although you can even fi t a Celica GT4 set-up if you want some serious anchors – expect to pay £300+ just for the parts though. Other than that, it’s just a question of fi tting a more free-fl owing stainless steel exhaust to squeeze a few extra horses out of the excellent twin-cam engine.


A donor car can be yours for as little as £100, while a restoration project which runs reliably with an MOT can be picked up between £500 to £800. An average car can be obtained for £1000 to £1500 depending on its age. Pristine examples with 60,000 miles are still obtainable, for anything between £2000 and £4000. Prices of supercharged cars fl uctuate around the £3500 mark depending upon condition and spec.

What To Look For

  • Injectors should have been cleaned every 12,000 miles, the oil replaced every 6000 miles and the cam belt renewed at 60,000 miles. Even if the car has done well under this mileage it should have had a fresh belt.
  • Blown head gaskets result from using the incorrect coolant strength. Toyota supplies pre-mixed coolant, which is a deep red colour, to avoid such problems – although other coolants are suitable. The key thing is that the coolant is of a good quality for use with aluminium heads and is not over-diluted. Also, the coolant system has long pipe runs from the back to the front of the car, so it should be bled to avoid air locks.
  • If the engine is experiencing a high idle after initial warm up, there’s a worn idle-up valve. This is an electrically operated air solenoid, mounted onto the input air piping. The oil pressure gauge should be reading in the top 1/3rd of the scale with the engine running above 2000rpm.
  • It’s common for the gearbox to develop fi fth gear problems at the 100,000-mile mark – it’ll jump out of gear when you either press or lift off the throttle. Caught early enough the life of the fi fth gear components can be extended by shimming or tightening the selector fork, but badly worn bits will need replacing. Fifth gear can be accessed without removing the box, but replacement parts costs, brand new, are generally more than that of an exchange gearbox, so weigh up the options.
  • The clutch is controlled hydraulically, and if it judders when you’re changing gear, it’s worth checking and bleeding the system before embarking on fi tting a new clutch plate.
  • Shock absorbers typically last 70,000 miles before replacements are needed – evaluate uprated units, as either adjustable or non-adjustable dampers can be purchased for equivalent prices to original equipment, for around £80. Early cars used oil, later cars used gas, so when purchasing you need to confi rm your model year to account for differences.
  • A knocking noise from the front when driven over uneven surfaces is probably due to worn roll bar drop links or worn steering rack bushes. Both are relatively easy replacements for the home mechanic – original equipment parts are £40-£50 a side. But the droplinks are effectively only ball joints, so the imaginative home mechanic can easily make their own adjustable units from standard parts.
  • All MR2s had alloy wheels; by now the lacquer will have seen better days, but it’s easily fi xed for around £50 per wheel.
  • Check for juddering under braking which will show the car needs new brake discs – the most you can expect from a standard pair is 30,000 miles, unless the car is driven gingerly. Many brake component manufacturers have now produced improved discs that give better performance and life but cost no more than genuine standard units.
  • The MR2 has disc brakes all round, which work very well. Rear calipers can seize because of worn handbrake cables and/or worn seals, but you can rebuild both calipers with the offi cial repair kit for under £70. Alternatively, exchange rebuilt can be purchased for around £90 each, while handbrake cables weigh in at around £50 a set.
  • Poorly repaired accident damage is more likely than rotten metal – especially as the car could be a handful on the limit. As a result, you need to inspect the panel fit and shut lines very closely, especially around the front of the car. MR2s can rust though, with the rear wheelarches the most common area. These are followed by the quarter valances as the rot spreads, so check the whole of each rear wing very carefully – thankfully the Drivers’ Club now manufactures replacement/repair panels for these areas.
  • There’s a seam that runs across the bulkhead behind the spare wheel in the front luggage compartment. On pre-1987 cars this area rots, along with the front valance which is vulnerable to stone chips. Later models used a plastic valance to alleviate this problem. There’s another luggage bay, behind the engine, which needs careful checking as water can collect in the rearmost corners, before munching its way through the metal.
  • Replacing the bonded-in windscreen can lead to problems. A fi tter who doesn’t know what they’re doing will dig all the sealant out and take the paint with it. Once the new ‘screen is in the surround will corrode.
  • The base of the A-post can corrode badly, as well as the bottom of the B-post. If the car is a T-bar with leaking seals it’ll be even worse, so lift the carpets and check. The inner front wheelarch liners – and on later versions the side skirts – will fi ll up with leaves and act as a moisture trap leading to rot on the A-posts.
  • The front bumper reinforcement bar corrodes heavily; test for this by squeezing the bumper moulding where the indicators are mounted – listen for the sound of crumbling rusty metal. A new bumper iron costs around £120.
  • The nylon cogs for the electric windows can strip, resulting in the replacement of the motor assembly. These can be obtained second-hand but their life expectancy may be limited – new motors will be upwards of £100 each.
  • The engine electronic control unit can also pack up, and genuine ones are becoming harder to source. Generally these are best obtained from donor cars or second-hand parts suppliers – expect to pay from £50.
  • Sometimes the alternator gets too hot because of its location in the engine bay. Once it overheats its life expectancy is reduced signifi cantly, so make sure it’s charging properly or you’ll be looking at having to fork out around £100 for an exchange rebuilt unit.
  • T-bar MR2s can suffer from compressed sealing rubbers, which will lead to water leaks into the cabin. Although new seals are available they can be tricky to fi t and are reasonably expensive, so most owners choose to rebuild worn seals with one of the many silicone seal rebuild products available from most motoring shops for under £10.
  • Late T-Bar models came with perforated leather upholstery which is prone to cracking if it’s been neglected. Older cars may suffer from lazy seat belt return mechanisms and cracked internal door lock lever surrounds. The triangular plastic trim that covers the wing mirror mountings on the inside front corner of each door can work loose which will cause an increase in cabin wind noise whilst driving. The gear gaiter can be worn down by the linkage and the ashtray on post-1986 cars has a lid prone to snapping off.
  • Imports are generally isolated to just the Supercharged or G-Ltd version of the car that were originally built for the Japanese and American markets – these were never offi cially available in the UK. General things to watch for on imported cars are the conversion from KPH to MPH on the speedo, the quality of the underseal and the fi tment of speed restriction devices and warning alarms.

