Wedge With An Edge

The Toyota MR2 (W10) is fast, fun and thoroughly under-rated – for now.

Now's the time to get onboard

Group B and class As. Big wings, bigger shoulders pads. Bad hair and worse top-lip topiary. The 1980s was about all those things. But more than anything, as far as we're concerned, it was about the hot hatch, the rocket-fast runabout that hammered the final nail in the sports car coffin – at least until the MX-5 came along to remind us how fun a properly engineered one could be.

But hang on a second, because there was another way in the 1980s, an affordable Japanese sports car that was giving hot hatches a hard time when the MX-5 was still a kernel of an idea in its chief engineer’s eye. How’s this for a wish list? A classic high-revving Japanese twin-cam motor mounted behind two seats, a chassis featuring fully independent suspension and massaged by Lotus, and sufficient nods to practicality to ensure your fun could last more than five minutes. The original MR2 was a genuine gamechanger.

But before we get too carried away, let’s concede one thing: there was nothing original about Toyota's 'Midship Runabout 2-seater', even if its mid-engined layout still seemed highly exotic in 1984. 

We’d had the Porsche 914 and Fiat X1/9 in the 1970s – and with less than 160bhp between them, they lack the MR2's vigour. And there was the Lotus Europa, but who wanted to drive a car that had a gearshift more vague than a Trump manifesto? What Toyota did is what the Japanese were so good at: taking a great but badly executed idea and doing it justice.

And of course serving it all up in a perfect slice of Yuppie couture. As shapes go, it’s as ’80s as a comically triangular double-breasted suit the Toyota salesman might have worn when he parted you from your cash. There are so many flat surfaces on the original MR2, it looks like it might have been a CKD kit. It’s more purposeful than pretty, but the detailing ticks every box its decade could come up with: pop-up lights, strakes, spoiler, body kit.

This one is a 1B-code MR2 – the facelift car with the teardrop alloys and bigger, colour-coded bodykit. Original 1A versions look more masculine, but still won’t totally sidestep the predictable hairdresser jibes from people who wouldn’t have a clue what makes a good car – and, quite possibly, a decent haircut. Anyway, if this is a hairdresser’s car, it’s one for the bloke who turned Elvis’s pomp into an army-spec crew cut. It’s sharp, focused and ruthless in the way it attacks a bit of road. 

At 975kg, the MR2 is light by modern standards, but not massively impressive by those of its day. A 205 GTI weighed 850kg, and even a voluminous Golf GTi MkII with the then-hot 137bhp 16v motor tipped the scales at 907. Blame the Toyota’s deceptively long Golf-matching toe-to-tail measurements and its five bulkheads. But don’t get too bogged down. What mass there is is apportioned perfectly. The 1587cc engine and five-speed gearbox, cribbed from the front-drive Corolla GT hot hatch, but also seen in north-south form in the rear-drive GT AE85/86 of drift fame, sit directly behind the seats, while the spare wheel is up front. The clever bit is the fuel tank, which is wrapped around the transmission tunnel – meaning no nasty differences in handling between leaving the filling station and arriving at the next one for another top-up.

The MR2 might be as long as a hatch, but it’s some 150mm closer to the ground. Yet tug open the frameless door to drop into the driver’s seat and even though the transmission tunnel is tall, you still feel like you’re sitting a touch too high. Maybe it’s the low scuttle. The visibility is incredible, though a glance over your shoulder throws up a looming spoiler that you mistake for another car the first time you see it.

There’s a lot of shiny period plastic in here, but what everyone notices first is the weird plastic half wing nut located on each side of the instrument binnacle; one to operate wipers, another for those flip-up lights. Then you spot the strange crosshair air vents pointing directly at you from under the dash, and that the wheel has a pronounced ’70’s-dish, before glancing through it to the instruments. 

