Third Generation Toyota MR2 Buyer’s Guide & History

Following on from the massively popular Mk2 MR2, Toyota launched the third-generation model in 1999. This new W30 MR2 would be labelled the MR-S in Japan, the MR2 Spyder in North America, and the MR2 Roadster in Europe.

While the first and second-generation MR2s are arguably the most fondly remembered, the Mk3 model is still regarded as an excellent car and the best handling of the bunch.

In this buyer’s guide you will learn everything you need to know about purchasing one of these fantastic little sports cars. We will also be covering the history and specifications of the third-gen MR2 along with how to import an MR-S from Japan.

How To Use This Toyota MR-S/MR2 Spyder Buyer’s Guide

This guide covers a lot of information, so we suggest that you use the table of contents below to skip to the section you want to read.

The History of the Third-Generation MR2

Credit: Toyota

The first glimpse of a third-generation MR2 came at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1995. At the event, Toyota unveiled a 2+2 convertible sports car concept labelled the MRJ that featured a fully retractable roof system that opened and closed at the touch of a button.

The concept was designed at Toyota’s Brussels design studio and featured a mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout just like the Mk2 MR2. However, despite retaining the same drive layout, feedback was overwhelmingly negative. Many didn’t like the 2+2 layout and the styling was an acquired taste to say the least.

With the motoring press and enthusiasts making their thoughts known on the MRJ, Toyota decided to go back to the drawing board. They ditched the 2+2 layout and focused on creating a car that would provide as much driver enjoyment as possible.

Toyota returned to the Tokyo Motor Show with a new concept, the MR-S (Midship Runabout-Sports), in 1997. Chief engineer of the project, Harunori Shiratori, said, “First, we wanted true driver enjoyment, blending good movement, low inertia and light weight. Then, a long wheelbase to achieve high stability and fresh new styling; a mid-engine design to create excellent handling and steering without the weight of the engine up front; a body structure as simple as possible to allow for easy customizing, and low cost to the consumer.”

Credit: Toyota

While the styling of the new MR-S concept borrowed some features from the MRJ, Toyota gave the car a much more squared-off, aggressive appearance. The two-part front lights were replaced with single units and the front grill was expanded. The wheels were also changed and the slit along the doors was much more angular.

Under the bonnet the MR-S featured a new 1.8-litre inline-four all-aluminium alloy 1ZZ-FED engine. This engine was given Toyota’s VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) system that was also fitted to some W20 MR2s from 1998. The VVT-i system was first introduced in 1996 on the 1JZ/2JZ engines and could vary the timing of the intake valves by adjusting the relationship between the camshaft drive and intake camshaft.

Unfortunately, those who wanted a car with equal or even more power than the Mk2 MR2 were in for a disappointment. The 1ZZ-FED engine produced around 138hp and 171Nm of torque, a significant reduction when compared to the previous generation.

While this was significantly less than the top spec models from the previous generation, the new MR-S was quite a bit lighter at around 1,000 kg in weight. This meant that the car could hit 100 km/h (62 mph) in a fairly respectable time of 6.8 seconds when equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission.

The power output and weight were not the only things to get smaller. Toyota reduced the car’s overall proportions and even reduced the price as the MR-S was much simpler and cheaper to produce than the second-generation MR2.

Toyota Launches the MR-S/MR2

Two years after it made its first appearance as a concept car, the MR-S made its debut as a fully-fledged production car just a couple of days before the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show, the same month that Toyota’s cumulative car production reached 100 million units.

At launch, the car was praised by motoring journalists and enthusiast alike for its dart-like responsiveness and its incredible handling dynamics. Many regarded the new MR-S/MR2 as the best handling MR2 ever created and Tiff Needell heaped praise on the little Toyota.

However, while the handling was regarded as world class, its lack of power was a disappointment to many. As a result, many owners decided to switch the 1ZZ-FE engine for the more powerful 2ZZ-GE found in the Celica GTS.

A five-speed manual gearbox was the only transmission available up until 2001, when Toyota introduced a five-speed “Sequential Manual Transmission” (SMT) that offered automated shifting (however, it is not an automtic gearbox). Unfortunately, this new transmission would dramatically reduce the 0-100 km/h (62 mph) time from 6.8 seconds to roughly 8.7 seconds.

The SMT had no conventional H-pattern shift lever or clutch pedal. Instead, the driver could shift gears by tapping the shift lever forward or backward, or by pressing steering-wheel-mounted buttons. One benefit of the SMT system was that it was offered with cruise control.

More updates came in 2002 with the addition of new seats, 16-inch staggered rear wheels, an extra gear for the SMT transmission, a six-speed manual for some markets, a new underbody brace for structural rigidity, and a revised suspension setup. The last update to the third-generation car came the next year with a Torsen limited-slip differential being added as an optional extra and the ride height being increased every so slightly.

By the middle of the decade it was becoming painfully obvious that the third-generation MR2/MR-S wasn’t performing as Toyota had hoped. The 2005 model year car would be the last year for the MR2 Spyder in the United States, while production of the Japanese spec MR-S and the European MR2 Roadster would continue until July 2007.

Special Edition Models


Toyota Racing Development (TRD) decided to make a special run of 100 VM180 MR-S cars exclusively for the Japanese market. These cars featured a unique TRD fibreglass bodykit and TRD branding.

Zagato VM180 MR-S

This special edition model was designed by Zagato and produced by Toyota Modelista International in limited numbers. The VM180 was based on the MR-S but with an engine tuned to produce 155hp. The body panels were supplied by Zagato and it was first shown on 10 January 2001 in Tokyo with sales being limited to Japan.


Like with the second-generation MR2, the TOM’S tuning company had a go at improving the MR-S. They decided to fit a turbocharger to the somewhat underpowered engine to drastically improve performance. Additionally, they also gave the car a number of other enhancements and fitted new, more aerodynamic body panels.


As a farewell to the MR2 range, Toyota produced a limited run of 1,000 V-Edition cars for the Japanese and United Kingdom market. These cars can be distinguished by different colour wheels, slightly different body panels, titanium interior accents, a different steering wheel and a helical limited slip differential.


Along with the V-Edition, Toyota also launched another special edition package for the United Kingdom known as the TF300. This package came with a special 182 bhp (136 kW) turbocharged engine that was available from a select number of Toyota dealers. Customers who already owned the MR2 Roadster could also get their cars upgraded with the package.

Toyota MR-S/MR2 Specifications

ModelMR-S/MR2 Spyder/MR2 Roadster
Year of production1999 – 2007
LayoutMid-engined, rear-wheel drive
Engine1ZZ-FED I4 (ZZW30) – naturally aspirated
Capacity1.8-litre (1,794 cc) at
Power138 bhp (103kW) at 6,400 rpm
Torque171 Nm (126 lb-ft) at 4,400 rpm
Gearbox5-speed manual

6-speed manual (Europe)

5-speed SMT

6-speed SMT

Tyres (Up until 2002)185/55R15 front 26psi
205/50R15 rear 32psi
T125/70D16 spare 60psi
Tyres (2003 to 2007) 185/55R15 front 26psi
205/45R16 rear 32psi
185/55R15 spare 26psi
Suspension FrontMacPherson strut
Suspension RearDouble wishbone
Weight996 kg (2,195 lb)
Top speed210 km/h (130 mph)
0 – 100 km/h (62 mph)6.8 seconds manual / 8.7 seconds SMT


Third Generation MR2/MR-S Buyer’s Guide

Credit: Toyota

Now that we have covered the history and specifications of the third generation MR2, let’s take a look at what you need to know about buying one.

