Why this turbo Toyota MR2 is the the hot JDM car for you

The MR2 Turbo has always been a fearsome weapon for petty cash, but prices are shifting. Grab one now!

Words Ross Alkureishi Photography Adam Shorrock

T

hink mid-engined, two-seater sports car and many minds reach for the exotica box – Lamborghini’s Muira and Ferrari’s Dino being the go-to choices for midship musings. Yet for decades there have been plenty of real-life alternatives.

Lotus’s Europa arrived shortly after the Lamborghini, while Fiat’s X1/9 and Lancia’s Montecarlo waved the flag of affordability through the 1970s and 1980s. Toyota joined the party in 1985, its sweet-handling MkI MR2 featuring a perky 122bhp 16-valve engine from the Corolla Twin-Cam in a lightweight body that was clearly designed by an origami fetishist.

Think high-performance, though, and that once meant a return to the prancing horse, raging bull or three-pronged trident – or for the masochist, the Lotus Esprit. All that changed in 1990 with the 225bhp turbo MkII MR2.

Except in the UK – where the model’s second biggest export market had to make do with the naturally aspirated version’s 119bhp or, in GT guise, 158bhp (later 174bhp).


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But British performance hounds and importers have been raiding Japan for decades now and there are plenty of examples of all five MkII Turbo revisions on our shores. Prices range from £1k to £10k and beyond, so exactly what does that get you in terms of performance? Time to see.

You can’t blame the Japanese for keeping the best for themselves in the domestic market. It’d be like owning a sushi factory and sending your choicest cuts to Slough for consumption. The very fact that many JDM cars enjoy higher specifications and superior real-world performance figures keeps us in the UK begging for more grey imports.

So what do we get? Well, visually there’s very little to differentiate this freshly imported MR2 from a UK car; only the raised engine bay covers, and on this example, the TWIN CAM 16 TURBO script above the air intakes on its rear haunches give the game away.

Otherwise it’s the same package, with the set-square restrictions enforced on the designer of the MkI AW11 giving way to the acceptable use of the protractor for the smoother lined MkII SW20.

Glance up quickly, though, and the visual similarities to the F355 that caused it to be christened a Mini-Ferrari are clear, with front, side and front three-quarter profiles, pop-up headlamps, five-spoke alloys, and engine air intakes momentarily fooling the eyes. The be-spoilered rear end and, in this case, white bodywork, break the spell quicker than in certain other hues.


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Its Kunihiro Uchida-designed lines definitely nod in deference to Modena, with the overall effect of a clean, smart and sleek outline. If Toyota had wished the model to move upmarket, then certainly it would have achieved its goal.

Pop the driver’s door and at first the cabin’s combination of sober plastics and seats covered centrally in what looks like material from a pair of M&S underpants, circa 1990, don’t entice you in. Lower yourself into the driver’s seat and matters improve instantly, as the interior ergonomics work very well; visibility for a mid-engined beastie is top-notch – particularly to the rear – and the figure-hugging seats offer more lateral support than a sumo wrestler’s mawashi. Your left elbow and forearm rest comfortably on the centre console with the short, stubby gearlever perfectly placed. It’s a sporting driving position that puts many of its more expensive rivals to shame.

The four-pot 3S-GTE engine sparks up without drama and settles into quiet tickover. In stock form it’s a little underwhelming – as if engine-san is politely bowing to you behind your head. First gear requires a mere flick of the wrist, the well-defined gate and lever’s short throw ensuring the cogs align quickly.

As I crawl out on to Huddersfield’s roads the direct steering makes pointing the car’s snout an easy process. The suspension is pleasantly compliant, and not too harsh on some of the poorer surfaces (and there are plenty of those in this Yorkshire town).

Stroking the accelerator with mild pressure for the first time makes a maelstrom gather behind your head and after a momentary pause, it howls you forward with a hard-edged turbo whine. A judicious squeeze of the brakes as I’m still in 30mph territory and a quick re-assessment of the engine – it’s one noisy turbocharged urchin, about as politely mannered as a Yakuza’s mistress.