They’re typically period-Japanese and uninspiring, until you see their scales: an ambitious 150mph speedo and a rev counter cordoned off at 7700rpm. Forget the 150mph unless you’re planning to max it out the back of a Hercules – you might squeeze the needle to 130mph with a hill, a decent wind and 90psi in all four corners, but check out that redline. That was heady stuff to a nation of car fans used to Ford’s asthmatic CVH. Hell, it seems pretty heady now in an era of turbo engines determined to prioritise mid-range torque over proper valve-moshing thrills.

The tiny key kicks that engine smartly into life and an exploratory throttle prod shows the response to be crisper than the final pound notes that were making their way into our pockets as the first MR2s came from Japan. The gearstick’s the tiniest of stretches away, its initially odd-looking, er, sheath making sense only by the time you’ve thrown a few shapes with the right hand, forearm sliding up and down the tunnel. Snick it into first and with a bit of judder as the clutch takes up, you’re away.

The 185-section tyres are narrow, but there’s no power assistance for the steering, so it needs a bit of muscling at low speeds. It’s a sweet little rack, though; responsive as you roll off the straight ahead, and though it's not quick measured between the stops, it feels swift as we barrel along.

You don’t steer the MR2 down roads like this, not with the big inputs old cars sometimes need. You just make gestures with the MR2; tiny nudges, so faint you’re barely aware you’re even making them. Lotus and Toyota were drinking buddies at the time and the way the MR2 flows down a road has Hethel’s fingerprints all over it. It feels primed to change direction. But it's composed, totally at ease as it gently bobs its way through mid-corner bumps at speed.

But there’s nothing at ease about the frenzy under the engine cover. The gearing is short. So short we’re nailing this B-road in fifth gear and still the engine is singing away, 4k equating to little more than 75mph. There’s no trickery here, but later versions of the 4A-GE did get it. But another clever bit of kit gives a very similar sensation.

TVIS, or Toyota Variable Induction System, comprises of a quartet of butterfly valves that close off half of the eight intake runners at low speeds to boost torque. The 105lb ft peak sounds malnourished, but hit 4300rpm and those valves open, the engine note hardens, the push in the back too, and before you know it you're at 8000rpm and ready to throw another gear at the situation.Performance is bang on the money for an ’80s hot hatch and not too shabby a quarter century later. Period road testers recorded 7.9sec to 60mph and a 122mph top end. 

Developing 122bhp at 6600rpm, it’s peppy enough to keep you interested and modern cars honest, and not so brisk that you can’t flog every single one of those 120 nags at the slightest hint of an empty road.

But there’s nothing at ease about the frenzy under the engine cover. The gearing is short. So short we’re nailing this B-road in fifth gear and still the engine is singing away, 4k equating to little more than 75mph. There’s no trickery here, but later versions of the 4A-GE did get it. But another clever bit of kit gives a very similar sensation.

TVIS, or Toyota Variable Induction System, comprises of a quartet of butterfly valves that close off half of the eight intake runners at low speeds to boost torque. The 105lb ft peak sounds malnourished, but hit 4300rpm and those valves open, the engine note hardens, the push in the back too, and before you know it you're at 8000rpm and ready to throw another gear at the situation.Performance is bang on the money for an ’80s hot hatch and not too shabby a quarter century later. Period road testers recorded 7.9sec to 60mph and a 122mph top end. 

Developing 122bhp at 6600rpm, it’s peppy enough to keep you interested and modern cars honest, and not so brisk that you can’t flog every single one of those 120 nags at the slightest hint of an empty road.

Slowing down for a 90-degree right, you’re suddenly reminded of that unassisted steering, but also reassured by that weight build, that the front Goodyears are paying attention. The rears always have a good handle on the situation too, and are never going to be fully outsmarted by such a modest power output. But give it the lot as you see the corner open up and there’s just,  just enough clout to edge the rear end out of line enough to put a grin on your face. Maybe it’d be different with a supercharged version, whose 143bhp lopped a second off the sprint to 60mph, but only made it to the UK as a grey import. There was also a basic 83bhp 1.5 version wearing steels in place of alloys. Brits never got that either, or the optional auto box: the only major change to the UK range besides the 1986 facelift being the option of a T-bar roof in 1987.