Overall, the third generation MR2 is a very reliable and largely trouble free sports car, however, as with any vehicle a neglected one can develop a whole host of expensive issues. Additionally, modifications will also affect the reliability of a car, so it is important to take note of any changes the owner or any past owner has made.

While the W30 MR2 is rarer than the two previous generations, Toyota still sold plenty, so don’t settle for one in less than adequate condition.

Setting Up an Inspection of an MR2/MR-S

Setting up an inspection correctly is an important part of the car buying process. When you are arranging an inspection you should consider the following.

Try to arrange an inspection at the seller’s house or place of business (dealership for example) – This way you can get to see what sort of area the car lives in and where it is parked/stored.

Set up an inspection for a time in the morning – The benefit of going to see a car in the morning is that the owner/seller probably won’t have warmed up the car before you arrive (unless they drive to the inspection point). A pre-warmed engine can hide a number of issues, so it is important to keep this in mind.

Find a reliable friend or third party who can go with you to look at the MR2/MR-S – Having a helper can really be useful. They may be able to spot something you missed, and they will be able to give you their own thoughts on the vehicle.

Avoid going to look at a vehicle in the rain – Water on the bodywork can hide numerous issues with the paint and other exterior parts/panels.

Be cautious of a car that has been freshly washed, especially if it still has water on the bodywork – this is largely for the same reason as above, but some owners will also wash the underside/engine bay to hide a nasty looking leak.

How Much Should You Pay for a Third Generation MR2?

This is a difficult question to answer as it comes down to a number of factors from the condition and specs of the MR2/MR-S you are looking at to where it is for sale and much more. For example, a late model MR2 with low mileage is going to be worth more than an early model in poor condition with high mileage.

With this being the case, the best way to work out how much you should spend on an MR2/MR-S in your area is to hop on your local auction/classifieds websites or check with dealers. You can then use the prices from the cars on these websites to work out roughly how much you should spend on a vehicle in a given condition/model year.

Toyota MR2/MR-S Inspection Guide

Credit: Toyota

In the following section you will learn everything you need to know about buying a W30 MR2.

Checking the Vehicle Identification Number

The VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) is a series of characters and numbers that manufacturers such as Toyota assign to a vehicle at production. You can discover quite a bit of information about a car from the VIN, such as the model year, place of manufacturer and the vehicle’s engine size.

In addition to the above, the VIN can also be entered into a VIN checkup/decoder website that may contain information such as whether or not the MR2/MR-S you are looking at has any money owing on it or if it has been written off at any point. Most of these VIN checkup websites/services are region limited, so keep that in mind.

The VIN can be found on pretty much every major body panel with the easiest places to spot it being on a sticker in the driver’s door jam, in the bottom corner of the windshield on the driver’s side, in the frunk under the air conditioning intake.

It is a good idea to try and find as many of the VINs as possible to make sure they all match. If they do not match it my be a sign that the MR2/MR-S you are looking at has been in an accident at some point or had some other sort of repair work where panels needed to be replaced. Alternatively, if the VIN is scratched off or removed it may indicate the car has been stolen.

Inspecting the 1ZZ-FED Engine

While the 1.8-litre inline four-cylinder engine in these cars is fairly robust and reliable, poor maintenance can lead to some expensive repair bills down the track.

When you first open the engine cover (located behind the driver cabin) check for the following:

  • Broken or damaged components – This is almost always a sign of trouble, especially if the parts are major and the owner doesn’t mention anything about it or brushes it off as a minor issue. Broken or damaged parts that have not been repaired or replaced indicate that the maintenance carried out on the vehicle is less than adequate.
  • Cleanliness – Does the engine look spotless or does it look dirty and poorly maintained?
  • Modifications – Do you notice any obvious modifications? While not always a problem, modifications can lead to a whole host of problems if the are not suitable or installed correctly.

A completely spotless engine bay is usually a sign of a really fastidious owner, but it may also indicate that the owner/seller is trying to cover something up (a big oil leak for example). If the engine bay and underside of the car is still wet when you inspect the vehicle it is a good indication that the car has been washed to hide a problem.

Another thing we recommend you do is to check that the engine in the MR2/MR-S you are inspecting is cold. If the engine feels hot when you first open the engine cover and the owner has not driven the car recently it may suggest that they have heated up the vehicle to hide a problem.

Making Sure the Fluid Levels are at the Correct Height

Once you have given the engine a quick once over, move onto checking the fluid levels. It is important to check that these are at the correct height as if they are not it indicates that the MR2 or MR-S you are inspecting has not been maintained properly.

We recommend that you check the different fluid levels both before and after a test drive to make sure they are still roughly the same height (a slight change is to be expected).

Service Intervals for the Engine Oil & Oil Filter on an MR2 or MR-S

It is incredibly important to make sure that the engine oil and oil filter are changed regularly, so check with the owner to see what their service schedule was/is like. In addition to this, make sure you also check the service history and any other paperwork to see if proper maintenance has been carried out. However, remember that some owners service their own cars, so there may not be any records of oil and filter changes.

If you discover that the oil and oil filter have not been changed at a regular interval it is a major warning sign. Overtime, oil in a car’s engine can become contaminated and diluted, leading to poor engine performance and possibly even engine damage.

Engine Oil

As these cars are getting on a bit, you will find that different owners have their own opinions on when to get the oil changed. The general consensus is to replace the engine oil every 8,000 – 12,000 km (5,000 – 7,500 miles) if a synthetic oil is being used (most would recommend changing it closer to the 8,000 km mark).

Some really enthusiastic owners will replace the engine oil in their MR-S/MR2s at around 5,000 km (3,000 miles), but this isn’t really necessary with modern synthetics. If you don’t drive that much you should replace the engine oil every 6 – 12 months.

What is the Best Engine Oil for a Toyota MR-S/MR2 Spyder

It is usually recommended that you use a 5W-30 engine oil in a Toyota MR-S/MR2 like this one from Castrol. Many owners also like to use a 0W-30 engine oil and in some cases people like to use a 5W-40 weight oil.

Oil Filter

There are a range of different oil filters that will fit the 1ZZ-FED in the MR-S/MR2 Spyder, but the most recommended tends to be the OEM Toyota filter with a part number of 90915-YZZF2. Mobil 1 and K&N also make some good oil filters as well (K&N HP-1003 for example). If you do plan to use an aftermarket oil filter make sure that it fits correctly and is well reviewed.

It is generally recommended that you replace the oil filter with every oil change (especially as oil filters are cheap to purchase). However, if you are replacing the engine oil every 5,000 km (3,000 miles) you may get away with changing it every second oil change.

Don’t Forget to Check the Condition of the Oil

While you are checking the level of the engine oil do not forget to check its condition as well. If you see any metallic particles or grit on the dipstick it is usually a sign of a major issue and you should move onto another car.

Another thing to watch out for is any foam or froth on the dipstick. This problem can be a sign that the MR-S/MR2 you are inspecting has overheated at some point and/or is suffering from a blown head gasket.

Oil Burning

Toyota claims that the third generation MR2 should burn about 0.95-litres (1 quart) of oil every 1,600 km. Many earlier MR-S/MR2 models burn more than this amount and it is still not understood why.

In some engines it has been discovered that they have a slight ovalling of the bore, which leads to excessive amounts of oil entering the combustion chamber where it is burned. This will lead to increased oil consumption, but no noticeable change in performance or compression readings.

