1984 marked the debut of the Toyota "Mid-engine runabout two-seater," or "MR2," in Japan. Less than a year later, it arrived on American shores amid enthusiasm and debate. Based on a prototype called the SV3, the short, lightweight, angular car found a comfortable seat in the Toyota model lineup. It was a sporty offering, supported by the consistency and reliability Toyota was known for.
There is some suggestion that the SV3 prototype was based on the Lotus X100, a design that was abandoned before it was ever produced. Lotus and Toyota were working together during the development of the MR2, and the truth or falsehood of this rumor is a source of great curiosity among MR2 (and Lotus) enthusiasts. But what is sports car development without the suggestion of a little scandal? Regardless, the MR2 Mark I ('84-'89) sold well, with decent performance and a lack of mechanical hassles.
In terms of styling, the MR2 Mark I is an ugly duckling. (The Mark II, '90-'95, adopted a trendy rounded shape.) The sharply trapezoidal rooflines date the car. When equipped with rocker panel skirting and a decklid spoiler, the Mark I looks like, well, a duck. But a mallard is as fast and efficient in its natural habitat, a pond, as is the MR2 in its, a curving two-lane road. Not to mention that underneath, according to enthusiasts, the MR2 is all swan.
The Mark I is equipped with a 98.6-c.i. (1600-cc) inline four-cylinder motor, which, naturally aspirated, produces 130 hp at 6,600 rpm and 122 mph. Zero to 60 time is 8.9 seconds. The cars came standard with four-speed automatic or the more desirable five-speed manual transmission. In North America in 1988, a supercharged version of the original motor was also available, increasing horsepower to 145 at 6,400 rpm.
The market for MR2s of the '80s is stable. The SCM Price Guide suggests good cars trade between $2,000 and $4,000. It's hard to imagine them depreciating any further, or the sellers would be paying us to take them. MR2s have proven to be popular both as sporty daily drivers and-among motor sports enthusiasts-for auto-crossing, where their mid-engined configuration gives them a handling advantage similar to that of the Porsche 914.
The MR2 Mark I has a reputation for a bulletproof drive train. If considering a Mark I, the most desirable are five-speed, supercharged models. Watch carefully for rust and body damage or accident repair. If a car shows signs of these, keep searching. Many have seen hard use, and very well maintained cars are the only ones that might possibly hold their value. Further, although these cars are not expensive to maintain by Ferrari standards, having to rebuild an engine will set you back $2,000 for a naturally aspirated motor, or $2,400 for a supercharged one.
You may encounter the designation "JDM" applied to the motor, which stands for "Japanese Domestic Market." This indicates that the motor was originally from a car sold in Japan. MR2 enthusiasts often swap them into North American cars because they can provide more horsepower than the North American version. Make sure the exchange is documented and was made by someone who knew what he or she was doing. You can get a JDM motor for around $700 which, when compared with the price of a rebuild, helps account for the prevalence of these motors.
When test-driving, pay close attention to the brakes, as the rotors are notorious for warping. Cockpit noise is often a complaint, as the motor is directly behind the seats, but one of many sound-dampening products will take the edge off. There are lots of parts available for MR2 Mark I cars, including aftermarket performance add-ons, many from Toyota or TRD (Toyota Racing Development).
Ultimately, the MR2 Mark I is a low-cost, high-fun driver's car. It is not to be viewed as a financial investment, though if you maintain your MR2 it may maintain for you. Instead, view MR2 ownership as an investment in your emotional health. Fun, pretty cheap to fix, reliable but with a mysterious past . I wouldn't mind being set up with this Mister myself.