Jonathan Hunt’s stunning T-bar we’re driving wears its 123,000 miles well. But then it ought to, given a previous owner spent £30k bringing it back to as-new condition in memory of its original owner, a family member. Big money yes, but almost all MR2s (apart from Jonathan’s other identical, but unmolested 28k example) will need some degree of rescuing these days. 

That's what makes them so compelling for those with an eye on the financial side – the very best examples will attract a premium, and many have been neglected.

The MR2 story didn’t end when the W10 ceased production in 1989, of course. Two more versions appeared, and on paper are faster.  But there’s something special about that first MR2. We still adore the MX-5. But it’s great to be reminded that there was, and is, another way.  


Buying a Toyota MR2 (W10)

The Toyota MR2 reminds us of one of the most exciting periods in car design, when it felt like anything was possible. Considering it came five years before the Mazda MX-5, and should represent the real start of the 1990s sports car renaissance, the MR2 is yet to gain the widespread recognition it deserves. Perhaps that's down to its less appealing replacements, but either way, the wind is changing, and enthusiasts are latching on to the car's considerable charms. 

Investment

The MR2 is considerably rarer than the MX-5, and although it's less timeless, we'd say it has a touch more Modern Classic appeal than its open-topped rival. Given that numbers are thin, with fewer than 1000 left on UK roads, it's easy to conclude that supply and demand economics will give this a higher and more quicker appreciating market value. As all things 1980s are super-cool, and this is as '80s as it gets, we see good long-term growth – expect the nicest ones to double in value in the next five years.  

What exacerbates this is that the gulf between merely useable cars and the very best is huge. So many have rotted away, and it's easy to understand why. Spotting a rusty MR2 is hard, and there are lots of places it can go – just look at our buying tips. In that sense, for the MR2 perhaps more than any other car we feature, we implore you to take along a specialist.

Don't be disheartened, however. As that chasm between good and excellent grows further, the very best will ramp up in value as the MR2's star quality becomes brighter.


MR8.JPG

Modern Classics' view

 

We've tipped some very interesting cars as Clever Money buys, and the MR2 sits naturally among the M3s and RSs of the Modern Classic world. It's great-looking, fabulous to drive, and is regarded as both a gamechanger when new, and a desirable car to those in the know now. Running one shouldn't be arduous, as long as you keep it dry and you're happy to treat it like the weekend classic it deserves to be. We'd almost say forget the AE86, save your money, and go for an MR2 instead. Almost…


