Without a doubt the first generation MR2 is one of the greatest Japanese sports cars of the eighties and the nameplate has gone on to become one of Toyota’s most famed and loved. Compared to its younger, larger brother, the Mk1 is much more ‘go kart’ like and is significantly lighter.
In this guide you will learn everything you need to know about buying a Mk1 MR2, along with the history and specifications of the car. We have also included some common questions about the first gen MR2 and how to import one from Japan.
How to Use this Toyota MR2 M1 Buyer’s Guide?
In this guide we will be referring to the car as the following:
- Mk1 MR2
- First generation MR2
- AW10 – for cars fitted with the 3A-LU engine (Japanese Domestic Market only)
- AW11 – cars fitted with the 4A-GE or 4A-GZE engine (most Mk1s were fitted with these engines)
To start the guide, we will be looking at the history and specifications of the first generation MR2 and then we will dive in to the buyer’s guide section of the article. Following those sections we will be looking at more general car purchasing advice and at the end of the article we have some information on how to import one of these cars from Japan. As this guide is very long, we suggest that you use the table of contents below to skip to the section you want to read (or simply read it all).
Table of Contents
History of the Toyota MR2 Mk2
During the sixties, the rise of Japanese cars was exponential. They went from something people laughed at, to serious contenders in the automotive world. However, one area where they still lagged behind their foreign counterparts was sports cars.
Despite already producing a number of sports cars, Japanese manufacturers (including Toyota) were still seen as creators of reliable and dependable family cars. The heads of Japan’s motoring world wanted to change this perception and Toyota was at the forefront.
In 1976, Toyota began to investigate the possibility of creating a sports car that would not only be great to drive, but also affordable, reliable and economical. Unfortunately, the oil crisis of the seventies delayed the project, but it was eventually picked up by Akio Yoshida in 1979.
Yoshida San took it upon himself to investigate the best possible place to put the engine. He decided that the middle of the car would be the best place with the engine mounted transversely. From then on, the project stated to evolve into an actual car, with testing occurring in both Japan and California.
Toyota’s engineers spent a significant amount of time testing their prototype sports car at circuits such as Willow Springs and even enlisted the help of former Formula One driver, Dan Gurney, to fine tune the car’s setup.
While the initial sketches of the prototype are instantly recognisable as the first generation MR2, the vehicle went through a number of changes before the first prototype, the SA-X, was unveiled in 1981.
Toyota Unveils the SV-3
With the initial prototypes out of the way, it was time to launch a more formal concept to gauge the public’s opinion. Toyota unveiled the SV-3 concept in autumn 1983 at the Tokyo Motor Show. Thankfully, for Toyota and Yoshida it received enormous praise from both the general public and motoring journalists alike.
The final production car was planned to launch the next year in the Japanese market, under a new nameplate, the MR2. This name does not stand for ‘Mid-engine Roadster’ like many believe, but actually ‘Mid-ship Run-about’.
The Mid-ship Run-about name gives a hint at what Toyota intended for the car. They wanted to create something that was primarily a commuter but could also turn a boring drive into something a bit more enjoyable. For this reason, Yoshida San added the sports car nature to the project, hence the mid-mounted engine design and race driver tuned chassis and suspension setup.
In the initial stages of developing the SV-3, Toyota had brought in Lotus as a means of gaining performance and handling. However, the two companies soon parted ways after the British manufacturer set up a financial partnership with GM.
This partnership led to the common misconception that the first generation MR2 was designed by Lotus, with Toyota handling the assembly and sales. While Roger Becker of Lotus did assist with the development of the suspension design, the car itself was completely designed by Toyota. However, some of the design aspects were taken from earlier Lotus sports cars.
Another common belief is that the MR2 was inspired by the Fiero from General Motors. This is not true, and, in fact, the two design teams found out about their competitor’s sports cars at around the same time.
The First Generation MR2 Hits the Road
With such a positive reception to the SV-3 concept, Toyota pressed ahead with the launch of the MR2 in June 1984. The car would be the first mass-produced mid-engine car from a Japanese manufacturer, and it joined the Celica and Supra in Toyota’s range of sporty vehicles.
Despite requiring a complicated construction consisting of five-high strength bulkheads thanks to the mid-engine layout, the MR2 weighed in at a mere 977 kg (2154 lbs), however, foreign models would come in at a heavier weight. The mid-engine layout also helped to create a 44:56 split weight distribution, aiding the car’s handling performance.
At launch, Japanese buyers had the option of three different versions of the MR2 with two engine options. The highlight of the MR2 range consisted of a 128hp 1.6-litre DOHC 16v 4A-GE engine that was also found in the much-loved AE86. For those who didn’t want to stretch for the 1.6-litre engine, Toyota offered a 1.5-litre 3A-LU I4 power unit.
Models fitted with the 4A engine are known as the AW11, while those fitted with the smaller 3A power unit were given the label AW10. Toyota only ever intended the AW10 for the Japanese domestic market, however, over the years a number of them have been exported to international markets.
Engineers at Toyota borrowed the 4A-GE engine in the AW11 from the E80 series Corolla. They equipped it with DENSO electronic port fuel injection and variable intake geometry. Power output varied depending on the market, with UK AW11 MR2s producing 128 hp (96 kW), European ones producing 114 or 122 hp (85 or 91 kW) depending on whether or not it had a catalytic converter, Australia 118 hp (88 kW) and finally America with the lowest at 112 hp (84 kW).
Japanese 4A-GE models featured the same amount of power as UK ones, however, Toyota would later detune the naturally aspirated engine to 118 hp (88 kW). Buyer’s in all locations had the option of either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic for those who wanted a more relaxing drive.
When the Mk1 MR2 launched, the AW11 version stomped over its competition with a 0 – 100 km/h (62 mph) time of around 8.2 seconds and a quarter mile time in the 16 second range. Compared to Pontiac’s much heavier Fiero, the MR2’s 0 – 100 km/h time was around 0.5 seconds faster, while Fiat’s famous X1/9 was even more whipped with a time around 2.5 seconds slower.
In its home market of Japan, the first generation MR2 was marketed exclusively in Toyota’s Auto and Vista stores. These two stores would eventually become known as Netz Toyota Store when they were both rebranded in 1998.
The mid-engine Toyota would quickly prove to be popular and it was voted Japan’s car of the year for both 1984 and 1985. This was ahead of stiff competition from the likes of Honda’s new CR-X and the Nissan Laurel. The Mk1 MR2 was universally praised for its excellent driving characteristics and overwhelming fun factor.
The MR2 Goes Supercharged
While the MR2 proved to be a massive hit, many drivers wanted a bit more oomph from the little Toyota. The Japanese company responded by giving the car a supercharger in 1986 (1988 for the USA).
Toyota based the new model’s engine on the same block and head as the standard 4A, but gave the car a small Roots-type supercharger and intercooler to boost performance. This new engine was labelled the 4A-GZE and it featured a lowered compression ratio of 8:1 and the variable intake geometry (T-VIS) was removed.
