Toyota MR2: Our Analysis
What is the Toyota MR2?
In general terms, the Toyota MR2 is a mid-engined, RW-drive sports car manufactured by Toyota from 1984 to 2007, when production ceased in Japan. Although the original design brief was to produce a small car, with good handling and even better fuel economy, the MR2 saw three iterations, during which it developed into a fully fledged sports car.
The first generation, which was in production from 1984-1989 had angular, almost origami-like lines. In its second generation, which ran from 1990-1999, the MR2 took on a more sporty look, and some commentators started referring to this iteration as the “poor man’s Ferrari” in reference to its passing resemblance to Ferrari 348 and F355 models. The third generation, which was in production from 2000 to 2007 saw a radical departure in styling, and in this iteration, the MR2 somewhat resembled the Porsche Boxster.
All the generations shared basic design elements such as the transverse mid-mounted engine, and MacPherson strut front and rear suspension; however, this is where the similarities end. Each generation differed a great deal from the previous, and it is true to say that apart from the engine and suspension layouts, there is almost nothing that links the three generations.
In the Japanese market, the MR2 was sold exclusively through the Toyota Vista Store network, although this dealer network was rebranded as the Toyota Netz Store in 1989, to differentiate it from the Toyota Corolla Store, which sold the Toyota Celica range.
Origins of the MR2.
Although planning for production of the MR2 started in 1976, the process of actually designing it only started in 1979 when Toyota’s testing department began investigating and evaluating different design layouts and drive configurations.
Eventually deciding on a transverse mid-mounted engine, the first prototype, dubbed the SA-X, was produced in 1981. Subsequent development and refinements to the base prototype were made and by the time a working prototype was ready for testing, the SA-X had developed into the beginnings of a sports car. Extensive testing both in Japan and California followed, some of which was done on actual race tracks such as Willow Springs by Formula One driver Dan Gurney.
Similar designs by other manufacturers appeared at about the same time- most notably the Honda CR-X, the Mazda Miata, the Nissan EXA, the VW Scirocco and Fiat X1/9 from Europe, and the Pontiac Fiero and Ford EXP from North America.
During the Tokyo Motor Show in October of 1983, Toyota unveiled the SA-X as the SV-3 concept car, which gathered a huge, and favorable response from the press as well as the general public. While explaining that the car would be available from early 1984 as the MR2, that stands for either "mid-ship, run-about, 2-seater" or "mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-seater”, Toyota wisely took the precaution to shorten “MR2” to “MR” for the French market, where the pronunciation of “MR2” is “(est) merdeux”, which means "(it) is shitty".
Toyota MR2 First Generation (W10; 1984–1989)
The first production run of the MR2 carried the model code, "W10", but being known for their practical family cars, nobody had quite expected the compact, light weight MR2 from Toyota. However, the newcomer was not intended to be practical; it was intended to be a sports car, and it turned out to very good sports car- so good in fact, that in its year of introduction, 1984, it won the Car of the Year Japan Award.
The outstanding features of the new MR2 were its low mass – 2 095 lb (950 kg) for the JDM, and 2 350 lb (1066 kg) for the US market, as well as its excellent handling characteristics, and small-displacement, but nevertheless relatively powerful engine. Even today the first MR2’s are still referred to as AW11’s, in reference to the most commonly produced 1.6 litre A-engined variant.
For the first generation, Toyota borrowed the naturally aspirated 4A-GE 1,587 cc inline-four engine from the E80 series Corolla, which was a 16-valve, double overhead camshaft engine fitted with variable intake geometry (T-VIS), and DENSO electronic port fuel injection, but depending on level of tuning and emissions regulations in various markets, this set-up gave the engine a maximum of power of:
The standard five-speed manual and optional four-speed automatic transmissions delivered 0-60 m/ph performance figures in the mid- to high-8 second range, and 1/4 mile times in the mid- to high-16 second range, which proved to be significantly better than the times delivered by either the Fiat X1/9, or the comparable, four-cylinder Pontiac Fiero. As an alternative in the JDM, Toyota also offered a more economical variant fitted with the 1 452 cc 3A-U engine rated at 61 kW (82 hp), but this variant was not a commercial success.
