A $5000 1991 Toyota MR2 Is Cheap Mid-Engine RWD Fun

Today, the 86 is Toyota’s cheapest sports car. And, as it was in the 80s, 90s, and early 00s, the Supra is one rung above it. However, Toyota once offered another affordable sports car: the MR2. The 3rd-gen MR2 Spyder is something of a bargain Lotus, and the 1st-gen tangoed with the Pontiac Fiero. The subject of Throttle House’s latest video, though, is the middle child of the Japanese automaker’s mid-engine sports car family: a 1991 SW20 Toyota MR2.

The 1991-1995 SW20 Toyota MR2: “the poor man’s Ferrari”

The 1st-gen AW11 Toyota MR2 had a lot going for it back in the day, Hemmings reports. While it’s not very powerful, with its 2300-lb curb weight, it’s light and agile. That was further enhanced by its mid-engine (the ‘M’ in ‘MR2’) and Lotus-tuned suspension, The Drive reports.

However, for the SW20 MR2, Toyota aimed further upmarket, GarageDreams reports. Specifically, at exotic supercars like the ones from Ferrari. But when the SW20 Toyota MR2 launched in 1991, it didn’t just look like “a poor man’s Ferrari,” The Drive reports. It could out-drive some of them, too.

The side view of a yellow 1992 Toyota MR2 by a harbor
1992 Toyota MR2 side | Toyota

The 1991 Toyota MR2 is heavier than its predecessor, Automobile reports. However, with 130 hp, its 2.2-liter mid-mounted four-cylinder is only 15 hp weaker than the AW11’s supercharged four-cylinder engine. The SW20 MR2 Turbo, meanwhile, has a 200-hp version of the Celica GT4’s 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, Hagerty reports. As a result, while the naturally-aspirated SW20 MR2 goes 0-60 mph in about 8 seconds, the Turbo model does it in 6.1 seconds.

In Japan, though, the SW20 Toyota MR2 Turbo made 242 hp. That gave it a 0-60 mph time of 5.5 seconds, and a ¼-mile time of 13.1 seconds, GarageDreams reports. At the time, that made it faster than the Ferrari 348, the Supra Turbo, and the Acura NSX.

The SW20 Toyota MR2 wasn’t just heavier and more powerful than the original, though. It’s also more spacious and more luxurious inside, Jalopnik reports. But, more importantly, it has upgraded suspension compared to the 1st-gen car, developed with advice from racing legend Dan Gurney, GarageDreams reports.

Unfortunately, the SW20 Toyota MR2’s mid-engine design meant that it developed a reputation for snap oversteer. That’s why, in 1993, Toyota overhauled the suspension and tires, Hemmings reports.

With the SW20 Toyota MR2, lift-off oversteer is part of the fun

However, as Throttle House explains, the oversteer isn’t really a problem. In fact, it’s just part of an extremely fun package.

The 1991 Toyota MR2 featured in the video isn’t a turbocharged model. As a result, its 0-60 mph time hovers in the 8-second range, Automobile reports. It also lacks the Turbo models’ larger sway bars, strut tower brace, and upgraded brakes. But the MR2, like the Miata it often competed with, isn’t about outright power or straight-line speed. It’s about what happens when the road gets twisty.

The rear view of a red 1991 Toyota MR2 Turbo with its doors, engine cover, and rear trunk open
1991 Toyota MR2 Turbo rear | Bring a Trailer

Because of its mid-engine design, the Toyota MR2 is very well-balanced, Not2Grand reports. Much of its scary reputation comes from drivers unfamiliar with mid-engine behavior, Automobile and Hagerty reports. But the SW20 MR2’s suspension and steering mean you can easily catch the car if you understand how to properly transfer its weight. The whole “poor man’s Ferrari” statement isn’t too far off. And the mid-engine design gives it more luggage space than a Miata.

Plus, the early cars are extremely analog, with no power steering or ABS, though the 1993-and-later models have better gear synchros. They’re also famously durable, with sturdier transmissions and suspension than the 1st-gen cars. In fact, this may be one area where the non-turbocharged cars are better than the Turbo models, Hagerty reports. While both trims’ engines are basically bulletproof, the turbocharged engines have coolant hoses that are difficult to access.

Finding a cheap one is getting harder


The Honda Beat Is a Mid-Engine, Pocket-Sized JDM Miata

The 1991 SW20 Toyota MR2 Throttle House drove cost the owner $3200 to buy; he’s added roughly $1600 in parts. But even with about 226,000 miles on the clock, it’s still going strong.

Finding a 2nd-gen MR2 for that little, though, maybe difficult. Non-Turbo SW20s hover in the $10,000-$20,000 range on Bring a Trailer. And turbocharged models can go for as much as $30,000. Luckily, 2nd-gen Toyota MR2s are now old enough to import. And sometimes, the turbocharged JDM models cost roughly the same as the naturally-aspirated US models, Japanese Classics and Duncan Imports report.

That’s still cheaper to buy and own than a mid-engine Ferrari, though.

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