With 145 hp (108 kW) at 6,400 rpm and 186 Nm (137 lb ft) of torque at 4,400 rpm, the lightweight Toyota could hit 100 km/h (62 mph) in a blistering sub seven seconds, making it comparable to even some lower end Ferraris from the period.
Unfortunately, while the supercharger increased performance, it also increased weight. Toyota not only had to add the supercharger components and plumbing, but they also had to fit a new, stronger transmission that could withstand the increased power and torque levels. These additions lead to a total curb weight of just under 1,100 kg, significantly more than the naturally aspirated version.
To improve fuel economy of the supercharged model, Toyota’s engineers installed a belt driven supercharger that was actuated by an electromagnetic clutch. This allowed them to design the engine so that the supercharger was only driven when necessary.
Along with the power upgrades, Toyota also included stiffer springs and new aluminium wheels with the car. Without looking under the engine cover, the supercharged MR2 could be distinguished by two raised vents on the cover (only one of them actually worked) and the words ‘SUPER CHARGER’ on the rear trunk and behind both doors.
The supercharged MR2 was only ever offered in the Japanese domestic market and the North American market. However, many of these cars have made there way to other countries over the years.
Toyota Gives the MR2 Some Updates
While Toyota never officially updated the first generation MR2, the car was given some unofficial designations to distinguish between earlier models and face-lifted versions. The MK1a designation was given to cars produced earlier in the production cycle, while MK1b was used for later models that featured a number of updates.
Some of these updates included changes to the bonnet and exterior of the MK1b, however, the biggest change was the revised suspension design on the later version of the car that was not interchangeable with the earlier suspension setup. Another addition was slightly larger brakes fitted to the later models.
Special Edition Versions of the MR2 Mk1
During the course of the MR2 Mk1’s fairly short production life, Toyota offered two special edition versions of the car in 1988 and 1989. These cars were known as the “Super Edition” and were based on the supercharged version of the car. They were only available new in Japan, but once again some models were exported to different markets at a later date.
The 1988 version of the car was limited to a total of 300 units and featured a two-tone white and gold paint job. Toyota also gave the car bronze glass, a MOMO steering wheel and gear shifter, and finally half-cloth/half leather trimmed seats.
The next year’s version of the Super Edition was even more limited in production with only 270 cars being produced. All units were finished in a Midnight Blue paint scheme and they were given a MOMO steering wheel and gear shifter, Recaro “Milano” seats with matching door cards, aerodynamic wing mirrors and a new LED rear spoiler light.
Toyota MR2 Mk1 Specifications
|MR2 AW11 Supercharged
|Year of production
|1984 – 1989
1984 – 1989
1986 – 1989
|Transverse mid-engine, rear wheel drive
|Transverse mid-engine, rear wheel drive
|Transverse mid-engine, rear wheel drive
|1.5 L 3A-LU I4
|1.6 L 4A-GE DOHC I4
|1.6 L 4A-GZE supercharged I4
|82 bhp (61 kW) at 5,600 rpm
|112 – 128 bhp (84 – 96 kW) at 6,600 rpm
|145 bhp (108 kW) at 6,400 rpm
|118 Nm (87 ft-lb) at 3,600 rpm
|142 Nm (105 lb-ft) torque at 5,000 rpm
|186 Nm (137 lb-ft) torque at 4,400 rpm
|Independent, Macpherson strut, coil springs, anti-roll bar
|Independent, Macpherson strut, coil springs, anti-roll bar
|Independent, Macpherson strut, coil springs, anti-roll bar
|Independent, Macpherson strut, coil springs, anti-roll bar
|Independent, Macpherson strut, coil springs, anti-roll bar
|Independent, Macpherson strut, coil springs, anti-roll bar
|Roughly 960 kg (2,116 lbs)
|Roughly 977 kg (2,154 lbs)
|Roughly 1,070 kg (2,359 lbs)
|Could not find
|205 km/h (127 mph)
|209 km/h (130 mph)
|0 – 100 km/h (62 mph)
|Could not find
|6.5 seconds (Car and Driver)
First Generation Toyota MR2 Buyer’s Guide
Now that you know the history and specifications of the Mk1 Toyota MR2, let’s take a look at what you need to know before buying one of these mid-engined Japanese cars. Overall, the MR2 Mk1 is a very reliable machine, however, they are getting a bit long in the tooth and many you come across will have numerous issues that could make your wallet feel quite a bit lighter.
Setting Up an Inspection of a MR2 Mk1
Arranging an inspection is one of the most important steps in the car buying process. Here are some things to consider when setting up an inspection:
- Go and view the MR2 in person or get a reliable third party to check out the vehicle for you – It is never a good idea to buy a used car sight unseen, especially one that is old as a first generation MR2. If you can’t view the car yourself, get a reliable third party to do so for you. For those looking to important a first gen MR2, you should get a trusted importer to check out the car for you. You can read more about how to import a car here.
- Try to look at the car at the seller’s house or place of business – We recommend that you try to do this so you can get a rough idea of how and where the first generation MR2 you are looking at has been stored. Additionally, you will also get a good idea of what sort of roads the MR2 is regularly driven on. If they are really rough you will want to pay more attention to the suspension and underside of the vehicle.
- Arrange to see the car in the morning – This is obviously going to depend on both you and the seller’s schedule, but if possible, go and look at the MR2 in the morning. By doing this you will give the seller less chance to pre-warm the car and less time to clean up any issues (oil leak for example).
- Take somebody with you – Bring somebody with you, especially if they are mechanically inclined is always a good idea. They will be able to give you their thoughts on the Mk1 MR2 you are interested in and they may be able to spot something you missed.
- Avoid inspecting a Toyota MR2 Mk1 in the rain –Water can hide numerous issues with the bodywork (which is going to be one of your biggest concerns on a first gen MR2). If you do happen to look at one of these cars in the rain, make sure you go back for a second viewing before making a purchase.
- Watch out for cars that have been freshly washed – this is largely for the same reason as above, but also watch out for sellers who have washed the engine bay and underside of the vehicle as it may be a sign that there is a problem (oil leaks, etc.).
How Much is a Toyota MR2 Mk1 Worth?
This is a difficult question to answer as it depends on a number of factors from where the car is being sold to what specifications it has, and the condition it is in. According to data on bringatrailer.com, sale prices range anywhere from around US$5,000 to upwards of $30,000 for a very low mileage example. Supercharged models in excellent condition (especially Super Editions) are going to be worth more than a naturally aspirated car in poor condition.
To work out what you should spend on a Mk1 MR2 in your location, we recommend that you jump on your local auction/classifieds websites or dealers’ websites to look for any cars for sale. Check the prices and make a mental note of the condition/spec level. From here you can work out roughly what you need to get the MR2 you want.
Is the Toyota MR2 Mk1 a Classic?
