The Toyota MR2 rocked the sports-car world when it arrived in 1984. With a mid-engine, rear-drive design that stood on the shoulders of the Porsche 914 and Fiat X1/9, the lightweight Toyota offered nimble steering and adequate speed at a truly affordable price. American buyers stepped up, purchasing more than 37,000 of them in 1985.

Even with the introduction of a supercharged version, sales dropped off bit by bit until 1990, when the second-generation MR2 was launched for the 1991 model year. By most estimations, it was a much better car, with more power, exotic looks and generally higher performance. But by then the sports-car world was in love with the Mazda Miata, so sales of the second-generation MR2 never came close to the popularity of the original.

A baby exotic

Like the Pontiac Fiero (which debuted the same year as the first MR2), the second-generation MR2 looked like the designers took their cues from the Italians. It appeared much like a seven-eighths-scale Ferrari 348, and indeed, some aftermarket shops have put Ferrari lookalike body kits on the Toyota. As with the Fiero-based Ferraris, you don’t have to look twice to detect the subterfuge.

Still, the second-gen MR2 is a good-looking car on its own. Gone are the 1980s angles in favor of gentler curves and a tasteful basket-handle rear spoiler. Buyers could choose from a fixed-roof coupe (rare in the U.S.) or one with a sunroof or T-tops. A variety of cheerful colors were offered. American buyers being who they are, white seems to have been the most popular choice, followed by red.

More importantly, two engine options raised the bar over the first-gen MR2. The naturally aspirated base model got the Camry’s 2.2-liter 4-cylinder that produced 130 horsepower. For about 20% more money you could have a turbocharged 2-liter that hit the magic 200 mark. The MR2 Turbo could do 0-60 mph in a scant 5.8 seconds, which is still decent performance for an economy sports car today.

A mid-cycle update in 1993 boosted the base MR2’s output to 135 hp, but the uprated Japanese-market 240-hp turbocharged car was not available in the U.S. because of emissions regulations, so we continued to get a 200-hp Turbo. For the record, the MR2 was available with a 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual transmission, but most surviving cars are manuals.

Toyota reliability

Among the reasons to consider an MR2 today is Toyota’s build quality and reliability. There are remarkably few problems reported for these cars — even for Turbo models. The early cars from 1991 to ’92 were reported to warp or crack their exhaust manifolds, but affected cars will have been repaired by now. Post-facelift cars from 1993 to ’95 won’t have that problem to begin with.

Turbo models have the so-called “Hose from Hell,” a coolant hose located in a high-temperature area of the engine bay. These have a tendency to crack and leak, so it’s worth asking about replacement history on any car you are considering. The hose itself won’t cost much, but its location has limited accessibility, hence the frightening nickname.

If you want lively handling, the 1991–92 MR2 is known for its abrupt oversteer. As with any mid- or rear-engine car, lifting off the gas while cornering at speed will tend to cause the rear end of the car to come around and ask if you know what you’re doing. Toyota dialed that tendency out for 1993 and later, but critics complained that this also took the edge off the car’s handling in the process.

The most critical factor with any MR2 today is the car’s individual history. As an affordable sports car, many have been modified and may have suffered in their middle age. Also, T-tops are prone to leaks and squeaks, and the trunks on all MR2 models have a tendency to leak as well. A thorough pre-purchase inspection should reveal any issues.

A healthy market

The second-generation MR2 is popular on Bring a Trailer, with several examples selling during most months. Prices sometimes rise above $40,000 for extremely clean, ultra-low-miles examples. However, the bulk of BaT sales change hands in the low-$20,000 range. 

Turbo cars outnumber base MR2s on the auction sites and generally bring only a small premium, as mileage and condition for this oft-abused model tend to dictate price more than spec. Still, at 30 years of age for the newest of this generation, trading above its original $15k-$18k MSRP indicates that the second-generation MR2 retains many fans.

The best reason to buy an MR2 is to have an older, fun sports car that is more unusual (and more capable) than a Miata. Low cost of ownership and insurance make the MR2 a great choice for running around town, dodging cones at an autocross and getting pride of place at a RADwood show. Just don’t overthink it. ♥

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