Essential Checks

MR7.JPG
  •  Rust is the key with the MR2 (W10). It can strike in many places but the two key areas to check are the wheelarches and the sills. Check the point where the B-pillars meet the sill, as this is a common rot spot. It's tricky, but try to check the lower edge of the sills, inside the rear wheelarches and where the B-pillars actually meet – the seals may be bubbling out. Grasp the black triangle/rear sideskirt section and try to twist it, looking out for movement or crunchy noises from rotten metal. If the car's missing its mudflaps, that could mean the metal fixing points have rusted away and the mudflaps have fallen off. New wheelarches and B-pillar/sill sections are available from MR2 clubs. The A-pillar/sill meeting point can rot due to water/leaf build-up behind the front wheelarch liners.
  •  Behind the nosecone there's a strong steel crossmember. This can rot badly and will be an MoT failure. Remove the plastic cover above the radiator if it's still there and check from above and below. Squeeze and wiggle the narrow bits of nosecose around the sidelight/indicators, and if they crunch you're got rot. The area around the crossmember can rot too, an indicator of incorrect jacking. With the front boot open, check that any corrosion on the radiator is surface-deep only and that neither of the two cooling fans are seized. The headlights can corrode too; check by switching the headlights on, turn the headlight switch into the dashboard and then turn it one more stop counter-clockwise. Next, undo the plastic cover either side of the headlamps by unscrewing the two bright screws that hold each cover layer on. Corrosion should only be surface at best, and check the pivots haven't gone frilly.
  • The front boot floor can rust, though getting the plastic liner off to check is a fiddly job. Front boot seals can also leak. If you've managed to get the lining off without breaking the clips or someone's face in abject frustration, check the heater piping, clutch and brake master cylinders and piping for leaks. Check for corrosion in the rear boot by pulling up the lining, as water can collect here. From here, you can also investigate the tops of the rear wheelarches for rot and accident damage from here while you're at it.
  •  The front of the roof could be corroded where the windscreen meets it, a sign the glass has been replaced and the bodywork mounting point is damaged. If the car has a sunroof, the blocked drain tubes can cause corrosion to the inch of metal pointing out at either end of the dashboard. Check for flakes dropping from the roof. T-Bars are prone to leaks; take a glass of water with you to spot for drips into the cabin. 
  • There are many different versions of the W10 MR2, but they're generally split into two flavours: 1A (1985-1987) and 1B (1987-1990). There are several differences between each version which complicates parts compatibility, and there may be some A and B hybrids featuring bits of both. The 16 Valve inscription on should be blue for pre-1987 models, and red for post-1987 cars. 1987 cars can be either.
  • MR2s have a choice of two transmissions depending on which version it is. The 1A has the C50 transaxle gearbox, which is well-known for jumping out of fifth gear. This happens because the main input shaft and ouput shaft bearings wear away over time, necessitating a new or rebuilt gearbox. You can take preventive measures, however – changing the engine mounts, fork and hub can ease pressure on the shafts. On the test drive, try to drive quickly and then lift off the throttle quickly and get back on the power. Even if it doesn't jump out of gear, check how much the gearlever moves when backing off the throttle – anything more than 20mm is a sign of wear. Also check that the clutch master cylinder fluid is at the right level and not black or dark brown. The 1B gearbox (C52) is much more robust. 
  • For a 1980s car, the electrics are fairly solid but there are a few issues. The electric aerial is prone to failure, and a bush in the windscreen wiper linkage can cause sloppiness; fixing this can cost upwards of £100. The heater fan control resistor pack can fail – check how easily you can change the fan speed. The electric windows can become jerky thanks to the mechanism stripping its cogs. 
  • The 48-GE engine is a robust unit, but it's not without its faults. Head gaskets can go, so check for oil leaking out of the sides of the block. The engine bay cover doesn't keep the rain off, so check for corrosion around the alternator and battery. It's an easy fix, however, and don't be put off by a dirty-looking engine; it's meant to be that way. If you're hearing a tapping/chattering noise then the tappets may have gone out of alignment. This can be fixed by replacing the valve shims. The cambelt should have been changed at 60,000-mile intervals. Look for a sticker on the cambelt cover if it's a Toyota-supplied belt, and paperwork to back it up. 
  • If the car's overheating or you see clouds of steam in the mirror, you could have an airlock. Try turning on the heater – if it doesn't blow hot air, then the airlock's in the heating system. If the engine's got an unruly idle, then this points to air pockets passing over the coolant temp sensors, messing with them and the ECU. These symptoms could be a sign of head gasket failure.
  •  If there are peculiar clonks or judders from the front of the MR2 over lumpy bits of tarmac then it could indicate worn anti-roll bar droplinks, bushes, tie-rods or steering rack. 

CLUBS AND SPECIALISTS

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  • mr2oc.co.uk
  • mr2dc.com
  • toyotaownersclub.com
  • mr2-ben.co.uk
  • tbdevelopments.com
  • pacific-works.co.uk
  • primemr2.com
  • roguemotorsport.com

MODIFYING

  • A good stainless steel exhaust is highly recommended as the originals are prone to rotting. A smaller steering wheel may aid access for those not sized like a jockey. 
  • If you fancy going for full-on madness, some have fitted the 3S-GTE engine from a Celica or turbo-model Mk2 MR2s. Some hardy souls have even fitted the 3VZ-FE V6 from the Toyota Camry...


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