The MR2 was a major landmark for Toyota as a company. While Toyota wasn’t the first company to manufacture a small, inexpensive, mass produced sports car, they were the first to have major success. The little Toyota sold exceptionally well and would go on to be one of the most loved cars of the 80’s and nineties.
To celebrate the success of the MR2, we thought we would cover the complete history of the MR2. The MR2’s history is full of exciting designs and innovations, carry on reading below to find out more. We have broken this article up into different generations, so feel free to use the table of contents below to go to a specific model.
How it All Started
The story of the MR2 begins in 1976, when Toyota launched a design project with the goal of creating a car that would be great to drive, yet affordable and economical on fuel. However, due to the oil crisis of the 1970’s, the project was delayed until 1979 when Akio Yoshida started to work on the new vehicle.
Yoshida took it upon himself to investigate the best place to put the engine. He decided that the ideal place was in the middle of the car with the engine mounted transversely. From this base design, the car began to evolve. The prototype became more of an actual sports car and was tested extensively in both Japan and in California.
A significant amount of testing was performed on racing circuits such as Willow Springs. Former Formula One driver, Dan Gurney was heavily involved in the testing process of the Toyota MR2.
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.
The next step in the MR2 story was the Toyota SV-3 concept, which was made public in the autumn of 1983. Unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show, the SV-3 concept garnered huge praise from both the public and motoring press. The car was scheduled to be launched in 1984 in the Japanese market, under the name MR2. It was to be the first mass-produced mid-engine car to come from a Japanese manufacturer.
Interestingly, the SV-3 concept was designed primarily as a commuter, not as a sports car. Toyota wanted the car to turn boring commutes into something a bit more fun. For this reason, Yoshida added the sports nature to the project, which lead to the MR2.
To develop the SV-3, Toyota had brought in Lotus as a means of gaining performance and improving handling. However, Toyota soon left Lotus after the British manufacture set up a financial partnership with GM.
It is a common misconception that the MR2 was designed by Lotus and assembled by Toyota. Roger Becker of Lotus assisted in the development of the suspension design, but the car itself was completely designed and manufactured by Toyota. It did however, borrow some of the design aspects from earlier Lotus sports cars.
Additionally, the MR2 was not inspired by GM’s Fiero. The two design teams from Toyota and GM both found out about their competitor’s cars at around the same time.
First Generation MR2 (1984 – 1989)
With such a positive reception to the SV-3, Toyota pressed forward with the launch of the MR2 in June 1984. The MR2 name was a contraction of ‘Midship Runabout 2-seater’ and the car joined the Celica and Supra in Toyota’s range of sporty vehicles.
The mid-engine layout of the MR2 required a complicated construction that contained five-high strength bulkheads. Despite this, the car weighed in at a mere 977kg (American MR2s are heavier) split in a ratio of 44:56 front to back.
The Japanese domestic market received three different versions of the MR2 at launch, with two engine options available. The highlight of the range was the 128hp 1.6-litre DOHC 16v 4A-GE engine that was also used in the AE86. When fitted with the 4A engine, it is known as the “AW11”, while the 1.5-litre 3A version was known as the “AW10”.
The 4A-GE engine was borrowed from the E80 series Corolla and was equipped with DENSO electronic port fuel injection and a variable intake geometry. Power output varied depending on the market, with Japanese and UK MR2’s producing 128hp, European 114 or 122hp (with or without a catalytic converter, Australian 118hp and Americans had to make do with 112hp. The engine was mated to a snappy five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic.
The MR2 blitz its competition with a 0-100km/h time of around 8.5 seconds and a ¼ mile time in the mid-to high 16 second range. Pontiac’s Fiero was much heavier at 1,225kg and had a 0-100km/h time of 8.8 seconds, while the Fiat X1/9 had to make do with a 0-100km/h time of around 11 seconds.
In Japan, Toyota marketed the MR2 exclusively in their Toyota Auto Store and Toyota Vista Store. These two stores would become known as Netz Toyota Store when they were rebranded in 1998. It was voted Japan’s car of the year for both 1984 and 1985, ahead of stiff competition from the new Honda CR-X and the Nissan Laurel. Road test reports and motoring journalists praised the MR2’s driving characteristics and overriding sense of fun.