We would definitely consider the first generation MR2 to be a classic now. Prices have been appreciating over the last few years and finding one in good condition is becoming more and more difficult. Second generation MR2s seem to be more desirable at the moment, so if you are deciding between the two as a future classic, the SW20 may be a better bet. Still, if you are looking for a Japanese classic that is still reasonably affordable, the Mk1 is one of the best cars to look at.
Is the Toyota MR2 Mk1 Expensive to Maintain?
Maintaining a first generation MR2 has become more expensive over the years as parts have become scarcer. However, these cars are reliable if kept in good condition, but a bad one will drain your wallet quickly.
One good thing is that there are plenty of Toyota specialists who should be able to work on a first generation MR2, but once again it’s the parts that are the killer.
When purchasing one of these cars we suggest that you keep at least a couple of thousand dollars back for any extra unforeseen costs.
Where is a Good Place to Buy a First Gen MR2?
If you want a really good example it is always a good idea to start your hunt by checking out any owner’s clubs or owner’s websites. The people in these groups are usually more enthusiastic about their MR2s and will tend to look after their cars better. Below we have listed some online clubs to check out:
MR2 Mk1 Club – Established in 1995, this club aims to promote the MR2 Mk1 and while it is based in the UK, it has members from all around the world.
MR2 OC – This is a club dedicated to all Toyota MR2s with an international community.
We also recommend that you check Facebook and other social media platforms for any owner’s groups in your area.
Another great option for finding a used Mk1 MR2 is to check out specialist auction sites such as bringatrailer.com. Following this, normal auction/classifieds sites and dealers will often have listings for these cars.
Should I Get a Mechanic to Inspect the Car First?
It is usually a good idea to get a mechanic or specialist who is familiar with the first generation MR2 to look at the car you are interested in before purchase. This is especially so if you are looking for a really clean example that you want to keep as an appreciating classic.
We recommend that you use the information in this guide to weed out less promising examples and then if you find one that is really promising, take it to a specialist to get a final check before purchase.
Mk1a vs Mk1b
As we mentioned in the history section, there are essentially two versions of the first generation MR2, the Mk1a and the Mk1b. Here are some of the things that differentiate the two.
Mk1a – 1984 to 1987
- 3 Rib 4A-GE Blue-top
- Map sensor and air filter in engine bay
- C50 Transmission (fifth gear popping out is an issue on these)
- A smaller rear anti-roll bar (no rear anti-roll bar is standard on US models)
- Black headlight eyebrows
- Black unpainted flat front bumper
- 2-inch one-piece rubber lip in black
- Mud flaps at the front and rear
- Sometimes no spoiler (AW10 models did not come standard with a spoiler)
- Three-spoke triangle alloy wheels
- Arial on the roof
- Steering wheel that is the same as the AE86
- Two-tone coloured seats
- Subwoofer under the driver’s seat
- Early clock and Mk1a door cards
Mk1b – 1987 to end of production
- 7 Rib 4A-GE Red-top
- Air filter on the boot with the MAF sensor relocated to a smaller unit (this varies depending on the market
- C52 Transmission (the issue with fifth gear was fixed on this transmission)
- A thicker rear anti-roll bar (once again the anti-roll bar was not standard on US models)
- Different rear strut housings, rear tie rods and lower suspension mounts
- Larger brake discs
- Different tail lamps
- Body coloured slanted front bumper and headlight eyebrows.
- 4-inch plastic front lip in two-pieces
- Mud flaps fitted to the rear of the car only
- All cars came with a spoiler and fibreglass sideskirts were standard.
- New teardrop alloy wheels
- Aerial moved to the right of the rear wing just beside the spoiler
- Leather wrapped three-spoke steering wheel for some markets
- E-brake moved to other side of console
- New door cards and a revised clock
- Single colour seats finished in velour or leather
- No Subwoofer under the driver’s seat but rear speakers behind the headrests.
You may come across some 1987 models that have a combination of features from both the Mk1a and the Mk1b. This is perfectly normal and is nothing to be concerned about.
There is no real best version between the Mk1a and the Mk1b. The Mk1b doesn’t seem to suffer from the fifth gear pop problem like earlier cars and it does have revised suspension and bigger brakes, which improved a number of complaints about the earlier cars. Quite a few Mk1a owners replace the brakes on their cars with the ones from the Mk1b.
We recommend that you find the best first generation MR2 you can find and don’t worry too much about whether it is a Mk1a or Mk1b. The later models seem to be a bit more common, so keep that in mind as well.
Checking the VIN
When these cars rolled off the production line in Japan, they were given a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), just like pretty much any other car on the road today. The VIN is a series of characters and numbers that can tell you quite a lot of information about the car you are inspecting.
The code should look something like this on the MR2 Mk1 you are inspecting – JT2AW15C4F0XXXXXX. The series of Xs at the end indicate the sequential numbers that are given to a particular model to differentiate it from another car (For example the numbers at the end may be something like 018143). Below we have put together a quick decoder to know what you are looking at.
- 1 – Country of Origin – Japan
- 2 – Manufacture – Toyota
- 3 – Vehicle Type – 1 or 2 (2 in the example above)
- 4 – Engine – A = 4A-GE (see the A in the example above)
- 5 – Model – W = MR2
- 6 – Revision – all Mk1s should be a 1
- 7 – Series – 1 or 5 = Naturally aspirated (5 was used in North America), 6 = Supercharged, 0 is for AW10 models that were only sold in japan with the 3A engine.
You should be able to find the VIN on the driver’s door and the base of the driver’s windshield. The VIN can also be found engraved onto the front firewall just behind the spare tyre and on a plate on the transmission (if it is original).
You can enter the VIN into a checkup website such as CarFax to see what comes up. Some of these VIN checkup websites will be able to tell you if the car has been written off at any point or had some other sort of issue. These websites are usually region limited, so keep that in mind.
The most common engine you will come across is the 4A-GE engine or the supercharged 4A-GZE. MR2 Mk1s equipped with the 3A-LU are far less common as they were only sold in Japan and Toyota only produced around 11,000 of these cheaper models.
When you open the engine cover make sure you take a good general look at the engine bay, looking out for any obvious issues. A completely spotless engine bay is probably a sign of a good MR2 and an owner who looks after their car, however, as we wrote earlier in this article it may also be a sign they are trying to cover something up (like an oil leak).
Also check for any obviously damaged, worn or missing parts. If there is clearly something very wrong straight away you should probably move onto another first generation MR2. Remember to also make a mental note of any modifications you see, so that you can investigate them later in the inspection.
Checking the Fluid Levels and Conditions
After you have given the engine a quick once over, start checking the condition and the levels of the different fluids (oil, coolant, etc.). Incorrect fluid levels or fluids in bad condition with foreign particles in them are a sign of poor maintenance, and they can lead to excess wear and possibly even component/engine failure.