Another issue that may cause increased oil burning on earlier MR-S/MR2s is the small oil drain holes in the pistons. If these holes become blocked (usually caused by lack of maintenance), the resulting excess oil around the piston rings will solidify, leading to stuck oil control rings.

While Toyota never commented on the problem, they did revise the engine design several times prior to 2003. Cars produced after these revisions don’t seem to have the oil burning issue that earlier models do.

It is possible to free stuck rings with chemical treatments, but the only real way to clean clogged oil drain holes and to stop the oil burning issue is to physically clear them out. As long as these drain holes remain clogged up, the rings will get stuck again in a short amount of time.

If you do want to get the drain holes cleared the pistons will have to be removed from the engine. This cleaning process will cost nearly as much as a complete engine rebuild, so if you do plan to do this you may as well get the engine rebuilt.

Oil burning caused by the issues above is not a major issue and many engines with the problem are still going strong. If the engine does have this problem it is paramount that the oil is kept topped up.

Determining whether an MR2/MR-S has an oil burning issue is going to be pretty much impossible during a test drive, however, there are a few things you can do to get some indication that the issue may be present:

  • Ask the owner – while they may not be honest with you it is always a good idea to ask.
  • Check the exhaust – if an MR2/MR-S with an oil burning engine is revved immediately after start-up (before the catalytic converters get warm), it should emit a puff of smoke from the tailpipe. However, do not rev a cold engine more than is necessary!

Oil Leaks

These cars are starting to get a bit old, so don’t be too surprised if you see some minor oil leaks on the MR-S/MR2s you come across. If you notice any major oil leaks or pools of oil underneath the vehicle you should move onto another car as the one you are looking at is probably not worth your time.

Remember to check for oil leaks both before and after a test drive, especially if the engine bay and underside of the car looks freshly cleaned.

Timing Chain vs Timing Belt – What Does the Mk3 MR2 Have?

The 1ZZ engine in the MR-S/MR2 uses a timing chain instead of a timing belt, so it should last the life of the engine (that’s what Toyota claims anyway). There have been some reports of timing chain failure or stretch, but these cases are few and far between. Chain wear can be accelerated by inadequate servicing an lack of oil, so make sure the oil is replaced regularly and kept at the correct height.

If the chain has stretched or been damaged you may hear a rattling noise (could also be something else). Alternatively, the timing chain tensioner may need replacing. If the timing chain does need to be replaced it will be expensive to do so.

Spark Plugs

If you get the chance (probably won’t be able to do this during an inspection), remove the spark plugs and check their condition. The condition of an engine’s spark plugs can tell you quite a bit of information about how the power unit is running. Take a look at this guide for more information on spark plug analysis.

When Should the Spark Plugs Be Replaced?

The spark plugs should be replaced every 100,000 km (60,000 miles).

What Are the Correct Spark Plugs?

For stock engines it is recommended that you use stock Denso (5303) IK16 spark plugs. Many owners also like to use copper plugs such as NGK BKR5E-11 V-Power plugs, however, changes will be needed much more frequently than with Iridium spark plugs.

Exhaust Issues

Try to get a look at as much of the exhaust system as possible as problems here can be expensive to fix. The main thing to watch out for on the third generation MR2 is the pre-cat system. We will discuss this after looking at some general things to watch out for on the exhaust system.

  • Black sooty stains – Usually sign of a leak that may be a minor fix or it may be expensive to repair.
  • Corrosion – Shouldn’t really be a problem on these cars, but it is important to watch out for. Corrosion is more likely to occur on cars that are driven in countries that salt their roads. Some owners like to paint the manifold and catalytic converter with high temp paint to protect them from corrosion. If you notice serious corrosion move onto another MR2/MR-S as the car is probably suffering from the problem in other areas as well.
  • Cracks or accident damage – This is often a sign of a careless owner and is more common on lowered cars.
  • Bad repairs – There is nothing wrong with a repaired exhaust, but if the work was done on the cheap it is an issue.
  • Aftermarket systems – Replacing the original exhaust with an aftermarket one is very common as the pre-cats can fail and destroy the engine. Read the next section to find out more about this issue.
Pre-cat Failures on a Mk3 MR2
Credit: Midship Runabout – Find out how to remove the pre-cats here

There is a lot of talk in the MR-S/MR2 community about pre-cat failures, so it is important to know what the signs of them are.

What is a Pre-cat?

In really simple terms the pre-cats sit before the main catalytic converter in the exhaust system and help keep harmful emissions as low as possible for a short period following engine start-up.

Toyota fitted them because the main catalytic converter in a Mk3 MR2 works best at converting the harmful emissions when exhaust gases are at a high temperature. At low exhaust gas temperatures (right after the engine is started), the emissions can simply pass straight through the main catalytic converter and out the exhaust. As Toyota wanted to sell the Mk3 in California as a ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle), engineers at the company had to fit two pre-cats contained within the manifold itself.

The four headers from the engine run into two chambers containing the pre-cats, which then feed into the main catalytic converter. The pre-cats are manufactured from a ceramic material that does the job of absorbing the nasty engine emissions, however, unfortunately they are highly brittle.

What Is the Problem with the Pre-cats?

Overheating and mechanical shock can cause the pre-cat material to crack and subsequently crumble. The resulting debris is then forced through the exhaust and into the main catalytic converter, blocking it up and restricting exhaust flow. This will kill all power at higher engine speeds.

If this wasn’t enough, the debris that isn’t force into the main catalytic converter is sucked back into the engine and will do irreparable damage to the cylinder walls. Pre-cat failure is unpredictable and results in certain engine death, so watch out!

What are the Symptoms of Pre-cat Failure?

The symptoms of this problem are as follows:

  • Dramatic loss of power all throughout the rev range
  • Inability to attain high engine speeds
  • High oil consumption
  • Nasty noises coming from the engine bay
  • Oil warning light on (although by this point there is probably no oil in the engine)

If you notice the above, then the engine is already destroyed and will need to be replaced.

Are There Any Other Ways to Find out the Condition of the Pre-cats?

Yes, the way to see the condition of the pre-cats is to remove the oxygen sensors and peer into the holes. If you see a uniform grey-white honeycomb-like matrix on both sides the pre-cats are in place.

If you see any cracks or damage on the honeycomb matrix the pre-cats are in the process of breaking down. Alternatively, if one side is not visible it means it has failed. Do not purchase the car if you notice these problems, unless you are okay with replacing the engine and the catalytic converter.

Are Any Years More Susceptible to the Problem?

Pre-cat failure mainly affects cars MR-S/MR2s produced prior to 2003, but it can occur in later models as well. Mileage or car age doesn’t seem to have any affect on the problem, and it seems to be completely random.

It is believed that the pre-cats in later cars do not fail as much because of the updates made to the engine that reduced the amount of oil smoke that contacted the pre-cats (the same updates that reduced the oil burning). The oil smoke caused/causes the pre-cats to degrade and fail overtime.

Is There Any Way to Prevent This Issue?

To prevent failure from occurring, many owners simply remove the catalytic material from the stock manifold completely. If you get the chance to remove the oxygen filters and don’t see the honeycomb matrix on either side there is a good chance that the pre-cat material has already been removed. Alternatively, one side may have collapsed and the owner/seller removed the other side for a quick sale.

Another option is to replace the stock exhaust manifold with an aftermarket unit. If this is the case on the Mk3 MR2 you are inspecting, the two chambers/cannisters that house the pre-cat material should not be present. Unfortunately, determining whether the chambers are present is difficult as the manifold heat shield needs to be removed to get a proper look.

