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Casually collectable: The Toyota MR2

Welcome to Casually Collectable, where we take a look back at an interesting car with enthusiast appeal that won’t break the bank on the used market. For this instalment, we’re looking at the quirky and fun Toyota MR2.

Small, sporty, and mid-engined, the Toyota MR2 is an everyman’s (or woman’s!) sports car that mixes Toyota’s build quality and efficiency with the exotic flare of a rear-drive, mid-engine car.

Toyota MR2 production

While North America had a shorter production run than Japan, the MR2 spanned three varied generations and was in production from 1984 to 2007. With such a long lifecycle, the MR2 is not an especially rare car and this should help your chances of finding one that hasn’t been irrevocably modified, or worse, crashed.

First hitting the streets in 1984 with the W10/AW11 generation, the MR2 was economical competition for cars like the Pontiac Fiero and the Honda CR-X. For North America, the MR2 was offered with both automatic and manual transmissions and weighed less than 2,400 pounds. While an MR2 didn’t make a lot of power by today’s standards, Toyota developed the MR2’s suspension with the help of Lotus, and the U.S. market got both versions of Toyota’s more powerful 1.6-liter inline four, the naturally aspirated 4A-GE, and the supercharged 4A-GZE.

The mechanics

These late-1980s cars are very cool and mix the boxy style of 1980s Japan with some styling cues from high-performance cars of the era, like sporty body panels, accented rear air intakes, and blacked-out pillars. Models with the manual transmission that are as original as possible and have been reasonably maintained will offer the best value to a collector.

Starting in 1989 and running for an entire decade, the second-generation W20 platform is my favorite generation of the MR2 as it retained some of the original ’80s styling while managing to look a bit like a tiny Ferrari. The W20 shows up in North America for the 1990/1991 model year with either a naturally aspirated 2.2-liter inline four or a 2-liter turbocharged inline four. Available with either a manual or an automatic transmission, the W20 cars were heavier but also more powerful than the original models, with the 200-horsepower turbocharged versions capable of a 0-60 run in a hair over six seconds.

Over its lifespan, the W20 would see a handful of revisions and the later iterations (mid-1990s) would end the run for the American models under the restraint of tightening emissions regulations. Again, the most desirable examples will have limited modifications (authentic TOM’S modifications are the most sought after) and those who want to feel the wind in their hair can be on the lookout for a model with the available T-top roof.

Final production run changes

Moving on to the final generation, Toyota offered a considerable change in format with the W30 MR2. Available only as a convertible and called the “MR2 Spyder” in North America, the third-generation MR2 had been overhauled to suit a growing market for small affordable convertibles like the Mazda Miata, the Honda S2000, and even the Porsche Boxster and the BMW Z4. Available in North America until 2004, the MR2 Spyder was powered by a 1.8-liter inline four producing around 138 horsepower.

A manual transmission remained as an option but the standard automatic was replaced with Toyota’s Sequential Manual Transmission (SMT), which was operated with a lever or buttons on the steering wheel. While less powerful than previous iterations, the MR2 Spyder was also lighter than the W20, giving the manual transmission versions a 0-60 time in the high six-second range (you can add up to two full seconds for cars with the slower-shifting SMT gearbox).

While Japan and the United Kingdom received a handful of special versions of the MR2 Spyder, North America saw only the standard models, and developmental highlights included a mild facelift in 2002 and the 2003 addition of an optional limited-slip differential. As with the previous generations, be on the lookout for stock or mostly stock examples that have been cared for and be prepared to pay extra for any MR2 Spyder that includes the hard-to-find optional hardtop roof.

Reputation and reliability

Being a Toyota, the MR2 has a good reputation for reliability and general maintenance, but given the mid-engine layout, be prepared for some service to be more labor-intensive than it might be in a traditional front-engine vehicle.

If you do plan to start hunting for the perfect MR2, be sure to carefully inspect any prospective vehicle to make sure it’s in good condition and running well (unless repairs are an acceptable part of your plan). Keep an eye out for rust, leaking fluids, bad electronics, and water ingress (especially from the T-top versions). As with any used enthusiast car, service records and a clear impression of care from the previous owners can go a long way in establishing the value of the vehicle.

The sporty and mid-engined MR2 offers three generations of analog alternatives to the increasingly complicated, large, and digitally assisted cars that are made today. An excellent example of a Casually Collectable car, from the ’80s to the 2000s, the Toyota MR2 is a token to the evolution and export of enthusiast-driven car culture in Japan.