Make sure you ask the owner of the MR2 Mk1 what oil they use in their vehicle. Toyota recommends a 10W-30 weight engine oil for the first generation MR2. Lots of owners like to also use a 5W-30 or even a 0W-30 for better cold weather protection, so don’t be surprised to find plenty of Mk1s running on those weight oils. If you are in a hotter climate, a 5W-40 or 10W-40 weight engine oil is another popular choice.
The more important thing to check than the oil weight is to see if the oil and the oil filter have been changed regularly. Toyota recommends that the oil in a Mk1 MR2 be changed every 8,000 km (5,000 miles) for severe driving conditions, which is what applies to most people and their cars. Many enthusiastic MR2 owners like to replace the oil every 5,000 km (3,000 miles), however, this really isn’t necessary with modern synthetic oils. If the car is using non-synthetic oils, the changes should be closer to that 5,000 km mark.
If the car is not driven regularly, the oil should have been replaced every 6 to 12 months. This is because old oil can breakdown overtime and become contaminated.
For those looking at a supercharged model, it is important to check the oil level of the supercharger. The dipstick is towards the back of the engine and is inline with the oil-refill cap on the back side of the supercharger. Use your phone light or a flashlight to get a better look.
Check with the owner to see what oil is used in the supercharger, it should be Toyota part number 08885-80108. Alternatively, some owners have had luck with GM fluid or Ford fluid with the part number E9SZ-19577-A. Still, if the owner is using the Toyota stuff it probably shows that they care more about their MR2.
Watch Out for Oil Leaks
There are a number of places where it is quite common to find oil leaks:
- Distributor O-rings – The O-rings in the distributor can leak, even though the distributor itself still works fine. The O-rings are available separately, but Toyota will want to sell you a complete new distributor to fix the issue.
- Valve cover sealing washers – The flexible sealing material in the washers can become hard overtime and oil will travel up the threads. The oil will then leak onto the camshaft cover. Not a major problem, but something to be aware of.
- Oil cooler lines – The two oil cooler lines can commonly leak.
Remember to check for oil leaks both before and after a test drive as you may find that the spotless engine bay isn’t so spotless after a drive. Don’t forget to check for any leaks under the vehicle and if you see any large puddles of oil you should probably walk away.
Check to See if the Oil Cooler Has Been Replaced
Ask the seller if the oil cooler has been replaced recently. If they say it has but the oil is black, they are probably lying.
Both the 4A and the 3A engines are non-interference engines, so they should be okay if the timing belt snaps. However, do make sure that the timing belt has been replaced at the 96,000 km (60,000 mile) mark as if it hasn’t it suggests poor maintenance.
Replacing the timing belt on a Mk1 MR2 is a bit of a process due to the lack of clearance between the front of the engine and the side of the car, but apart from that it is fairly straightforward.
If the timing belt needs to be replaced or is due to be replaced soon, try to use that to get a discount. Alternatively, get the owner to get the belt replaced, but make sure you see any receipts for proof of work.
When replacing the timing belt, it is also a good idea to change the tensioner pulley, water pump, cam seals as well. The alternator should also be inspected as the design of the engine bay cover leads to water dripping over it and the battery, leading to corrosion. If possible, it may be a good idea to drop the oil pan and do the oil pump/front main seal as well, so see if that was done during the last change.
If the owner has done the timing belt themselves make sure you ask about the process. If they seem competent it is probably okay, but many home mechanics have more ambition than skill, so be careful. To familiarise yourself with the process, see the video below from DIY Dan.
Slipping Supercharger Belt
Speaking of belts, watch out for a slipping supercharger belt as this is quite a common issue. The main symptoms of a slipping belt are an intermittent squealing sound or a leaking type of sound of a certain rpm. You may also notice a drop in boost and power if the supercharged AW11 you are looking at is suffering from this problem.
Problems with the cooling system can lead to catastrophic failure of the power unit, so make sure you inspect as many of the cooling components as possible. Check around the coolant hoses, expansion tank, etc. and if you see any leaks or signs of past leaks (crusted coolant) be cautious.
Make sure that Toyota Red coolant has been used (should be dark red in colour) as conventional green coolant can lead to corrosion overtime. If the coolant is pink in colour it is probably Toyota Pink coolant. It is not recommended that you use Toyota Pink in an AW11 as it is intended for newer vehicles and is thinner (you can read more about the differences here).
If the coolant is brown or muddy it is a sign that it has not been changed in a long time and also indicates that the vehicle has not been maintained well. The coolant should have been replaced every two years, so check to make sure this has been done.
Radiator Damage and Leaks
Don’t forget to open the bonnet/hood and take a look at the radiator to see if there is any damage or leaks. If the radiator looks in a bad way it will probably need to be replaced at some point in the future. Additionally, check the radiator and radiator mounting hardware is straight as if it is not it may be an indication of accident damage.
Signs of Cooling Problems, Overheating & Head Gasket Failure
Below we have put together a list of some signs that indicate there is a problem with the cooling system in the first generation MR2 you are looking at.
- Bubbles in the radiator or coolant overflow tank
- Oil that is white and milky
- Fouled spark plugs (if you can get to see them)
- Low cooling system integrity
- Engine oil that smells of coolant
- Sweet exhaust smell
- Leaking coolant
- White smoke from the exhaust pipe (especially if you see lots of it)
- High temperatures
Some of these issues are more serious than others, but if you notice multiple of them you should probably move onto another AW10 or AW11 MR2. Watch out for head gasket failure as getting it repaired will be quite costly.
If the engine has been rebuilt due to a head gasket failure or some other overheating issue, definitely find out who did the work. A well rebuilt engine is perfectly fine, but if the work was done by somebody with more ambition than skill you are asking for trouble. Check any reviews of the mechanic or specialist who did the work and if they seem bad you are probably better off moving onto another Mk1 MR2.
If work has been done on the cooling system recently (in the last 1,600 km/1,000 miles) be very cautious of the car. It is much safer to go with something that has a few more miles on it as it is more of a known.
Checking the Exhaust
Make sure you inspect as much of the exhaust system as you can get to as a problem here could be expensive to repair. The first generation MR2 is getting on a bit, so don’t be surprised if you find some issues. Use a torch/flashlight or your phone to get a better look of hard to see areas, and a mirror comes in handy as well.
Below we have listed some things to watch out for when it comes to the exhaust system on a Toyota MR2 Mk1:
- Rust/Corrosion – The first gen MR2 is known to rust and the exhaust system is no exception. This problem is going to be more of an issue in countries or areas with salted roads and those with very harsh winters. If the car has an aftermarket exhaust, make sure you check that it is not a cheap mild steel one as it will be more likely to suffer from rust issues. Another thing to keep in mind is it is not uncommon for the exhaust to rust from the inside out, so don’t assume there is no rust if you can’t see it.
- Black sooty stains – This is usually a sign that the exhaust system on the Mk1 MR2 you are inspecting is leaking. A reweld may be all that is required to fix this issue, but if the problem is really bad a new exhaust may be required.