We recommend that you ask the owner if the pre-cats have been removed at any point or if the manifold has been replaced. Get them to back up any claims with receipts or paperwork (if they have any).

You can find out more about removing the pre-cats here

Failing Oxygen Sensors

Another fault that can occur on these cars is a failing oxygen sensor. The third generation MR2 has three oxygen sensors and it is the one that is fitted right after the main catalytic converter that is usually the biggest problem. Toyota offers replacements, however, they are quite expensive. A cheaper option is to go with an aftermarket solution.

Checking the Cooling System

While there are no specific problems with the cooling system on these cars, you should inspect it as thoroughly as possible as a problem here could lead to major engine damage and some seriously expensive bills as a result. Below you can find the different parts that make up an MR-S/MR2’s cooling system:

  • Radiator – removes heat from the water/coolant
  • Thermostat – sends water/coolant that is hotter than the target temperature to the radiator to be cooled
  • Water Pump – belt that is driven from a pulley. Pushes water/coolant through the engine (should be replaced with the timing belt).
  • Overflow or Expansion bottle – removes air from the system and provides a filling point
  • Coolant Lines – hoses that allow water/coolant to remain contained as it moves through the engine/cooling system

It is a good idea to check the cooling system both before and after a test drive to make sure it is working as intended and there are no leaks. If the coolant height changes drastically following a test drive there is a problem (however, a slight change is to be expected).

What are the Signs of an Overheating MR2/MR-S?

Remember to keep an eye out for the following signs that indicate the Mk3 MR2 you are inspecting is getting a bit too hot:

  • Bubbles in the radiator or coolant overflow tank
  • Oil that is white and milky
  • Fouled spark plugs
  • Low cooling system integrity
  • Engine oil that smells of coolant
  • Sweet exhaust smell
  • Coolant leaking externally from below the exhaust manifold
  • White smoke from the exhaust pipe (especially if you see lots of it)

If you find that during your inspection and test drive of a third gen MR2 the temperature gauge is behaving erratically or is on the low side it may be a sign the thermostat is functioning incorrectly. Alternatively, if you notice that the temperature gauge is on the high side it is a sign that the cooling system is failing/failed. Another thing to watch out for is if the gauge reads a worryingly high temperature, but then drops down to a normal level.

Engine Cover Release

On MR-S/MR2s produced prior to the 2003 update, the engine cover can become stuck and won’t release properly. Toyota offers a revised latch from the 2003 update as a replacement for these earlier cars, so it is not a major problem.

Turning the Car on for the First Time

It is a good idea to get the owner to start the car for you for the first start (make sure you do your own starts later during the inspection/test drive). We recommend this for a couple of reasons:

  1. So, you can see what comes out the back (smoke, vapour, etc.)
  2. To see if the owner revs the car hard when it is still cold (if they do that pass on the vehicle)

If you notice that the MR2/MR-S you are inspecting struggles to start or fails to do so at all it may be suffering from several different issues from minor to major (bad battery, poor spark plugs, etc.).

What Should the Idle Speed be on a MR-S/MR2 Spyder?

Once the car is warmed up the idle speed should hover around the 700 rpm mark (plus or minus 50 rpm). If the MR2/MR-S you are looking at has air conditioning remember to turn that on and check the idle speed. Additionally, turn on all of the other electronics and see how the car runs. A small increase in idle speed is to be expected, but if the car struggles to run or stalls there is a problem.

Checking for Smoke

We’ve already touched on smoke briefly in this article (the oil burning section), but there is a bit more you need to know.

If you notice any large amounts of smoke or vapour coming from the exhaust it should be a major warning sign. Any third gen MR2 or MR-S that has serious smoke issues should be avoided as the car probably isn’t worth your time or money.

While large amounts of vapour coming from the exhaust signals an issue, a little bit on engine start-up is perfectly normal on a cold day and is usually caused by condensation in the exhaust. If the vapour doesn’t disappear after a short time it signals an issue. Below we have put together some information on what the different colours of smoke indicate:

White smoke – This is usually caused by water in the cylinders and could indicate a blown head gasket. If the smoke smells sweet, it is probably coolant. A burning smell and white/greyish smoke may also be caused by an oil leak that drips on the exhaust manifold (leaking cam plate seal or timing cover, etc.).

Blue/Grey smoke – Can be caused by wear to the pistons, piston rings, and/or worn valve seals. To check for blue smoke, ask a friend to follow you while drive the vehicle and take it through the rev range. Alternatively, get the owner to drive the car for a bit and watch out the back.

Blue or grey smoke on start-up and overrun is a sign that the car has been thrashed. Alternatively, if you see a bit of smoke on engine start-up it may be a sign of the oil burning issue we discussed earlier in this article. If the MR2/MR-S is fitted with an aftermarket turbo (not very common) the smoke may be caused by worn/failed seals in the turbocharger.

Black smoke – Usually occurs when the engine is running too rich (burning too much fuel). The first things you should check is the air-filter and other intake components.

Rebuilt Engines

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a third gen MR2 with a rebuilt engine, however, the work needs to be done correctly. It is not uncommon to find cars that have had a cheap rebuild for a quick sale.

If you are looking at an MR2 or MR-S with a rebuilt engine we recommend that you check any receipts the owner has for work. The rebuild should be carried out by a competent Toyota or MR2 specialist or mechanic. If the owner rebuilt the engine themselves be cautious. While there are plenty of really skilled home mechanics, there are far more who have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

Another thing we suggest is that you avoid any car that has just had a freshly rebuilt engine as they are a bit of an unknown. A rebuilt engine with 5,000 – 10,000 km on it is a much safer bet.

Engine Swaps

The most common engine swaps are either the 2ZZ engine (sometimes supercharged) or the V6 engine from the Camry. Swapping the 2ZZ into the third gen MR2 is a fairly straightforward process, but the V6 conversion requires a lot more work and the gearbox will have to be replaced as well (due to the increased power & torque levels).

If you are looking at an MR2/MR-S with a swapped engine be very cautious as you will often be buying somebody else’s unfinished project. Even if they have finished the car, many engined swapped vehicles have a whole host of problems, making it hard to keep the vehicle on the road.

Like with engine rebuilds, make sure any engine swap has been carried out by a competent mechanic, tuner or specialist. Don’t settle for an unfinished project and if you notice any problems move onto another car.

Turbocharged or Supercharged Mk3 MR2s

Another option for those looking for a more powerful third gen MR2 is to find one that has been turbocharged or supercharged. Turbocharged Mk3 MR2s are much more common than supercharged ones as there is a much greater range of kits available.

Turbocharging kits will often bring the power of the 1ZZ engine up to around 180 – 190 horsepower, but power figures up to around 220 – 230 horsepower are not uncommon as well. While this is a welcome increase over the stock engine, it is important to remember that this extra power will put more strain on the engine components, leading to increased wear. Below we have listed some brands that offer turbo kits for the MR-S/MR2:

  • Hass (often regarded as the best option, bang for the buck, etc.)
  • Power Enterprises
  • Top Secret
  • Apex-i
  • Ricoh Racing
  • Veilside
  • Tom’s

Should I Get a Compression Test Done?

While not completely necessary, a compression test is a good way to determine the health of an engine. Compression readings should be around the 210 psi mark, but many owners often find that their third gen MR2 gives readings of about 180 psi.

The most important thing with a compression test is that all the four cylinders give roughly the same reading (within 10% of each other). If one cylinder gives a reading that is vastly different to the other cylinders there is a problem. You can read more about performing a compression test here.