Three Of A Kind

Fiat X1/9
Fiat X1/9
Already a dozen years old when the MR2 was launched, the X1/9 was in production for an amazing 17 years – not that you’ll fi nd many early cars around now. Introducing mid-engined motoring to the masses, the X1/9 wasn’t built with right-hand drive until 1976, initially with 1290cc power then with a 1498cc unit from 1978. Corrosion is the main problem, while missing trim can be a pain to replace. A good car is £2,000, with something really special up to double this.
Mazda MX-5
Mazda MX-5
Another Japanese two-seater that’s a dream to drive, plentiful and fabulously well supported with clubs and specialists. Even better, there are plenty to go round plus it’s more practical than the MR2 thanks to the engine being in the front, allowing a proper boot at the back. What’s more, rust isn’t an issue, unless the car has been pranged, so watch out for poor crash repairs. You’ll pay £2000 for a decent one, or fi ve grand for something nice. It’s the ‘new’ MGB!
Suzuki Cappuccino
Suzuki Cappuccino
If you want economy motoring with plenty of fun, this is the car for you. You’ll enjoy the buzz of using one every day (unless you’re on the motorway) and 45mpg is no problem. There’s little carrying capacity, but the car makes up for that with a really superb driving experience. You need to watch out for corrosion though, while second gear can prove weak and interiors can get damp. A good example is worth around £3000, with exceptional cars worth up to £5000.


Be cautious of low-mileage cars, as whilst the bodywork may be sound, the most common and expensive mechanical problems occur between 100,000 and 120,000 miles. If you buy a 90,000-mile car, it may ultimately cost you more than one with 130,000 miles on the clock, with all the major work done. Track down a minter though and you’ll be amazed at the value offered – it’s fi nding one that’s the problem.

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User Comments

This review has 1 comments

  • I have owned an 89 model since 2008 after searching long and hard for 6 months.
    I paid 2k for mine as it was a clean solid car but still had to spend around 2k to get it looking and driving almost like new.
    Well worth the investment as far as I am concerned as I have had a tonne of pleasure from driving it. And it still looks good after all of it's 22 years of life grin

    Comment by: John Clavery     Posted on: 17 Sep 2011 at 08:54 PM

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