- Cracks or accident damage – Watch out for any large dents, cracks or scraps as they may be a sign of trouble and could affect the performance of the exhaust. It is also worth pointing out that accident damage to the exhaust may be a sign of a careless driver.
- Bad repairs – Repairs that have been done on the cheap are a ticking time bomb and are a sign that the first gen MR2 you are looking at has not been maintained properly.
Don’t forget to have a look at the mounting hardware for the exhaust system as it will need to be replaced if it is in a bad way.
Aftermarket exhausts are fairly common on Mk1 MR2s. The owner or any previous owner may have fitted a new exhaust to get a different sound, increase performance or to simply replace an old exhaust that has given up the ghost. If you are looking at one of these cars with an aftermarket exhaust, make sure it is from a good brand or exhaust builder, and is not a cheap mild steel one from a brand such as Klarius. Custom built exhausts are a possibility, so if the car has one of those check the reviews of the place that did the build.
Check When the Spark Plugs Were Last Replaced
The spark plugs should have been replaced every 96,000 km (60,000 miles) if iridium or platinum plugs have been used. Some owners like to use copper plugs, but these should be changed much more frequently. This isn’t a major issue as there are only four plugs and they are easy to get to.
Make Sure the Valves Have Been Adjusted
The valves should have been adjusted every 96,000 km (60,000 miles), so make sure this has been done. If it needs to be done in the near future ask for a bit of a discount as it will probably cost you at least a couple of hundred dollars to get a dealer or specialist to do it for you.
If you are mechanically competent you can do the job yourself, but it is a bit time consuming. There are some special tools you need such as a Valve Clearance Adjuster Set (Toyota part number 09248-55010), but generic tools are available. Do not attempt to do this yourself without the correct tools!
Check to see how much the motor shakes when the engine is running and under a bit of throttle. If it seems excessive it may be a sign that the motor mounts are in a bad way. The easiest way is to get a helper or the seller to apply some throttle while you watch the engine.
Replacing the motor mounts can help make the throttle pedal feel more connected and reduce wheel hop. Some owners like to replace the stock mounts with polyurethane ones, however, they do increase vibration in the cockpit, especially at idle.
Replacing the engine mounts is a surprisingly simple procedure that should take around one or two hours. The engine does not need to be dropped and the front and rear mounts are really the only ones that need replacing (the side ones last a very long time).
Firing Up a Toyota MR2 AW10 or AW11 Up for the First Time
We always suggest that you get the owner or seller to start the vehicle for you for the first time. This is for the following reasons:
- So you can see what comes out the back of the exhaust
- To see if the seller or owner revs the nuts off the MR2 when it is cold. If they do this, move onto another first generation MR2 as it is a sign that the seller has not treated their car properly.
We also suggest that you view the start sequence below to make sure you are familiar with what lights should come up on the dash. If no lights come on it may be a sign that the owner has disconnected them to hide an issue.
What Should the Idle Speed Be on a Mk1 MR2?
When you first start a first gen MR2 you will probably notice that the idle speed is quite high at around the 2,000 rpm mark, however, this should drop slowly to around 1,500 rpm and then finally 800 rpm. Expect to see a slight increase in idle when you turn on the air con (if the car has it).
High idle could be caused by a variety of issues, but a simple vacuum leak is often the common culprit. Other common causes include dirty intake components, a dirty/bad throttle body, worn spark plugs and more.
It will probably be hard to pinpoint the exact cause of bad idle during a short inspection. Keep in mind that if the problem was an easy fix the seller probably would have got it sorted before putting the car on the market.
Sometimes a Mk1 MR2 can develop a problem known as ‘bouncing idle’ where the idle speed fluctuates between 2,000 rpm and 800 rpm (or there abouts). This problem is often caused by bubbles in the cooling system that travel past the temperature sensor, causing incorrect readings. The first port of call to fix this issue is to bleed the cooling system.
Alternatively, another cause of this problem is a leak in the water pump, which will cause bubbles. If this is the cause the water pump will need to be replaced and the system will need to be bled. Check with the owner and in the service history to see when the water pump was last replaced as if it is quite old it may be the cause of the fluctuating idle.
The last issue that may cause bouncing idle is a kink in the coolant line feeding the Idle Air Control Valve (IACV) on the throttle body. If the valve doesn’t get a proper signal the idle speed will be too high. The ECU will then try to compensate by increasing and decreasing the idle speed.
Check the Oil Pressure Gauge
Make sure you take a look at the oil pressure gauge when the car is idling, it should be somewhere around 2/3 or 3/4 when at higher rpms. If the oil pressure gauge is on the low side it may be a sign that the oil pump or bearings in the pump are on their way it. Another common cause of a low-pressure reading is a bad connection on the sender. Sometimes wiggling the wire that comes out of the sender can change the readings.
Sputtering and Popping
If you notice that the MR2 Mk1 you are inspecting is sputtering when you put your foot down it could be caused by a range of different issues from a bad fuel pump or fuel, to a vacuum leak, corroded coils and more. Don’t purchase the car if you notice this problem until you know exactly what the issue is.
Listen Out for a Tapping Noise
Do you hear a tapping noise coming from the top of the engine that sounds a bit like a typewriter? If so, the tappets probably need adjusting. This is not a major issue and the problem can be fixed by replacing or reshaping the valve shims. A lot of 4A-GE engines experience this problem, so don’t be surprised to find it on many of the AW11s you go to look at.
See What Comes Out the Back
As we suggested above, get the owner to start the vehicle so you can see what comes out of the exhaust. Hold up a white piece of paper or a paper towel in front of the exhaust and see how much soot gets on it. A small amount is usually okay, but if you notice a large amount it is a sign of trouble.
Don’t be surprised to find a small amount of exhaust vapour on engine startup, especially if it is a cold day. This is usually caused by condensation in the exhaust and it is nothing to worry about. If you notice lots of vapour that doesn’t go away or smoke it is a sign that the MR2 Mk1 you are looking at probably isn’t worth your time. Below we have listed what the different colours of smoke may indicate:
White smoke – If you notice lots of white smoke from the AW10 or AW11 MR2 you are looking at, it may be a sign that water has made its way into the cylinders due to a blown/leaking head gasket. Give the exhaust a good whiff and if it smells sweet, it is probably coolant.
Blue/Grey smoke – This colour smoke could be caused by a whole range of things from worn piston rings, valve seals. If you see this colour smoke on startup it may be a sign of a bit of an oil burning issue or that the vehicle has been thrashed. To test for this colour smoke during a drive, get somebody to follow you while you are in the MR2. Take the engine through its rev range and see what comes out the back. If you don’t have a helper, get the owner to drive for a bit while you look out the back.
Black smoke – This sort of smoke is usually a sign that the engine is running too rich and burning too much fuel. There are quite a few things that could be causing this issue from something like dirty intake components to incorrect spark timing and more. If the exhaust smells of fuel, the engine is almost certainly running too rich.