Credit: Toyota

Toyota originally only offered the third-generation MR2/MR-S with manual transmission, but later expanded the range of options to include the SMT.

Manual Transmissions

When it comes to manual cars (both 5 and 6-speed) there really isn’t too much to worry about. The stock manual transmission is more than capable of dealing with stock power levels, however, if the MR2/MR-S you are looking at is turbocharged it may suffer from increased wear.

Transmission fluid changes should be every 48,000 km (30,000 miles) with a quality gear oil such as Red Line MT-90 75W-90 GL-4.

While you are on a test drive make sure that the transmission shifts through all the gears smoothly at both low and high engine speeds. Keep an ear out for any graunching or grinding sounds and if the transmission is overly stiff or too loose there is a problem. Synchro wear can occur on these cars, especially if they are driven hard or power is boosted well above stock levels.


Clutches usually last anywhere from 48,000 – 65,000 km (30,000 – 40,000 miles) but can go further or die earlier depending on how the car is driven. If the clutch pedal feels excessively heavy or you feel shuddering when you take of the clutch is probably on its way out.

Below we have listed some methods that will help you determine the condition of the clutch in the Toyota MR2/MR-S you are test driving.

Clutch Engagement – The first step is to make sure the engagement is good. To do this put the MR2/MR-S into gear on a level surface and let the clutch out slowly. It should engage around 7 to 10 cm (2.5 to 4 inches) from the floor. Engagement that is early or too late indicates a problem.

Clutch Slippage – The way to check for this is to shift into a gear that is too high for the speed you are going. Once you have done this, plant your foot on the throttle and watch the revs. If the engine speed goes up but the car doesn’t accelerate the clutch is slipping. Here are some things that can cause slippage

  • Worn clutch
  • Clutch covered in oil
  • Clutch cable is too tight and is not releasing properly

Clutch Drag – Get the vehicle on a flat surface and press the clutch pedal to the floor (do this while you are stationary). Rev the car hard (once it is warm) and see If it moves. If the car does move, the clutch is not disengaging when you shift and parts will wear prematurely.

Depending on where you are located and who you go to, the clutch in these cars can be quite expensive to replace. If you think the clutch needs replacing, but are happy with the rest of the car try to get a heavy discount on the vehicle.

SMT (Sequential Manual Transmission)

The SMT is not an automatic transmission. It is in fact a conventional manual transmission that changes up or down one-gear-at-a-time when one of the buttons on the steering wheel is pressed. Alternatively, gear changes can be carried out by pushing or pulling the gear shifter/selector.

While no clutch pedal is present, there is still a conventional clutch that will wear overtime. The only real way to test the condition of the clutch in the SMT is to see if it slips (see above). If the clutch needs to be replaced it will be quite expensive to do so.

If you notice any other problems with the SMT such as grinding, whirring or graunching, avoid the car like the plague. Problems with the SMT are very expensive to fix and you could quickly wind up spending more than what you paid for the entire vehicle.

For those looking for the best performance we recommend that you avoid SMT cars as shifting is significantly slower.

Limited-Slip Differential

Toyota offered a helical limited-slip differential (LSD) as an optional extra on later model MR-S/MR2s. If the car you are looking at was manufactured with an LSD it should indicated on an information sticker on the driver’s side door jamb.

In the bottom-left corner of this sticker is a series of characters such as this, “A/TM -01A/C56”. The “01A” part signifies that the car was manufactured with an open (regular) differential, while cars with labelled “01B” have a factory LSD.

Unfortunately, while the sticker indicates whether or not the car has a limited-slip differential, the reality might be a bit different. The owner (or a past owner) may have replaced or serviced the transaxle at some point, which may mean that the car no longer as a limited-slip diff. Alternatively, a limited-slip diff may be installed into a car that never had it from factory.

Many MR2 Roadsters sold in Europe and the United Kingdom came with a limited-slip differential, however, it was a very rare option for Japanese spec MR-S models. There is no visual difference between cars with a limited-slip diff and those without.

Steering & Suspension

These cars are getting on a bit, so don’t be surprised to find clapped out suspension on many off the cars you go to inspect (especially if they have high mileage). At around 160,000 km (100,000 miles), the struts will probably need replacing. Many of the bushes and other suspension components will have to be replaced before this distance, especially if the car has been driven hard.

Below we have listed some things to watch out for that indicate worn suspension and steering componentry:

  • Dipping and swerving when the brakes are applied
  • Excessive Rear-end squat during acceleration
  • Tipping during cornering
  • High speed instability
  • Excessive vibration coming through the steering wheel (could indicate alignment issues or failed ball joints)
  • Delayed or longer stopping distances
  • Uneven tyre wear
  • Excessive tyre bounce after hitting a bump
  • Leaking fluid on the exterior of the shock/strut
  • Sagging or uneven suspension.
  • Knocking or creaking sounds during a test drive (don’t forget to drive in a tight figure 8) – often a problem with the steering rack or bushes

While you are at the front of the MR2/MR-S, push down on the suspension. It should be hard, and you should have to use a bit of force to push it down. If it moves easily or bounces too much on return, then the suspension is probably on its way out.

Replacing the Struts with Coilovers

It is quite common to replace the original struts with coilovers (shock absorber that is surrounded by a spring). Coilovers let owners lower their car, providing a theoretical improvement in handling. Lowering the car also removes the ugly gap between the wheel and fender, which many owners do not like.

If the MR2/MR-S you are looking at has been lowered, make sure it is not too low other wise it may be a nightmare to drive on the road.

Chassis Bracing

Later third generation MR2s came with stronger and more robust under-body bracing than earlier cars. Many drivers find that the additional bracing helps to improve the driving feel on the road. However, tracked cars with no bracing often report lower lap times than those with bracing.


Brake component wear can be an issue, especially if the MR2/MR-S you are looking at has been driven hard or tracked regularly. While upgrades are available, the standard brakes should be more than adequate for spirited road use or the occasional track day. The simplest upgrade is to replace the standard pads with ones from the likes of Carbotech.

When you take a look at the brakes, check for the following:

  • Condition of the pads
  • Pitted, scored or grooved discs
  • Corrosion
  • Modifications
  • Any leaks in the brake lines (get a helper to press on the brake pedal while you inspect the lines)
  • Fluid level in the brake fluid reservoir
  • Brake fluid changes every 12 – 24 months (check the service history and with the owner for this)

While on a Test Drive

If you notice that the brakes are weak or spongy there is a problem that needs to be sorted. Make sure you test the brakes on the MR2/MR-S under both light and hard braking conditions. Additionally, if it is safe to do so and the owner lets you, try to carry out an ‘emergency stop’ to really see if the brakes function correctly.

Erratic braking such as pulling to one side is usually caused by a sticking/seized caliper. This usually happens if the car has been left unused for a long period of time. Another sign of this problem is a loud thud when you pull away for the first time.

Watch out for shaking or juddering through MR-S/MR2’s the steering wheel when the brake pedal is depressed as this suggests that the discs are warped. This issue usually becomes first apparent under high speed braking.

Other than the above, keep an ear out for any loud bangs, knocks, grinding or other strange sounds when the brakes are applied. A squealing sound could indicate that the pads are near the end of their life.

If the car MR2 or MR-S you are looking at has seen significant track use or hard driving, the brakes are probably going to be in worse condition (unless of course the owner is good with keeping their car in tip-top shape).

Handbrake/Parking Brake

In cold weather it is not uncommon to find that the handbrake becomes inoperable. This happens due to water collecting on the cables. The water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) and causes the handbrake to either stay ON or OFF, depending upon the position it was in prior to freezing.