In 1986, Toyota introduced a turbo charged version into the JDM, but this version, that increased power to 145 hp(108 kW) and 140 pound-feet (190 Nm), and performance from 0 to 100 km/h (0 to 62 mph) in 6.5 to 7.0 seconds was only introduced into the US market in 1988. The Roots-type supercharger was belt driven, but could be deactivated via an electromagnetic clutch, which improved fuel economy significantly.
However, curb weight increased to 2 494 pounds (1,131 kg), but this was compensated for with upgraded springs, an improved transmission, and special edition, "tear-drop" alloy wheels. In addition, the supercharged model received special "Supercharged" badging, and a fuel selector switch that allowed it run on unleaded fuel in some markets. Nonetheless, despite the popularity of this variant, it was never offered for sale in the European or Australian markets, and the only models there were imported privately.
Toyota MR2 Second Generation (W20; 1989–1999)
Despite the fact that the first generation MR2 had undergone extensive revamps, facelifts, and other improvements over most of its life, nothing of the first generation made into the second iteration of the car.
The new generation, that appeared in 1989, was a completely different design, and it gained 350 to 400 pounds (160 to 180 kg) in curb weight. In terms of styling, the new model bore a passing resemblance to the then current Ferrari 348 and the Ferrari F355 models, which earned it the nickname of "The poor man's Ferrari", but it was nevertheless well received by the press and public alike. However, the “poor man's Ferrari" only became available in the North American market late in 1990, and were sold there as 1991 models.
Trim level differences.
The range of differences in trim levels in the new MR2 are arguably the biggest of any car in recent times, and even the nomenclature differed from market to market, Below is a simplified summary of the major differences in trim levels, available engines, and nomenclature between the Japanese, North American, and European markets.
Four trim levels were available in Japan, and the modes were designated as:
G: Some standard features on the base model were climate control, electric mirrors, and fabric door/seat trim. This model was fitted with the naturally aspirated 3S-GE 2.0L engine that produced 165 PS (121 kW; 163 hp). Automatic transmission was standard with a manual transmission available as an option.
G-Limited: This model used a slightly upgraded naturally aspirated 2.0L 3S-GE engine, and as with the base “G” model, an automatic transmission was standard, with a manual as an available option. Some additional standard features included : electric folding mirrors, fog lamps, and rear spoiler.
GT-S: Fitted with the same trim, and equipment as the G-Limited, this variant was fitted with a turbocharged version of the 2.0L 3S-GTE engine that produced a respectable 221 PS (163 kW; 218 hp). Manual transmission was standard, with automatic transmission not available as an option.
GT: Fitted with the same turbocharged 2.0L 3S-GTE engine as the GT-S. Automatic transmission was not offered as an option. Regarded as the luxury specification in the SW20 line-up, this model sported alcantera/leather door and seat trim in addition to G-Limited standard features. Japanese market models all came fitted with electronic climate control that featured 2 stage air conditioning.
The European market received three trim levels which were designated as:
Coupe: Fitted with the naturally aspirated 2.0L 3S-FE 2.0L engine that delivered 138 hp (103 kW). This model was the base model, and was not available with a T-bar roof, or rear spoiler and fog lights.
GT Coupe: The only noteworthy difference between the base model and the GT-Coupe was the engine. The naturally aspirated 3S-GE 2.0L engine produced 154 metric horsepower (113 kW; 152 hp), as opposed only 138 hp (103 kW) for the Coupe.
GT T-Bar: With the same 3S-GE 2.0L engine as the GT-Coupe, this variant sported full leather seats and door panels, in addition to a high quality 8-speaker audio system.
Although no turbocharged variants were officially sold in the European market, many such equipped models were imported illegally from Japan, and sold on the grey market.
The American market received only two variants, which were designated as:
MR2: This was the only variant fitted with the naturally aspirated 5S-FE 2.2L engine that produced 130 hp (97 kW). Transmissions on offer were a four-speed automatic, or a five-speed manual.
MR2 Turbo: Fitted with a turbocharged version of the 3S-GTE 2.0L engine that produced producing 200 hp (149 kW), and a 5-speed manual transmission, this variant was only available with the T-bar roof soon after early 1993.
Many subtle visual differences were introduced to set the turbocharged models apart from their lesser, normally aspirated stable-mates. In the US market, the turbo modes were branded with a “Turbo” badge on the trunk, while Japanese turbo models sported a “TWIN CAM 16 TURBO” decal above the side intake.