What About Rebuilt or Replaced Engines in a Toyota MR2 Mk1
We have already talked about this in the article already, but we thought we would go into a bit more detail here. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a first gen MR2 with a rebuilt or replaced engine, as long as the work was carried out by a knowledgeable MR2/Toyota specialist or mechanic. Be cautious of home mechanic rebuilds or replacements as it can be hard to gauge how skilled somebody is, and they may be trying to pass their unfinished project onto you.
We would probably avoid any first generation MR2 that has just had a complete fresh rebuild or replacement as it is a bit more of an unknown than something that has a few more miles on it. For example, a rebuild or replacement with 5,000 plus km (3,000 miles) is going to be a much safer bet than something with only a couple of hundred kilometres on it.
Is a Compression or Leak Down Test Necessary?
A compression or Leak Down test is probably worth it if you are looking to get a really good example and want to know a bit more about the health of a particular car’s engine. A leak down test usually takes more time to perform, but it will give you a more accurate and detailed picture of the engine’s overall health and condition.
If you are planning to take the MR2 you are interested in to a mechanic or specialist prior to purchase, you may as well get a test done.
Some owners will get a compression or leak down test done before sale and put the results in the advertisement. If they have done that, find out who did the test and check any reviews to see if they are trustworthy.
Toyota fitted the first generation with two different transmission options, a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic. Manual MR2 Mk1s are more desirable than automatics, so expect to pay a bit more for a manual car.
When checking for any leaks from the engine, remember to watch out for any transmission fluid leaking from the axle oil seals. This is quite a common issue and the axle will have to come out to get at the seals.
The biggest thing you need to watch out for here is fifth gear pop out. Accelerate and decelerate quickly in every gear, pressing down hard on the throttle and then backing off. The gear lever should move only a small amount during this process, but early cars fitted with the C50 transmission are known to pop out of fifth gear (sometimes other gears as well).
Later Mk1b models were given a revised C52 transmission that are less likely to suffer from this problem, but we recommend that you still go through this process just to make sure. Supercharged models were fitted with a much stronger, yet heavier E51 transmission, so they should be fine. E51 transmissions feature different axle shafts, a different input shaft, clutch and a larger flywheel.
What Is the Cause of Pop Out?
The main cause of the issue is not the synchros, hubs or gears, but wear on the main input shaft and output shaft bearings. The output shaft is not as big a problem as it is almost completely submerged in gear oil, however, the input shaft is partially out in the open, accelerating wear.
Can the Issue Be Fixed or Prevented?
You can sort of prevent the issue by not decelerating quickly or by not using fifth gear. However, these two things are not always possible and not using fifth gear could get very annoying, very quickly on long journeys.
To fix the issue some owners have had luck with replacing the fork and hub, while others have found that replacing the motor mounts has fixed the problem.
If neither of those fixes work, a transmission rebuild will probably be necessary (not cheap!). If the MR2 Mk1 you are looking at is suffering from fifth gear pop out, assume that you will have to get the transmission rebuilt at some point if you purchase the car.
Other Things to Watch out for on Manual Cars
Make sure you go through the transmission at both low and high engine speeds to see how it feels. Also check what the gearbox feels like when the car is stationary. Don’t be too concerned if the gearbox feels a bit stiff when cold as it should loosen up as the car warms.
Listen out for any graunching or grinding sounds on both upshifts and downshifts. Synchro wear can occur and is usually more of an issue on downshifts rather than upshifts (the synchros work harder on downshifts). If the synchro issues seem really bad, except to replace or rebuild the transmission in the near future.
C Series Transmission on Supercharged Car
Some owners have swapped a C series transmission into their supercharged MR2s. This may have been done for weight concerns (as the E51 is significantly heavier) or, more likely, the old transmission needed to be replaced and a C series was much cheaper and more readily available.
It’s not a big issue if the MR2 you are looking at has a C series transmission, but make sure it is not a C50 one. The C52 should be fine as long as you aren’t constantly launching it all day and parts are easier to find than the E51.
Make Sure the Transmission Fluid Has Been Changed
The transmission fluid should have been changed every 24,000 km (15,000 miles) or every 24 months, so make sure that has been done otherwise it suggests poor maintenance. Naturally aspirated cars should use 75W-90 GL4 oil, while supercharged cars should use 75W-90 GL5 fluid.
Clutch Engagement – The first thing we recommend that you do is to see how the clutch engages. If it engages high up in the pedal travel there could be a problem. Alternatively, if the clutch feels soft or stays on the floor there is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Clutch Slippage – The best way to test for this problem is to shift into a gear that is too high for the speed you are going. You should notice that the engine bogs down a bit (don’t do this on a regular basis). The next thing to do is to accelerate. If you notice that the tachometer goes up out of relation to the speedometer and/or you notice jerkiness it suggests that the clutch is slipping.
Clutch Drag – Find a nice flat surface and press the clutch pedal to the floor with the car in first. Keep your foot of the brake and rev the car. If the car moves it suggests that the clutch is not disengaging when you shift, leading to premature wear.
Clutch Shudder – This is usually noticeable when you accelerate from a stop. A small amount is perfectly normal, but an excessive amount is a sign that the release bearings need to be lubricated. Not a major problem, but it will probably set you back at least a couple of hundred dollars.
Remember to also check the clutch master cylinder reservoir under the bonnet at the front. The fluid should be a good colour and should not be black or muddy. Make sure the level is correct and you may as well check the brake fluid while you are there as well.
Clutches aren’t too expensive for these cars, but the labour can be depending on who you take it to. If the clutch does need to be replaced on the MR2 you are looking at and you still want to purchase the car, make sure you get a nice discount.
There’s not too much to worry about when it comes to the automatic transmission on one of these cars, however, some owners have complained that their MR2s don’t kick down when they give it full throttle.
Remember to check that overdrive works. If it doesn’t, let the car warm up a bit more and try it again. If the car now goes into overdrive the problem may be something like a stuck thermostat. Sporadic shifting could be a sign that the solenoids need replacing, however, it may also mean that the transmission needs to be rebuilt.
Apart from the above, keep an ear out for any grinding, whirring or whining noises. Remember to test all of the transmission positions when stationary, and if you notice any big shunts or jolts there may be a problem. Don’t forget to also check the automatic transmission at both low and high speeds.
Finally, make sure the automatic transmission fluid has been replaced every 24,000 km (15,000 miles) or every 2 years.
Steering & Suspension
You are more than likely to come across a few Mk1 MR2s with clapped out suspension, but one in good condition should feel nice and tight and response. Don’t be alarmed if the steering wheel feels heavy as these cars have no power steering (should feel good once the speed increases).
Watch out for a floating/nervous feeling, especially at higher speeds as this indicates there is a problem. If you have any doubts about the suspension and steering components on the MR2 you are inspecting, don’t purchase the car until you can get it properly checked out.