The only real solution to fix the problem is to replace the cables. If you drive with the handbrake on, you may damage the pads and rotors.

A way to prevent this problem is to simply not use the handbrake in cold weather. When you park the car on a level surface put the transmission into first or reverse.

Parking on an incline/decline is a bit of a problem, but you can get around it. On inclines, park crossways with the front wheels turned up the incline and the steering wheel locked. For steeper uphill and downhills surfaces you will have to chock the wheels or just risk using the handbrake.

Wheels & Tyres

While you are checking the brake and suspension componentry it is a good idea to thoroughly inspect the wheels & tyres as well. Check for any damage on the wheels as getting rims repaired can be costly (especially if they are high-end aftermarket ones).

It is very common to fit custom tyres and wheels. There are too many different options and combinations available, so we will only focus on the stock setup in this guide. If you do look at an MR2 or MR-S with aftermarket wheels, ask the seller if they have the originals as they will only add value to the car if you decided to sell it in the future.

While you are inspecting the rims take a good look at the tyres and check for the following:

  • Amount of tread
  • Uneven wear (Can be a sign of alignment or suspension issues)
  • Brand (they should be from a good or well-reviewed brand)
  • Same tyre in terms of tyre make, type and tread pattern on each axle (preferably on all four wheels) – mismatched tyres can ruin the MR-S/MR2’s handling and can even prove to be fatal in extreme circumstances
  • Rear tyres should be wider than front tyres

Here’s a Quick Rundown of the Stock Tyres

Tyres (Up until 2002)185/55R15 front 26psi
205/50R15 rear 32psi
T125/70D16 spare 60psi
Tyres (2003 to 2007) 185/55R15 front 26psi
205/45R16 rear 32psi
185/55R15 spare 26psi

Checking the Wheel Alignment

Find yourself a nice straight and flat section of road to check the wheel alignment. If the MR2/MR-S you are test driving doesn’t drive straight without wheel corrections the alignment is probably out. Alternatively, it may be a sign of another problem such as accident damage or some other suspension issue.

Bodywork & Exterior of a Third Gen MR2

Credit: Toyota

Repairing and replacing body panels and exterior componentry can in some cases be as, or even more expensive than major engine or transmission work (although, the body panels are made of steel and bolt onto main shell which reduces repair cost).

Accident damage problems are only made worse by the fact that the third generation MR2 encourages enthusiastic driving, so many of them have been in contact with things they shouldn’t have. Here are some things to watch out for when it comes to the exterior of a Mk3 MR2.

Accident Damage

Arguably going to be one of your biggest concerns when buying an MR-S/MR2. Accident damage is often much more serious than it first appears and many owners/sellers will lie about the severity or even claim that the car was never in a damage when it obviously was. Always assume the worst and hope for the best!

Below we have listed some signs that indicate that the MR2 or MR-S you are inspecting may have been in an accident:

  • Bent or broken parts underneath the car – Check to see if everything is straight underneath the vehicle and watch out for any replaced parts. Take a good look at all the suspension, steering and exhaust components for damage.
  • Rust in strange locations – Could be a sign that the MR2 or MR-S you are looking at has been in a crash or has some other sort of problem.
  • Paint runs or overspray – Possibly a factory issue but can also indicate that the Toyota you are looking at has been resprayed due to an accident.
  • Missing badges or trim – Can be due to repair work (body shop couldn’t find replacements) or a number of other things (stolen, etc.).
  • Misaligned panels or large panel gaps – Check that the bonnet lines up correctly and fits as it should. Additionally, check the bonnet catches as if they look new the car has probably been in an accident. You should also check the doors, engine cover, and the lights for any damage or signs of past damage. If the panels are uneven it could suggest an accident has occurred.
  • Doors that drop or don’t close properly – If the doors drop or don’t open/close properly the MR2 or MR-S you are inspecting may have been in a crash.
  • Inconsistencies such as waving, rippling or different coloured panels – Indicates a respray which may have been conducted as a result of accident damage or rust.
  • If the bonnet/hood or Engine Cover looks like it is popped when it is not – This may indicate that the MR2/MR-S you are inspecting at has been crashed into something (even a light knock can cause this problem).

While accident damage isn’t always a write off, it is a very serious issue. If the car looks like it has been in a significant accident or the repairs aren’t up to scratch, move onto another MR2 or MR-S. Minor to moderate damage that has been repaired correctly by a skilled mechanic or panel beater is perfectly fine, but always use it to get a discount if possible.

If the owner/seller tries to cover up or lie about the accident it suggests that the problem is worse than first appears. Alternatively, if the owner can’t tell you much about the accident/damage it may have happened when a previous person owner the vehicle.


Overall, rust isn’t a significant problem on the third generation MR2, but it can occur. The main area to watch out for when it comes to rust is the rear subframe cross-member. While this is the only real hotspot for rust, the problem can also occur in many other places such as on the wheel arches, suspension, exhaust and more. As this is the case, you should thoroughly inspect the entire body and underside of the car for rust.

If you do happen to come across rust during your inspection try to get a gauge on how bad the issue is. While corroded body panels & parts can be fixed, the problem is usually much more serious than it first appears on the surface. If the MR2 or MR-S you are inspecting is suffering from significant amounts of rust you should move onto another car.

Things That Can Make Rust More Likely to Occur
  • Vehicle has spent time in countries or areas with salted roads
  • Car has spent time in countries or areas with very harsh winters
  • Vehicle is often parked/stored by the sea for significant periods of time
  • If the MR2 pr MR-S has always been kept outside (never garaged)
  • Accident damage (stone chips or more significant damage)
Looking for Rust Repairs

It is not only important to look for present rust, but you should also keep an eye out for signs of past rust repair. Watch out for any areas that may have been resprayed or cut out and replaced. You should also check the service history and with the owner (however, don’t trust what the owner says completely as they may be trying to hide something from you).

Use a magnet on steel sections of the car or a coating gauge thickness tool such as this one to find any areas that may have been repaired.

Soft Top

This is obviously going to be a problem area. Overtime the soft top material will breakdown or get damaged and replacing it with the vinyl OEM one is very expensive. Luckily, there are quite a few aftermarket options available in both vinyl and fabric.

Many owners seem to prefer fabric tops as they are easier to fold in cold weather. However, tops made out of vinyl are easier to maintain.

Another problem with the soft top roof is that the drain holes located on either side an become blocked. As a result, water tends to collect in the storage bins behind the seats. Clearing the drain holes is a fairly straightforward process, so this is not a major issue (it should be done every year).

You should also pay close attention to the rear window glass. The window is permanently bonded to the top material at the factory and cannot be replaced separately, so if it needs to be replaced and entire new soft top is needed. Overtime, the glass can begin to separate from the top, usually along the upper edge of the rear window. This problem is only accelerated by roughly throwing the roof backward. Lowering the soft top should be done from outside the car to prevent accelerated wear.

Another issue with folding and unfolding the soft top roughly is that the material may wear away as the support hoops slide across the inner fabric. In severe cases a hole can appear where the hoops slide across the fabric. Apart from that just keep an eye out for any other holes, tears or damage to the fabric.

Hard Top Roof

Credit: Rudolf Stricker

The hardtop roof is a very desirable extra that will add quite a bit of value to any MR2 Spyder, Roadster or MR-S. If you do happen to come across a hard top by itself you will need to purchase the mounting kit (unless of course it comes with the roof).