Toyota launched the supercharged MR2 in 1986 (1988 for the United States market), which slotted in at the top of the range. Based on the same block and head as the standard 4A, the 4A-GZE engine was fitted with a small Roots-type supercharger and intercooler. The compression ratio was lowered to 8:1 and variable intake geometry (T-VIS) was removed.
This new supercharged MR2 now produced 145hp at 6,400rpm and 186Nm of torque at 4,400rpm. The powerful engine combined with the lightweight engine meant that the supercharged MR2 was fast. It could hit 100km/hr in well under seven seconds, comparable to some lower end Ferraris of the time.
While the supercharger increased performance, it also increased weight. Curb weight was now at over 1,100kg due to the addition of supercharger components and a new, stronger transmission. The supercharger Toyota installed was belt driven and actuated by an electromagnetic clutch, this meant that it would only be driven when needed, increasing fuel economy.
In addition to the supercharger, Toyota also equipped the car with stiffer springs and new aluminium wheels. Without looking under the bonnet, the Supercharged model could be distinguished by two raised vents on the engine cover (only one of them worked) and the words ‘SUPER CHARGER’ on the rear trunk and behind both doors. Toyota only offered the supercharged MR2 in the Japanese domestic market and the North American market, however, many of these cars have been exported to other countries.
Updates to the MR2
While the first generation MR2 didn’t go through an official update, the car was given unofficial designations to distinguish between earlier models and face-lifted models. The MK1a was the earlier model while the MK1b was the later model with a number of updates. There were considerable changes between the two versions including under the bonnet and outside. The most notable change was the revised suspension design that was not interchangeable between the two versions.
Toyota produced two special edition MR2s for the 1988 and 89 model year. These “Super Edition” MR2s were based on the supercharged Japanese model and were only sold in the land of the rising sun.
The 1988 ‘Super Edition’ MR2 was limited to 300 units and had a two-tone white/gold paint scheme. It also had bronze glass, a MOMO steering wheel and gear shifter, and unique half-cloth/half leather seats.
The 1989 special edition MR2 was even more limited with a production run of 270 units. This car featured a special Midnight Blue paint job, a MOMO steering wheel and gear shifter, and Recaro “Milano” seats with matching door cards. Additionally, this last hurrah MK1 MR2 was given more aerodynamic wind mirrors and a new LED rear spoiler light.
As expected, the MR2’s racetrack developed handling paid dividends in the unforgiving world of motorsport. A one-make series was held for the MR2 in the UK and USA, and the car has been used by various different private racers around the world to great success.
However, while the MR2 conducted itself well on tarmac circuits, Toyota had other plans for it. The front-engine rear-wheel drive Celica had proven to be dominant in the African Group B rallies of the 1980’s, but it was at a disadvantage on the tighter European stages.
The 222D Rally Car
To combat this, Toyota’s European rally team started a project based on the MR2. With work commencing in 1985, the project was codenamed the “222D” and it would be destined for competition in the Group S and Group B classes. Toyota wanted the 222D to take on the likes of the Audi Quattro, the Peugeot 205 T16 and the Lancia Delta S4.
While the vehicle somewhat resembled the MR2 on the outside, it was completely different everywhere else. Unfortunately, the project was cancelled when the Group B class was disbanded in 1986 and the Group S regulations fell through.
The 222D was much wider than the standard MR2 to accommodate a wider track for more stability and a greater range of tyre widths. The body was also made out of a lightweight composite and featured a clamshell opening design to allow for quicker access to the internal components. At the front of the car there was a traditional opening bonnet that housed the extractor for the radiator.
Additionally, the normal “pop-up” headlights were replaced with fixed units that were more reliable and lightweight. These were paired with rally spotlights that were covered with a polycarbonate screen for better aerodynamics. The 222D prototypes were painted in a very striking black semi-gloss paint that gave the car a menacing look. Because of this, it became known as “The Black Monster”.
Toyota developed two different versions of the car; one featured rear-wheel drive for tarmac rallies, while the other featured Xtrac four-wheel drive and was destined for all other forms of rallying. Additionally, Toyota tested a number of different engines; a 2,140cc “503E” LeMans GTP (Group C) sports prototype engine, the 2,090cc “4T-GTE” engine already used in the Group B Celica, and an unknown V6 engine.