Bad suspension bushings can lead to wheel hop. The rubber bushings and mounts for the suspension and engine can lead to unwanted oscillations that are normally fine, but can cause wheel hop when launching the car. Reducing the throttle will stop the issue, but if you experience this during a test drive the suspension bushings and motor mounts may need to be replaced.
Vibration through the steering wheel could be anything from a damaged tyre to an out of balance wheel, or even a bent wheel. We’ve put together a quick checklist below of all the things you should check for when inspecting the suspension and steering components:
- Dipping and swerving when the brakes are applied
- Excessive Rear-end squat during acceleration
- Tipping during cornering
- High speed instability
- Delayed or longer stopping distances
- Uneven tyre wear
- Excessive bounce after hitting a bump or when pushing down on the suspension
- Leaking fluid on the exterior of the shock/strut
- Sagging or uneven suspension
- Knocking, clunking or creaking sounds during a test drive (this may be caused by something else, but bad suspension and steering componentry is a common issue)
- Rattles – drive over some bumps – there should be no noise from the suspension components (however, you may hear some rattles from something in the cabin).
- Clicking sounds – could be caused by a damaged axle boot or a bad wheel bearing
Don’t forget to visually inspect as many of the steering and suspension components as possible. A torch/flashlight will come in handy here. If you notice that any of the components look damaged, misplaced, or different on each side it may be a sign that the vehicle has been in an accident.
Check the Alignment is Good
Make sure that the wheel alignment is good as it will not only make the driving experience more enjoyable, but also safer and cheaper. Incorrect alignment will lead to heightened/uneven tyre wear, so make sure you check both the outside and inside edge of each tyre (a mirror will help you here).
Wheels & Tyres
Remember to take a good look at the wheels, making sure they are in good or satisfactory condition. Some damage and scratches are to be expected, but lots of curb damage is a sign of a careless owner. Repairing rims is possible, however, it can be expensive depending on the damage and the rims in question.
Many owners have fitted aftermarket wheels to their first generations MR2s. If the car you are looking at has aftermarket wheels, ask the owner/seller if they have the originals as it will only add value to car (ask for a discount if they don’t).
While you are inspecting the rims take a good look at the tyres and check for the following:
- Amount of tread– Check how much tread is left on the tyres as if they need to be replaced soon you should try to get a discount on the MR2 Mk1
- Uneven wear– It is normal for the front tyres to wear faster on the inside edge, however, the wear should be even between the left and right tyres.
- Brand– They should be from a good or well-reviewed brand – if they are from a poorly reviewed brand it suggests that the owner has cheaped out on maintenance.
- Same tyre –in terms of tyre make, type and tread pattern on each axle (preferably on all four wheels) – mismatched tyres can lead to poor handling performance and may even be dangerous. Note: the front and rear tyre clearance is different on these cars.
There’s not too much to worry about when it comes to the brakes, apart from the usual. Make sure that the brakes are in good condition and if the pads and rotors need to be replaced try to get a discount. Make sure that the brake fluid has been replaced every couple of years or so and don’t forget to check the condition of the fluid.
During a test drive of a first gen MR2, test the brakes under both light and hard braking conditions, making sure you do repeated high to low speed braking runs. The stock brakes should be perfectly fine for regular road use so if they feel weak or spongy there is a problem. Many owners have fitted aftermarket brakes and a lot of Mk1a owners have fitted the larger brakes from the later Mk1b version of the car.
Watch out for erratic braking that causes the car to pull to one sign as this may be a sign of a sticking/seized caliper. This can often happen if the vehicle has been left to sit for a while. Another sign of this issue is a loud thud when you pull away for the first time. The rear brakes are more likely to suffer from this issue.
If you notice that the first generation Toyota MR2 you are test driving shudders or shakes when the brakes are applied it may be a sign that the discs are warped. This problem occurs when the brakes are in use and usually becomes first apparent under high-speed braking. Mk1a models are more likely to suffer from warping front disk brakes, so keep that in mind.
Don’t forget to check that the parking/hand brake holds the car. The cables can freeze closed in the winter, leading to increased wear. Not too much of an issue, but something to be aware of.
Body & Exterior
Without a doubt the body of one of these cars is probably going to be your biggest concern. Bodywork issues can be very expensive to fix, so take your time here. Avoid inspecting any MR2 Mk1 in a dealer’s showroom or somebody’s garage. If the car you are interested in is in a place like those, move the vehicle outside to get a better look. Additionally, as we mentioned earlier, avoid inspecting a car in the rain or just after it has been washed.
Is Rust an Issue on a First Gen MR2?
In a word, yes. Rust is a major problem on these cars and has probably killed more of them than any other issue (like many cars from this period). Rust can occur in a whole load of different places on these cars, but the two biggest areas to watch out for are the arches and the sills.
Check both the front and the rear wheel arches and wheel wells. The rears seem to be more of an issue and if there is a problem here it will be a nightmare to fix as the entire quarter panel may need to be cut out and replaced. We would probably avoid any MR2 Mk1 with rust here.
Rust on the sills is a bit more difficult to spot. Open the doors and look at the split between the skirts and the body itself. Don’t worry about the skirts as they are fibreglass, but the body is steel. If you see any signs of rust don’t purchase the car. Make sure you also have a look from underneath the car as well.
Make sure you have a look under the front bonnet/hood for evidence of rust. This is often caused by water leaks or brake/clutch cylinder leaks. Other places to look include in the boot/trunk, under the spare wheel, and at the bottom of each A- and B-post. T-top cars can be more of an issue if they have a leaking problem. Don’t forget to check under the carpets to see if there are any rust holes.
Rust is often a bigger problem than it first appears, so be very cautious if you spot any. Walk away from any MR2 Mk1 with serious rust issues as it won’t be worth your time.
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 Mk1 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 (mismatched paint, paint overspray etc.). 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 (cover it with a cloth so you don’t damage the paintwork) or a coating gauge thickness tool such as this one to find any areas that may have been repaired.
Accident damage is always a major issue to watch out for and many Mk1 MR2s have been in contact with things they shouldn’t have. Some owners will lie about the severity of an accident or flat out claim that the car has not been in an accident when it clearly has. Always assume the worst and hope for the best!
Below we have listed some signs that indicate that the first generation Toyota MR2 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 – May be a sign that the Toyota you are looking at has been in a crash or has some other sort of problem. Alternatively, rust seems to pop up every where on these cars, so it may just be that (either way it is a problem).
- Paint runs or overspray – Possibly a factory issue but can also indicate that the MR2 Mk1 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 and engine cover 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. The left headlight and rear bumper are often slightly misaligned, so don’t worry too much about those
- Doors that drop or don’t close properly – If the doors drop or don’t open/close properly the MR2 you are inspecting may have been in an accident. Alternatively, the hinges may have gone (check for play by pulling up on the doors, there should be no more than around 5 mm of it).