It is not uncommon to find that the headlights become cloudy and/or yellowish with age. This is caused by sun exposure and if the issue is not too serious the lenses can be refurbished. If the lenses are in really bad condition the entire headlight assembly will need to be replaced as the lens is not available separately.

Toyota revised the headlight design on 2003+ facelight cars. These updated lights are a direct bolt-in replacement for the older unit, however, the wiring and bulbs are different. This means that a little bit of rewiring is needed to convert the headlight assembly to the updated one.

Front Air Dam/Chin Spoiler

In 2001 Toyota began to supply the third gen MR2 with a chin spoiler/air dam. Vehicles without the air dam tend to wander a little bit at highway speeds. The issue isn’t massive, but drivers will need to make constant small steering corrections to counteract the wander. Air dams are available to retro-fit, so it is worth doing this if the car you are looking at doesn’t have it already.


Credit: Toyota

There’s not too much to worry about when it comes to the interior, but expect to see the standard wear and tear, especially on higher mileage models. Remember to check the seats for any rips, stains or wear, especially around the bolsters. If the seats move under braking or acceleration it is a major problem and will be a WOF/MOT failure.

Excessive amounts of wear on the seats, steering wheel, carpets, shifter and pedals for the mileage may be an indication that the odometer has been wound back (or it may simply be that the car has had a hard life). Remember to check all of the other interior trim pieces for wear as while they can be replaced if necessary, costs can add up quickly.

The handle located between the seats (on the rear bulkhead) that releases the soft top from its folded position should have a cover plate with the word “PULL” engraved into it. This plate can fall off and get lost, but luckily Toyota offers replacements.

Another issue is that the engine cover and fuel cover release lever mounting is prone to bending. This can be fixed quite easily, and some owners even install an electric release.

Electronics, Lights & Air Conditioning

You shouldn’t find too many electrical problems on these cars, but it is always a good idea to make sure all the switches, knobs and buttons work as intended. Remember to check for any warning lights on the dash. If you don’t see any warning lights on engine start-up it may be a sign that the owner/seller has disconnected them to hide an issue.

If the air conditioning/climate control doesn’t work don’t let the owner convince you it just needs a re-gas. While a re-gas may simple be what is needed, it may also be a much more serious issue such as a compressor failure. Not all MR2 Spyders, Roadsters, or MR-Ss come with air conditioning, so keep that in mind as well if you want one with A/C.

General Car Buying Advice the For a Toyota MR-S, MR2 Spyder or Roadster

Credit: Toyota

How to Get the Best Deal on One of these Cars

This information applies to both dealers and private sealers. Knowledge is power and it can save you a lot of money when purchasing a vehicle.

  1. Research heavily – Prior to starting your search for a third generation MR2 or MR-S, figure out what specs and condition you are happy with. Do you want a low mileage late model MR2/MR-S or are you happy with a car that has travelled far? Are modifications okay or do you want a stock model.
  2. Shop around – It is always best to shop around a bit before you make a purchase. While Toyota didn’t sell as many Mk3 MR2s as Mk1 or Mk2s, there are still plenty out there in different levels of condition and spec, so don’t limit yourself to one seller, dealer, area or auction platform.
  3. Go look at and test drive multiple MR-S/MR2s – It is a good idea to test drive a many cars as possible, so you know what makes a good and what makes a bad MR2 or MR-S
  4. Adjust your attitude – Never rush into a purchase. If you are desperate to buy a car you are more likely to get ripped off. Take your time when looking for one of these Toyotas and only go for promising looking cars.
  5. Use any issues with the car to your advantage – Take a mental note of any issues you find with the vehicle. When it comes to discussing the price, use these problems to try and drive down the price. For example, if the car needs new tyres or brake pads make a point of it and try to get the seller to reduce the price.
  6. Don’t trust the owner – While some owners/sellers are honest about their cars, many will lie to get a quick sale. Take in what the owner has to say but back it up with a thorough inspection.
  7. Go between sellers/dealers – If you are looking at multiple cars, let the owner/seller know. This way they will know that you have other options and they may try to undercut the price.
  8. Be prepared to walk away – If you are not happy with the deal, simply walk away. You may miss out on the car or the seller may get back to you with a better offer.

Mileage vs Condition 

Mileage vs condition is always a hot topic for debate, but we feel that it is always better to buy on condition and then on mileage. Lots of owners make the mistake of believing that they are preserving their car by not driving it. In reality, this is completely false and not driving a vehicle can actually do more damage than good.

Short distance trips do not allow the engine in an MR-S or MR2 to warm up properly, which can lead to increased component wear and reduced engine life.

Rubber seals and plastic parts will fail regardless of mileage and can even deteriorate quicker on cars that don’t get used often. Letting a car sit will not prevent rust or stop the electronics from failing.

Mileage will never decrease with age, so go out and drive your car!   

Service History and Other Documentation

It is incredibly important to check any vehicle’s service history and any additional paperwork that goes along with it. While the servicing doesn’t need to be done at a dealer, it should be carried out by a competent Toyota specialist or mechanic (especially for major repair work).

The service history will give you a good idea of how the MR2/MR-S you are inspecting has been maintained. In addition to this, receipts and paperwork for modifications (if the car has any) can help you determine whether they have been done by an experienced tuner or a bad one.

If the owner can’t or won’t let you see the service history, you should probably pass on the vehicle. A complete service history will only add value to any vehicle your purchase and will make it easier to sell the car in the future.

Additionally, you can check websites such as CarFax (USA) and CarJam (NZ) for more information about the car you are thinking of purchasing. These sort of websites can be incredibly useful, but there is usually a cost associated with them.

Questions That You Should Ask the Seller/Owner 

  • Have the pre-cats been removed or has the manifold been replaced?
  • How often do you drive the car?
  • When was the last service and who was it serviced by?
  • How much oil does it use?
  • What oil do you use in the car?
  • What parts have been replaced?
  • When were the coils, spark plugs, leads changed?
  • What’s the compression like?
  • What modifications have been made to the vehicle?
  • Has the vehicle overheated at any point?
  • Has the car been in any major or minor accidents? Is so, what repairs were made?
  • Is there any money owing on the car?
  • Have you got any information on the previous owners and how they treated the vehicle?
  • Is the car tracked regularly or at all?
  • Is there any rust?
  • Has rust been removed at any point?
  • When were the brake pads replaced and have the calipers seized at any point in time?
  • Where do you store/park the car usually?

There are loads more questions you can ask the seller, but we feel these are some of the most important.

Things That Would Make Us Walk Away from a Third Gen MR2

Credit: Toyota

Here are some things that would make as walk away from one of these cars. While you may be happy with a vehicle with these problems, we are not.

  • Overheating problems
  • Failed pre-cat
  • Significant Crash Damage
  • Money owing on the car
  • Stanced
  • Modifications with no paperwork or carried out by a poorly reviewed tuner
  • Excessive amounts of power
  • Bad compression
  • Bad resprays
  • Significant rust problems
  • Engine swaps with non-standard engines
  • Significant track use
  • Major engine or transmission issues (especially if the car has an SMT)
  • Owner who is not forthcoming with information (could be trying to hide something)

Notes on the Owner 

The owner is one of the most important things to think about when viewing any vehicle. You need to ask them plenty of questions when inspecting their Toyota (however, don’t trust their answers completely). Remember, it is your problem if you wind up buying an absolute lemon. Here are some things to watch out for.

