Toyota MR2: The Compact Mid Engine Sports Car

Toyota MR2: The Compact Mid Engine Sports Car

Red Toyota MR2 parked under some trees

In the mid-1980s, Toyota set out to create a sports car that would embody the thrill of driving while maintaining its signature standards of quality and affordability. The result was the Toyota MR2, a two-seater, mid-engine sports car that quickly earned a devoted fan base for its unique design and engaging performance. Designed in response to a growing demand for sports cars and performance-oriented vehicles, the MR2 not only met but exceeded expectations. 

Black and white photo of a Gen 1 Toyota MR2
Toyota MR2 Gen 1—The Beginning of a Sporty Compact JDM Legend
Source: Toyota

The development of the Toyota MR2 involved several key figures within Toyota. However, the chief engineer and project leader for the first-generation MR2 (1984-1989) was Akio Yoshida. Yoshida and his team were responsible for bringing the MR2 to life and shaping its design and engineering. As a two-seat, mid-engine sports car that was designed to offer a unique and engaging driving experience. The name “MR2” stands for “Midship Runabout 2-seater,” emphasizing its mid-engine layout and the ability to enjoy open-top driving with the T-top roof option in some models. The car was conceived to be lightweight, balanced, and affordable, making it accessible to a wider range of enthusiasts.

Red Toyota MR2 Gen 1 side profile on a black background
Source: Toyota
Silver Toyota MR2 preface lift parked in front of trees
MR2 (1984) Preface lift variant of the infamous MR2! Notice the bumper guard on the Front Bumper. This would be revised in the Facelift post 1986.
Source: Bring-A-Trailer

The Toyota MR2, First Generation (1984-1989), is an iconic sports car celebrated for its balanced performance and unique design. It marked Toyota’s entry into the mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive sports car market. The initial models of the first-generation Toyota MR2 were powered by the ever iconic 1.6-liter inline-four-cylinder engine, known as the 4A-GE. This engine was equipped with fuel injection technology and generated approximately 112 horsepower and 97 lb-ft of torque. Power was transmitted to the rear wheels through a 5-speed manual transmission, delivering a thrilling driving experience.

White and grey Toyota MR2 parked in front of trees
Source: Bring-A-Trailer

In 1986, Toyota introduced an upgraded version of the MR2 featuring a supercharged 1.6-liter inline-four engine, denoted as the 4A-GZE. With the addition of a Roots-type supercharger, this engine produced a more substantial 145 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque. The supercharger enhanced low-end and mid-range power, further elevating the MR2’s driving excitement.

Red Toyota MR2 in front of a brick wall
Post Facelift Toyota MR2, sleeker and more aggressive!
Source: Bring-A-Trailer
Toyota MR2 detail shot of  a wheel

Furthermore, the facelift introduced in 1986 was a pivotal moment in this generation’s evolution. This upgrade marked a significant enhancement to the MR2, with modifications not only to its exterior styling but also to its performance and handling, reaffirming the car’s commitment to delivering a thrilling driving experience without compromising on affordability.

Introducing the Second Generation MR2

The second-generation Toyota MR2, specifically the version released in the United States, was available from 1991 to 1995, ultimately the most notable out of the MR2 lineage. This generation represented a significant departure from the first-generation MR2 in terms of design, performance, and features. Here’s an overview of the US-spec second-generation MR2.

Silver Toyota MR2 parked in a parking lot
OEM+ Such a nice look!
Source: Bring-A-Trailer

The second-generation MR2 featured a more modern and aggressive design compared to its predecessor. It had a sleeker, curvier body with pop-up headlights, giving it a distinct and contemporary appearance. The body was more aerodynamic, which improved both its performance and fuel efficiency. It was also available in coupe and T-top (removable glass panels) configurations, catering to a broader range of preferences.

Rear side of a Silver Toyota MR2 with houses in the background

The US-spec second-generation MR2 came with two engine options:
Naturally Aspirated Engine (5S-FE): The base model was powered by a 2.2-liter 5S-FE inline-four engine, producing around 130 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque. This engine was mated to either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic transmission.