Power was reported to be around 600hp at base spec and as much as 750hp when more performance was needed. At around 750kg in weight, this means the car had a power to weight ratio of 1:1.
The car is said to have been tested in Scotland’s Eskdalemuir forest by team owner Ove Andersson and team driver Björn Waldegård.
Not much else is known about the 222D, except that around eleven prototypes were produced. Many of these were crashed and there are only three known examples that exist today; two black ones and a white one. One of the black cars resides in Cologne while the other is owned by a private collector. The white version is said to be kept somewhere in Tokyo.
The 222D Makes an Appearance
To the joy of rally fans across the world, the 222D made its first public appearance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2007. Two black 222Ds were then displayed at the 2016 Eifel Rallye Festival in Germany for the 30th anniversary of Group B’s final year. One of the 222Ds returned the next year in the hands of a private collector and this time fans got to see it in action.
Second Generation MR2 (1989 -- 1999)
There was no doubt that the second gen MR2 would retain its mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout and fun to drive characteristics. But the new MR2 also expanded to include a more refined and stylish design, a higher quality finish, and a new range of more powerful engines. Chief engineer, Kazutoshi Arima’s goal was to take the MR2 upmarket and make it more exotic.
The W20 MR2 was handed over to Chief Designer Kunihiro Uchida (designed the Lexus LS400) who then refined the chosen design into something that more resembled a scaled down Italian supercar. The new streamlined design was labelled as a “baby Ferrari” or “poor man’s Ferrari”, as it borrowed a number of design cues from Ferraris of the period.
Toyota’s new svelte MR2 went on sale in Japan in October 1989, five-and-a-half years after the launch of the first generation model. Like the W10 before it, Toyota spent countless hours working on the handling characteristics of the second gen MR2.
During its development, two prototype cars spent time in the United Kingdom, the car’s second largest market, to fine-tune the suspension design. Toyota also enlisted the help of a number of professional racing drivers, including Dan Gurney, to help with the MR2’s setup.
Before the second generation MR2 was shown to the public, a number of rumours were circulating that Toyota was building another mid-engine sports car. This new car would have a 3.0-litre V6 engine and would compete with the likes of the Ferrari 348. However, this rumour was shot down quickly as a sports car of that nature would be sold under the Lexus brand rather than Toyota.
The new MR2 had grown in size when compared to the previous generation. It was 245mm longer with an 80mm longer wheelbase and 30mm wider. However, the car was 10mm shorter in height. Weight had also increased to nearly 1,200kg for the naturally aspirated model. The turbocharged models and T-top models were heavier at 1,250kg and 1,310kg respectively.
Toyota offered four different models for the Japanese market; including the G, the G-Limited, the GT-S and the GT. The standard G model was fitted with a 2.0-litre 3S-GE engine producing 163hp, while the G-Limited was a much the same but with a few more creature comforts. The GT-S was essentially a G-Limited but with a turbocharged 2.0-litre 3S-GTE engine that produced 218hp. The GT was a luxury spec version of the GT-S and featured alcantara/leather trim.
Two models were made available for the United States market; the MR2 and the MR2 Turbo. The standard MR2 featured a naturally aspirated 2.2-litre 5S-FE engine that produced 130hp, while the turbocharged model was given the 2.0-litre 3S-GTE engine with 200hp.
European markets were given three trim levels to choose from; including the Coupe, the GT Coupe and the GT T-Bar. All three of these models were naturally aspirated and featured either the 2.0-litre 3S-FE engine or the 3S-GE. The Coupe produced 138hp while the GT models produced 152hp. No turbocharged models were sold in mainland Europe, however, many turbo models were imported in from Japan.
With that powerful turbocharged engine, the Japanese spec MR2 could hit 100km/h in as little as 5.5 seconds and could go on to a top speed of around 250km/h. The US model was capable of accelerating to 100km/h in 6.1 seconds.
A stock Japanese GT-S turbo was said to have completed the quarter mile in as little as 13.1 seconds, faster than more expensive and powerful machines such as the Honda NSX, the Supra RZ and the Ferrari 348 TB.
