Cars

Throwback: Toyota MR2

In the early 1980s, the United States automotive industry was in a period where new smog controls had been enacted by the government, and fuel efficiency was king. In response, in late 1984, the Toyota MR2 entered the small, affordable, fun, fuel-efficient sports car space. 

Toyota MR2 Introduction

The MR2 was a small, sporty, mid-engined, fuel-efficient, two-seater car with pop-up headlights, and it had an option for T-tops. It had near fifty-fifty weight distribution from front to back, making handling great. As a whole, the MR2 had an exotic car flare without the exotic car price point. It was quickly called the poor-mans Ferrari

A silver 2004 Toyota is parked in a parking lot.
2004 Toyota MR2 Spyder | Toyota

Three Sports Cars Under One House

The MR2’s introduction meant that Toyota suddenly had a full stable of performance vehicles. It was Japan’s first mid-engined car and joined the Celica and the Supra in Toyota’s portfolio of sportscar offerings. Toyota was becoming a sports car house. 

The MR2 began its life with a 1.6-liter engine borrowed from Toyota’s Corolla that pumped out 128 horsepower. For braking, it had disc brakes at all four corners. It also had a suspension that was designed in partnership with Lotus and motorsports racing legend Dan Gurney, who did a lot of the testing on it. For fuel, the MR2 would only sip it, with a rating of 27 miles per gallon (city). 

Supercharger

In the United States, a supercharger would be introduced in 1988. This boosted performance from the engine to 145 horsepower. According to Car and Driver, in an article from 1987, this was the first use of a supercharger in a production vehicle from an auto manufacturer in the United States in over twenty years. 

1992 Toyota MR2
1992 Toyota MR2. Artist: Unknown | Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Turbo

The second generation of the MR2 debuted in 1990. It was larger than the previous generation, but also much sleeker in design. The supercharger was replaced by a turbo. It could produce 200 horsepower from a 2-liter engine. The car soaked up the extra horses, carving roads quickly. 

A red Toyota MR2 Spyder parked next to a picturesque countryside.
2000 Toyota MR2 Spyder | Toyota

Convertible

The third generation of the MR2 was introduced for the 2000 model year. This time, the car was still mid-engined, but it had become a convertible only. The name changed to a more appropriate MR2 Spyder to indicate the drop-top. In a nod to Toyota’s engineers, the overall performance of the new Spyder drew comparisons to the more pricey Porsche Boxster even though this generation’s 1.8-liter engine only made 138 horsepower.

Affordable, Mid-Engine Champion

Ultimately though, the MR2 would reign as king of the sporty, affordable, mid-engined cars up through its final year of production in 2007. But that’s because there were no other affordable, mid-engined competitors. The Fiero was long gone by this time. The Acura NSX was upscale but also gone. So were the Porsche Cayman, Boxster, and Lotus Elise. The lack of competition, however, does not negate the fact that Toyota had a hit on its hands with the MR2s introduction and was able to capitalize on the market with a capable and fun fuel efficient mid-engine platform.