Turbo models in all markets also boasted a fiber glass engine lid with raised vents, and an additional interior storage compartment that was situated between the seats. All turbo models were also fitted with fog lights, although many normally aspirated models from all markets were fitted with fog lights as optional extras. All second generation (SW20) MR2’s also featured wider wheels in the rear than those on the front axle.
Mechanical Differences Between Turbo Models.
There were many differences between the turbo models sold in different markets, but due to the easy interchangeably of engines and turbos, it is difficult to say where a particular MR2 originated based merely on its current engine, turbo, and exhaust combination. Some examples of significant differences in stock trim include the following:
To illustrate the effect of the difference between various turbo models, consider the fact that a stock US market MR2 Turbo could go from 0–60 in 6.1 seconds and complete the 1/4 mile in 14.7 seconds, while a stock Japanese market 1995 GT turbo was timed running the 1/4 mile in 14.227 seconds.
Revisions, and Model Year Changes.
The second-generation MR2 underwent nearly as many revamps, facelifts, and cosmetic changes during its ten-year production run as the first generation, and most changes occurred in distinct groups, or batches. Below are some details of major changes.
Revision 2- From January 1992 to October 1993:
Japanese Market Revision 3- November 1993 and Later:
Revision 4- 1996.
Revision 5- 1998
Despite their popularity, pre-1992 model MR2’s were widely regarded as dangerous in the hands of inexperienced drivers due to a tendency of these models to "snap-oversteer", which is a potentially dangerous condition that results when the throttle is released in mid-corner.
All mid-, and rear-engined cars suffer from this effect to some degree, and in most cases, the effect is successfully countered by the correct responses from the driver; however, in the MR2 the effect was pronounced, and improper, or ill-considered steering inputs to correct the slide almost always resulted in rapid, and near-uncontrollable slides first in one direction, and then wildly in the other direction.
Thus, in response to reports from journalists and the public that the MR2 can very easily become uncontrollable when the weight transfer during badly executed cornering manoeuvres cause the car to suddenly go into fish-tailing spins, Toyota introduced changes to the suspension geometry, tire sizes, and power steering responsiveness during 1992 in an effort to improve the car’s handling during hard cornering.
Unfortunately though, the changes were not well received, with many owners and fans of the MR2 complaining that the changes had severely “blunted” the edgy handling the car was known and loved for. In typical face-saving fashion however, Toyota responded by saying that in the interest of the safety of their loyal client base, the changes were made “...for drivers whose reflexes were not those of Formula One drivers."
The MR2 in Motorsport.
Although it was designed as a sports car, the MR2 had a somewhat disappointing career as a race car. Successes were few and far between, and although it did manage to break the land speed record in 1992, it did not shine on the race track. Below is a shortened version of its racing resume.
In the mid-1990’s, Sigma Advanced Research Development built a modified and lengthened version of a SW20. Dubbed the Sard MC8-R, this car used a twin-turbo version of the 4.0-liter Toyota 1UZ-FE V8 engine that produced 600 bhp (450 kW).
Although the car qualified for the GT1 category, it never lived up to its hype, since it could not compete in straight line speed with new generation sports cars and homologated cars such as the Porsche 911 GT1, and others. It did however compete successfully against similarly converted Toyota Supra.
Only one MC8 road-going car was ever constructed to satisfy the homologation requirements; however, the car was lost from human ken soon after its release, only to reappear twenty years later on a car website (SEiyaa ),that is dedicated to Japanese collector’s items. The car is currently assumed to belong to a private collector.
Track Racing in 1995 and 1996.
Track Racing in 1997
Track Racing in 1997
Land Speed Record.
The MR2’s finest moment was perhaps in 1992, when a member of Toyota's American factory team, Dennis Aase, was the first person to exceed 320 km/h (200 mph) with a car with a stock body, except for the removal of the wiper blades and side view mirrors.
This particular car averaged 339.686 km/h (211.071 mph) over the required two runs in opposite directions, thus breaking the land speed record for its class. Having seen previous action in the Firestone Firehawk Endurance Championship, the MR2 ran with a boost pressure of 110.0 kPa (1.1 bar), some alteration to the inlet tract and exhaust configurations, and non-standard valve timing, which produced 363 kW (487 hp).
A subsequent attempt to improve on the record the following year was unsuccessful due to adverse weather conditions, but as of July 2015, the record for Class G, Blown Grand Touring Sports for 2.0L production turbo-charged GT models is still unbroken.
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