Clearing the town to the south-east at the first national speed limit sign I nail the throttle hard and the little mid-engined tyke lights up – I swear I heard Ryu bellowing Hadōken! in my shell-like – and tears down

the road. With 242bhp and 224lb-ft of torque it pulls strongly and smoothly from 2500rpm, right through to its 7200rpm red line.

One criticism the MkII received on release was its excess heft – certainly compared with its svelte MkI forebear, but the turbo’s output renders any straight

line performance comparisons moot. In fact, with 0-60mph taking just 5.7 seconds it’s propelled into serious performance territory – just 0.9 seconds behind the F355!


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As I hit the Peak District National Park at Holme and start climbing the A6024, it’s clear that the extra weight and power steering on this Revision 3 example sacrifices some of the purity of feel of the earlier MkI. However, there remains traction aplenty; tuck its nose in tight to a corner and it sweeps delicately through before you apply the sledgehammer. Hard on the brakes, and repeat, except this time a heavy throttle foot sees the rear end come unstuck, requiring a cheeky bit of opposite lock to rectify matters (note to self: ensure the car’s ready and on the straight and narrow next time before invoking the turbo).

On release some reviews were critical of the handling, suggesting lunatic levels of oversteer at the limit; others were critical of the critics, stating that these limits were far from reachable under normal driving conditions. Either way, Toyota acted, adapting – increasing the length of the rear lateral links, and raising the rear trailing arms – and stiffening the suspension, increasing rubber width and making a limited-slip differential standard equipment for the Rev 3. This, coupled with the power increase, up from the original JDM Turbo’s 225bhp, is why the Rev 3 cars onwards are more popular.

To break traction up here I’d have to be doing something silly – other than summoning the boost gods too soon. As the miles pass, like all good turbocharged cars you have a choice: settle down into grand touring mode, with the engine working smoothly and the turbocharger a whistling confidante to which you whisper all your driving preferences; or invoke your full inner Godzilla and let it rip on the straights.

Motoring snobs can accuse Japanese cars of lacking charisma and, as an Italian car fan, I could go down the same road. However, I’d be doing the MR2 Turbo a distinct disservice, because it’s a bloody fast sense assaulter and supremely engaging to drive. It reminds me of another turbocharged hothead, the Vauxhall VX220 Turbo, only marginally more refined in its road manners. Toss in Toyota reliablity and parts support, and it’s an intoxicating ownership package.

Yes, you might get accused of being a wannabe F355 owner, but look at current values and for the very best of each could you really say there’s 10 to 15 times the pleasure to be had in owning the prancing horse? There’s probably 10 to 15 times the servicing and running costs.

The MR2 Turbo remains an absurdly fast little road warrior and one that remains a real firecracker on all roads. To drive one is to taste the forbidden fruit of the orient, and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed in this very Japanese of Modern Classics.


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The Modern Classics view

The MkII MR2 Turbo’s boost-enhanced driving experience has never gone out of fashion, so finding an unmolested one is your biggest challenge. They’re a big favourite in the drifting scene, while others will have been modified to within an inch of their twin-cam’s reliability. Unfortunately, we also have to factor in those that have been turned into Ferrari F355-alikes.

With prices rising we suggest you start looking now, as your search will only increase in difficulty in the coming years. A quick scour of the classifieds shows a handful for sale, with a couple of fresh unmodified Japanese imports at dealers – including this car – commanding premiums, which see them comfortably into five figures. Private examples are more affordable, but asking prices have jumped in recent years with good usable examples coming in around the £5k-£6k mark.

Check that any prospective purchase has been well cared for and maintenance – when prices fell sharply – not scrimped upon. Cars that didn’t receive regular oil changes will be more prone to turbocharger failure and the resultant problems that leads to. Also ensure that all dashboard indicator symbols light up with the ignition on, and bulbs haven’t been removed to mask issues.

Revision 3 cars are currently most popular as you get all the goodies of the Rev 4 and 5s – increased power output, limited slip-diff, power steering – but at a lower price. Bag a sweet example of any, though, and you’ll get a stunning little performer capable of taking on the decade’s big boys, and a host of more modern machinery.


Enjoying the read? Why not buy a full issue of Modern Classics magazine! Just £4.60!

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Enjoying the read? Why not buy a full issue of Modern Classics magazine! Just £4.60!



Lewis PlumbToyota Mr2, JDM, Toyota