2L 4 cylinder 3S-GTE turbo charged engine in a Toyota MR2
2.0L Turbocharged 3S-GTE—small in stature, but large in power!
Source: Bring-A-Trailer

Turbocharged Engine (3S-GTE): The MR2 Turbo, the more performance-oriented version, featured a 2.0-liter 3S-GTE inline-four engine equipped with a turbocharger. This engine delivered an impressive 200 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque, resulting in brisk acceleration and agile handling. It was available with a 5-speed manual transmission.

The second-generation MR2 in the US continued to build on the reputation of its predecessor as a fun-to-drive, affordable sports car. It offered a more refined and contemporary driving experience, making it a desirable choice for those seeking a balance between performance and practicality.

Red Toyota MR2 driving on a road passing trees
Source: Bring-A-Trailer
Black MR2 222D Rally Race car parked on grass
222D Group B Rally Race car, based on the Gen 1 Toyota MR2 Platform.
Source: Rob Pritchard Petrolicious

Interestingly enough their was a Rally Car version of the Toyota MR2. Known as the Toyota 222D, it is a legendary rally car based on the Toyota MR2 platform. This rally car, developed by Toyota Team Europe (TTE) in the late 1980s, is one of the most iconic and unique rally cars in the sport’s history. TTE was tasked with developing a competitive rally car based on the second-generation Toyota MR2, which had the mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout that made it distinct in the rally world.

Interior view of the 222D rally race car
Source: Rob Pritchard Petrolicious

Powered by a mid-mounted 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-four engine that produced around 600 horsepower, a remarkable figure for a car of its size and weight. The engine was paired with a sequential gearbox, which allowed for quick and precise gear changes. Of course as a Rally Car, the Toyota 222D used an All-Wheel Drive Conversion. This modification was a significant departure from the production MR2 and was necessary to provide better traction on the varied and challenging rally stages. The 222D featured an aggressive and aerodynamic body kit with wide fenders, a large rear wing, and a distinctive white and red livery. These modifications not only improved the car’s downforce but also made it instantly recognizable on the rally stages.

3rd generation of the Toyota MR2 with a black background

The third generation Toyota MR2, produced from 1999 to 2007, was a departure from its predecessors in several ways. Known as the MR2 Spyder in the United States and MR-S (Midship Runabout-Sports) in Japan, it featured a design that emphasized simplicity, lightweight construction, and open-top driving. The third-generation MR2 came with a variety of engine options, depending on the region, with the most notable being the 1ZZ-FE and 2ZZ-GE engines. The 1.8-liter 1ZZ-FE inline-four was a naturally aspirated engine and featured a dual overhead camshafts (DOHC) and 16 valves. Producing around 138 to 140 horsepower and approximately 125 to 130 lb-ft of torque. The sportier MR2 Spyder “S” trim was equipped with the high-revving 1.8-liter 2ZZ-GE inline-four engine. Generating an impressive 180 to 189 horsepower and 133 to 133 lb-ft of torque, depending on market specifications and tuning.

Small inline 4 cylinder 1ZZ-FED engine from Toyota in an MR2
1ZZ-FE ENGINE came standard from the Toyota Plants. A small 1.8L inline 4 cylinder engine
just right for the 3rd Gen MR2.
Source: Bring-A-Trailer

From the vision of providing a more thrilling and affordable driving experience, the MR2 was born, capturing the hearts of enthusiasts worldwide. Its mid-engine layout, innovative features, and accessible price point made it a standout in the automotive landscape, diversifying Toyota’s product lineup and expanding the horizons of what a compact sports car could be. As a symbol of Toyota’s commitment to quality, innovation, and a driving experience that transcends the mundane, the MR2 remains a timeless classic.

Rear view of a Red Toyota MR2 on black background
Not as recognizable but still a part of the JDM lineage of the Toyota MR2
Source: Bring-A-Trailer

One Response

  1. Thanks for this, I have owned a gen 3
    Since new (2002) It’s the coolest car I have ever owned and I have owned a lot of cool cars. Some way faster but none more fun to drive. This car is better in sharp corners then my 2012 Porsche 911, not faster by any means but handles better

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