  • How long have they owned the vehicle? If it is less than 6 months it tends to suggest that the car needs major work done to it that they can’t afford. It also could be a sign that they deal cars as well.
  • Do they thrash the car when it is cold or continually launch the vehicle? If so, you are better to walk away.
  • Why are they selling the vehicle? Could be a genuine reason or they may be trying to offload their problem onto an unsuspecting buyer.
  • What sort of area do they live in? Is it a good area or a complete dump?
  • How do they respond when you ask them simple questions?
  • Do they know anything about the MR-S, MR2 Spyder or MR2 Roaster and the model they are selling?
  • What can they tell you about previous owners?
  • Do they have lots of cars on their drive? If they do it may mean they are a dealer.
  • What is their reaction when you ask them about money owing on the car? Tell them you are going to do a check and see how they respond.
  • What is their reaction to you asking for details for HPi check?
  • How do they react if you ask to do a compression test on the vehicle?
  • How do they respond when you ask them to show you the service history and paperwork for the car?

If you get a bad feeling about the owner, you are better off moving onto another third generation MR2.

Importing a Toyota MR-S from Japan 

Credit: Tennen-Gas

If you are struggling to find a suitable third generation MR2 in your country, you may want to look at importing an MR-S from Japan. Toyota sold quite a few MR-Ss in Japan, so it is the best place to import them from.

Exporting vehicles from Japan is a big business as it keeps the country’s motor industry moving and older vehicles become more expensive to run. Below we have outlined everything you need to know about importing a Toyota MR-S from Japan.

How to Import a Toyota MR-S From Japan

While importing an MR-S from Japan may seem a bit daunting, it is actually quite easy. The first thing we recommend you do is to Google search “import Toyota MR-S” or “import Toyota MR2”. You will be greeted with loads of different websites to choose from. These websites will let you search for one of these cars based on their age, generation, condition, price and more.

Most of the websites/companies you encounter should be based in Japan, but you may find some other ones that are located in different parts of the world.

Make sure you check reviews/feedback of any website or auction house you want to use. While you are unlikely to get completely scammed, many of these websites will be economical with the truth about a vehicle. We have listed a few examples of Japanese importers/exporters below:

JDM Expo – Is an independent subsidiary of Nikko Auto Co., which is recognized as on the most reliable exporters of Japanese cars in the country.

Car From Japan – is another large portal for connecting overseas buyers with Japanese second hand cars.

Japan Partner – Is one of the fastest growing exporters of used Japanese vehicles.

Note: many of these sorts of websites do not provide a grade or auction check sheet. The grade, auction check sheet, and car map are vital to picking a good car. Buyer beware!

Use a Private Importer

While the websites above are handy to give you a general idea of what to expect when importing a Toyota MR-S, we recommend that you go with a private importer. A trusted private importer will be able to find the perfect MR-S for you and import it, saving you the hassle. While it may cost you a bit more (sometimes it is cheaper) you are more likely to get a better vehicle.

You can get a full explanation of why we recommend using a private importer here.

How Does the Japanese Car Grading System Work? 

The auction houses and car exporters in Japan all get their vehicles in roughly the same way. The difference between them is how much support they are willing to provide, how honest they are, and how they grade their vehicles

They will provide what is known as an ‘auction check sheet’ – a document that contains most of what you need to know about the vehicle. As you can’t see the vehicle personally, you will have to rely on the check sheet and other information on the listing to make a decision. If the seller/website is not willing to provide you with an auction check sheet or additional information on the car, don’t proceed any further.

Before you make a purchase you need to learn how to read an auction check sheet. The sheet contains information on the make, model, condition, specifications and any other notes. There will be a grade on the sheet that denotes the overall grade of the vehicle.

While the grade on a check sheet is important, you should not rely on it to make a final decision. Different companies have different methods for grading their vehicles, so a grade 4 for one company may be a grade 3.5 for another.

Some websites may use a different grading system and if you can’t view the auction check sheet, you should contact the seller/exporter.

Use the grade to reduce the number of Toyota MR-Ss you are looking at and then use the check sheet and additionally information to make a decision. We also recommend you pay a third party to check out the car for you if possible (hence the recommendation for a private importer).

The Auction Check Sheet 

Below you can see an example of an auction check sheet. The grade is located in the top right corner of the check sheet. You will notice that there is both a letter and a number grade. The number indicates the overall condition of the vehicle, while the letter shows you the interior grade. At the bottom right of the check sheet is the ‘car map’. The car map tells you information about the exterior of a Toyota MR-S and where any problems are located.

Additionally, the sheet contains information about the specs of the vehicle and any modifications (major or minor). The inspector may also write some additional notes about the car.

What Does the Number Grade Mean? 
  • Grade 7 to 9 or S– New car with delivery miles.
  • Grade 6– Same as above but with a few more miles.
  • Grade 5– Vehicle is in excellent condition with low miles.
  • Grade 4.5– Overall condition is great, but may have up to 100,000 miles on the clock.
  • Grade 4– Overall condition is good, but can have low or high miles.
  • Grade 3.5– Similar to grade 4, but some work may be needed and they usually have more miles.
  • Grade 3– Can be the same condition as grade 3.5, but with more miles. Alternatively, the car may have lower miles but require more work.
  • Grade 2– Very poor condition car and may have significant mechanical or exterior issues. Not necessarily a right off, but you would have to be a brave buyer to purchase one of these.
  • Grade 1– Is modified in some way (can be extensive or something simple).
  • Grade 0, A, R, RA– Some repair history that can be major or minor.
The Letter Grade

As we wrote earlier, the number grade is usually accompanied by a letter that indicates the interior grade. An ‘A’ indicates that the interior is in exceptional or good condition. A ‘B’ indicates that the car is in average condition, while a ‘C’ displays that it is in poor condition. Grades below C show that the car’s interior is in very poor condition.

The Car Map 

The check sheet will also contain what is called a “car map”, which tells you all the information you need to know about the exterior condition of the car. It will show the location of any problems or damage to the vehicle. Any problems are indicated by a letter and a number. The letter tells you what the issue is and the number indicates the severity. You can read more about the car map in our “How to Import a Car from Japan” guide.

Our Guidelines for Importing a Toyota MR-S from Japan 

  • Always demand to see and have the auction check sheet before making a purchase
  • If you can’t read Japanese or the company won’t provide a translated check sheet, get help from somebody who speaks/reads Japanese.
  • Try to go through a private importer
  • Check that the chassis number on the check sheet matches the one on the frame
  • Cross reference the check sheet with other websites
  • Don’t rely on the grade (always check the auction sheet thoroughly)
  • Investigate each website/service thoroughly (reviews, feedback, etc.)
  • Be careful of heavily modified vehicles
  • Get someone to inspect the car for you if possible. Ask for photos and get a good run down of the condition.
  • Avoid cars with unknown mileages
  • Stay away from bargains that seem to be too good to be true
  • Stay away from grade 0, A, RA, R vehicles that have been involved in accidents

Know Your Country’s Importation Laws 

Always make sure you check your country’s importation laws as you may find you can’t bring the vehicle you want in. For example, some countries have certain restrictions on importing cars under a certain age.


  • Ben

    From his early days playing the original Gran Turismo and with his Hot Wheels car set, Ben has had a long interest in all things automotive. His first foray into the world of automotive journalism was way back in 2009 and since then he has only grown more interested in the industry. Ben also runs and heads up the video production side of Garage Dreams, focusing on small informative documentaries about some of the world's most legendary cars.

5 thoughts on “Third Generation Toyota MR2 Buyer’s Guide & History”

  1. Awesome info! I used to throw my top back violently, but now I’ve read what could happen to the glass, never again! Thank you so much


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