Best Motoring, a Japanese motor show featured an episode where they pitted a stock GT-S turbo against other famous Japanese sports cars, including the Toyota Supra, the Mazda RX-7 and the Nissan GT-R. Amazingly, the MR2 held its own against these more expensive and powerful motorcars, finishing just behind the GT-R. You can view the video below.
Over its ten-year lifespan, the second generation MR2 underwent a number of revisions. All up, there were five revisions of the MR2 and Toyota updated everything from the power output, to the suspension design and transmission. The most notable revisions came in 1992 and 1993, with Japanese 3S-GTEs now rated at 242hp.
The changes made to the car’s suspension geometry in 1992 were in response to complaints made by motoring journalists. They reported that the MR2 was prone to “snap-oversteer” and unpredictability. This was similar to other mid-engine sports cars and a change in the driver’s response was all that was needed.
Still, Toyota pressed forward with the idea of changing the MR2’s suspension setup and fixing the snap-oversteer problem. They elected to change the MR2’s suspension and tyres to reduce the likelihood of sudden oversteer. However, many drivers would lament the change, claiming it had taken the sharp edge off the car’s handling. Toyota claimed that the changes made to the suspension geometry were done because most drivers did not have the reflexes of a Formula One racer.
Special Edition Versions
Toyota’s motorsport division, Toyota Racing Development (TRD) created two special edition versions of the MR2 for the domestic market:
In 1998, owners could opt for an official body conversion and tuning kit for their SW20 MR2. This would take their regular MR2 and turn it into a wide-body TRD 2000GT replica car. Toyota offered this package to celebrate the TRD 2000GT’s wins in the Japanese GT-C racing series, as the race car was based off the road going MR2.
In addition to the body kit, buyers could also opt for a number of other upgrades as well; including engine tuning, suspension upgrades, new wheels and a new interior. For this reason, no two 2000GTs are alike. It is believed that one TRD 2000GT was created with up to 500hp, while most had more modest engine upgrades.
All 35 2000GT conversions were carried out by Toyota Technocraft Ltd for a hefty price. Lightweight fibreglass components were used for many of the body panels and the cars themselves were reclassified and given new TRD VIN plates.
TRD Technocraft MR Spider
In 1996, the soft-top TRD Technocraft MR Spider was launched. It featured a retractable, soft-top roof and an engine cover that was unique to the Spider. A total of 88 Spiders were produced with production ending in 1999 and they all came with naturally aspirated engines. At least 30 came with an automatic transmission and at least 34 came with a manual transmission (the remaining are unknown. You can view a register of some of the Spiders produced here.
TOM’S T020 MR2
TOM’S, a factory supported racing team and tuner of Toyota and Lexus vehicles also released their own modified version of the MR2. Much like the 2000GT, owners were given a new body kit and could opt for a number of performance upgrades.
The “T020” conversion kit featured a naturally aspirated 2.2-litre stroked 3S-GE engine that produced 235hp at 6,800rpm. This was achieved by more aggressive “F3” cams, a stroker kit, a TOM’S Hyper Induction Carbon intake kit and an upgraded “TOM’S Barrel” exhaust system. A lightened flywheel was also installed to help the engine rev easier. All these modifications meant that the T020 could go from 0-100km/h in 4.9 seconds.
In addition to upgrades to the engine, TOM’S also worked their magic on the suspension and chassis. New camber kits, upgraded tie rods, strut bars, roll centre adjusters, race shock absorbers and stiffer springs were fitted. The brakes also got a rework with new pads and the suspension modifications lowered the T020’s centre of gravity.
The second generation MR2 enjoyed considerable success in the world of motorsport. It featured in various different races and events all across the globe from Japanese Grand Touring Championship (now Super GT) to the Swiss Touring Car Championship and even the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Undoubtedly, the MR2’s greatest success was in the JGTC series with five GT300 victories out of six races in the 1998 season year. The following year, the MR2 won both the drivers’ and the teams’ championship again.
Third Generation MR2
Known as the MR-S in Japan, the MR2 Spyder in the United States and the MR2 Roadster in Japan, the third generation car took a different approach to the previous gen models. The most obvious difference being that it became a convertible.
Clues to the car’s altered focus were revealed as far back as 1995 with the MRJ concept that was shown at the Tokyo Motor Show that year. The MRJ was designed as 2+2 convertible sports car and was proposed as a potential replacement to the second gen MR2. However, overwhelming negative feedback from MR2 fans helped to persuade Toyota to take a different path.