- 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 looks like it is popped when it is not – This may indicate that the First Gen MR2 you are inspecting at has been crashed into something (even a light knock can cause this problem).
- Damaged Front Valance – This part is low to the ground, making it easy to hit on a curb or speed bump. Damage here doesn’t necessarily mean the car has been in an accident, but if a big chuck has been taken out of it or you notice any large scraps under the car it is a sign of a careless owner.
Accident damage shouldn’t necessarily be an instant dismissal but try to find out exactly what happened. If it seemed fairly minor and the repair job was done by a competent panel beater or body shop, it will probably be okay. Avoid any cars that have been in a major crash and watch out for structural damage.
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.
The arches should have a mottled, textured surface to them. If they feel smooth it is a sign that they have been replaced at some point. This may have been done due to an accident or rust.
Flaking Wing Mirrors
The paint on the wing mirrors is prone to flaking. Touching up the paint is easy but add this problem to your list of bargaining points if the MR2 you are looking at is suffering from the issue.
The biggest concern with T-top cars is going to be leaks. If possible (and after you have inspected the bodywork), use a hose to test for leaks. If you do find a leak, make sure you lift up the carpets and check other areas for any rust.
Watch out for any dents on the metal edge of the T-top. The dents usually occur when the top is stored behind the seats, resting on the slight hump on the floor. Along with that, make sure the rubber on the roof and T-top is in good condition, and check with the owner to see if they have the protective T-top bags (these are surprisingly expensive).
Remember to have a good look around the interior to make sure it is in good condition. Make a list of any broken, cracked or worn parts, so you can work out after the inspection how much it would cost to replace them (if you still want to purchase the MR2).
Inspect the seats for any rips, stains, or other issues. Getting the seats repaired or reupholstered is possible, but it can be reasonably expensive if you want a good job. Some owners like to fit aftermarket seats (Recaro’s, etc.), so check with them to see if they have the originals. If they don’t, ask for a discount. Another thing to watch out for is seat movement during acceleration or braking. If this happens while you are test driving the car it is a major safety issue and will be an MOT/WOF failure.
Inspect the windscreen sun visors closely as they tend to fade or become worn, especially on T-top cars if they have been regularly driven with the roof off. Make sure you also have a good look at the dashboard for any cracks as replacing it will be very expensive (replacement dashboards in good condition are incredibly hard to come by). If the owner uses a sunshade it probably shows that the care about their MR2.
Check for any leaks or water stains, especially behind the seats if the car has a sunroof or T-top. Feel the entire cabin, including the carpets for any dampness. Lift up the floor mats and carpets and if there is water residue on the bottom it suggests that there is a leak or there has been a leak in the past. Don’t forget to check for any leaks or dampness under the bonnet/hood at the front of the car and in the rear trunk. If you find any leaks or dampness be cautious as rust may have formed.
If you notice excessive amounts of wear on the seats, steering wheel, carpets, shifter and pedals for the mileage it may be an indicative of a car that has had a hard life, or, alternatively, the odometer may have been wound back.
Remember to have a look at the headlining above the driver’s seat. If it is a slightly different colour it may be a sign that the first generation Toyota MR2 you are inspecting has been owned by a smoker. A smell test will also help you determine whether or not this is the case as well.
Electronics, Locks, Dials, Gauges, Etc.
There is not too much to go wrong when it comes to the electronics, but it is worth checking that everything works as intended.
Make sure the headlights go up and down at a reasonable speed and don’t sound like they are about to give up the ghost. When you flick the switch they should go up pretty much instantly, but they will take a second or two to go down. Don’t forget to check that they also go up when you pull the indicator stalk towards you.
One last thing to check with the headlights is to see if they will stay in the ‘up’ position even if you turn them off. This can be done by pushing the headlight switch in, and then twisting it to the fourth position. This should turn of the lights off but leave them up.
It is not uncommon to find that the electric windows have failed (if the car has them), leaving them stuck in the up or down position. Replacement parts are available, but it is worth checking that the windows work correctly. Some owners have put aftermarket power windows on cars that didn’t have them. Watch out for this as it may have been a hack job.
Make sure that all of the doors and locks work as intended, and if the car has an aftermarket alarm system, check to make sure it functions correctly. The remote trunk release often binds up on a Mk1 MR2, but worst-case scenario is that the cable needs to be replaced. Have a look under the bonnet (frunk) and check to see if they spare tyre is there along with the tyre cover (don’t forget to look for rust under it).
Ask the owner how much fuel is in the car as it is not uncommon to find that the fuel gauge only reads 3/4 full when it is fully filled.
Try out the sound system, but keep in mind that the speakers will probably sound like crap if they are the original ones. If you are looking at a Mk1b make sure the rear speakers behind the seats function correctly and that the aerial has not failed (common issue).
Apart from the above, make sure that all the other electronics work as intended such as the lights, electric mirrors, clock, etc. Fixing a problem here can often be quite expensive as parts are difficult to source.
The final thing to check is that the air conditioning works for those Mk1 MR2s with it fitted. A non-functioning air conditioning system is very common on first gen MR2s. Don’t let the owner tell you it just needs a re-gas as it is probably the compressor. Replacing the compressor will be quite expensive so keep this in mind.
General Car Buying Advice the For a Toyota MR2 Mk1
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.
- Research heavily – Prior to starting your search for a first generation Toyota MR2, figure out what specs and condition you are happy with. Do you want a low mileage late model Mk1b MR2 or are you happy with a car that has travelled far? Are modifications okay or do you want a stock model.
- Shop around – It is always best to shop around a bit before you make a purchase. As these cars age, there are less and less of them around, but you should still be able to find some for sale.
- Go look at and test drive multiple MR2 Mk1s – 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 first generation MR2.
- 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 cars and only go for promising looking cars unless you are looking for a project Mk1 MR2.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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/MR2 specialist or mechanic (especially for major repair work). If the owner has done work themselves, try to get a gauge on how competent they are.
The service history will give you a good idea of how the first generation MR2 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
- 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?
- 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 Toyota MR2 Mk1
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
- Significant Crash Damage
- Money owing on the car
- 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
- 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 first generation MR2 (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 first generation MR2 and the model they are selling? (For example, do they know that it is a Mk1a or Mk1b model?)
- 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 first generation Toyota MR2.
Importing a Toyota MR2 Mk1 from Japan
The section below is more of a general guide on how to import a Toyota MR2 from Japan to give you a rough idea of the process and what is involved.
America and Japan were the two biggest markets for the first gen MR2 and there were some specific Japanese models that weren’t available in any region. While the number of Mk1 MR2s in Japan has decreased as more and more of them age and get exported, there are still plenty available.
How to Import a First Gen MR2 from Japan
While importing an MR2 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 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 first generation MR2, we recommend that you go with a private importer. A trusted private importer will be able to find the perfect Mk1 MR2 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 MR2s 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 Mk1 Toyota MR2 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 First Gen MR2 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.