Toyota returned to the Tokyo Motor Show in 1997 with a new concept, the MR-S (Midship Runabout-Sports). Chief engineer 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.”
The MR-S featured a new 1.8-litre inline-four all-aluminium alloy 1ZZ-FED engine. The VVT-i system, introduced in 1998 for some models of the SW20 MR2, became standard on the MR-S and allowed the intake camshaft timing to be adjusted.
Interestingly, power was now at 138hp and 171Nm of torque, a significant reduction when compared to the previous generation. However, thanks to the cars low curb weight of around 1,000kg the MR-S was capable of hitting 100km/h in 6.8 seconds to 8.7 seconds depending on the transmission option.
The power output and weight were not the only things to get smaller. The car’s overall proportions and price were smaller than the second gen MR2 and it would be much simpler to produce.
In addition to the 5-speed manual transmission, a 5-speed Sequential Manual Transmission (SMT) and a 6-speed manual joined the line-up from 2002. A 6-speed SMT option was available one year later and the introduction of the SMT system was the first time that a sequential gearbox was fitted to a Japanese production car.
Toyota’s third-generation mid-engine sports car launched in Japan a few days before the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show and in the same month that Toyota’s cumulative passenger car production reached 100 million units.
The car was particularly praised by motoring journalists for its dart-like responsiveness and its impressive handling dynamics. It was widely regarded as the best handling MR2 and Tiff Needell heaped praise on the little Toyota. However, some owners complained of a lack of power and opted to switch out the 1ZZ-FE engine for the more powerful 189hp 2ZZ-GE found in the US-market Celica GTS.
Like previous generations of the MR2, the third-gen received a fair amount of attention from tuners and the Japanese aftermarket parts producers.
Toyota Racing Development made a special run of 100 VM180 MR-S cars. These cars featured a unique TRD fibreglass body and were sold in Japan.
Zagato VM180 MR-S
Designed by Zagato and built 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. It was only available for sale in Japan.
TOM’S W123 MR-S
Like the previous generation MR2, TOM’S had a go at improving it. The major complaint with the MR-S was its lack of power, so TOM’S fitted a turbocharger to the engine. It also got a few other enhancements and some 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.
Like the previous two generations, the MR-S was raced both domestically in Japan and internationally. The car had its biggest success in Japan, winning the GT300 drivers’ championship in the hands of Morio Nitta and Shinichi Takagi. It won again in 2005, but this time it also won the teams’ championship as well.
The End of the MR2
By the mid 2000’s, sales were down and Toyota announced that the MR-S would be discontinued in the United States at the end of the 2005 model year. The MR-S continued to be sold in Japan, Mexico and Europe until 2007, when production ceased completely.
Fourth Generation MR2
While no official information has come out about a fourth generation MR2, there are rumours that it is in development. The speculation stems from a statement made in 2017 by Gazoo Racing head Tetsuya Tada, who said that he hopes to have “The Three Brothers” back in the Toyota lineup “as soon as possible”. The cars he is referring to is the Supra, Celica and of course the MR2.
Toyota has recently announced a fifth generation Toyota Supra for the 2020 model year and the GT86 could be seen as a replacement to the Celica. This leaves one spot for the new MR2 or it might be for another sports car.
It is believed that the fourth generation MR2 will be heavily influenced by the Lexus LFA, the Mk5 Supra and the GT86. A hard-top version is likely to be standard, but don’t rule out another soft-top version like the MR-S.
The car will likely continue the trend of being powered by a four-cylinder engine with a displacement of about 2.0-litres, but Toyota could surprise us. Performance will be significant, but probably not so much that it encroaches on the Supra’s turf. Like the previous generation cars, there will be an emphasis on lightness and fun, and it will feature the same mid-engine rear-wheel drive layout.
Concluding the History of the Toyota MR2
The MR2 is one of the greatest series of Japanese sports cars ever produced. From the Mk1 to the powerful Mk2 and the responsive MR-S, these cars will be remembered for decades to come. With the launch of the Mk5 Supra, it will be exciting to see what Toyota brings to the table in the future. We are hoping Toyota produces an in-house developed fourth generation MR2 that will continue the trend of affordable mid-engined fun.