Toyota MR2 Roadster – The Time Is Now

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By Dale Vinten

When the original Toyota MR2 arrived in 1984 it was a bit of a show stopper. Toyota had successfully re-imagined the small sports car as an affordable, reliable machine and people loved it. It was, and still is, an absolute hoot to drive thanks to its mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout and it proved that there actually is, in fact, a replacement for displacement by wringing over 120bhp from its original 1.6-litre, four-cylinder motor and combining that with a low curb weight and poised, precise handling. But it wasn’t just Toyota who we can thank for such a brilliant little car though. Apparently Lotus had a say in the suspension and handling department, depending on who you speak to, but either way you can trace the lineage of the ‘Midship Runabout 2-Seater’ back to the iconic sports cars of the 1960s and it remains a revered and important step, not just for Toyota, but the industry as a whole.

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Usurped by the second generation in 1989 as a complete modernisation of the concept the MR2 MK2 was again well received by both the public and the motoring press, despite its tendency to swap ends on a whim in the hands of inexperienced drivers. This didn’t deter sales however and Toyota, knowing they were still on to a good thing, continued with the MK3 (known as the MR2 Roadster in the UK) in 1999 until the end of production in 2007.

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MK1 prices have been steadily rising for years now and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to dig out the good ones. MK2s are predictably following suit so it’s only a matter of time before the Roadster joins the party. A great alternative to the Mazda MX-5 and MGF but less full-on than the Lotus Elise the MK3 Roadster stays true to the original MR2 equation of mid-engine + light weight = great handling and its affordable. For now at least.

AN INTRODUCTION TO THE TOYOTA MR2 ROADSTER

Designed and marketed as a Spyder (which is basically the same as a roadster, i.e. an open top two seater) the MK3 was the first incarnation of the model to have a folding roof and due to its low weight only required a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine to get it down the road in a suitably nimble fashion. As with its predecessors however, it’s not about outright power, it’s about the driving experience as a whole and how exceptionally well these cars handle. And boy do they handle well. With near perfect weight distribution and MacPherson struts, dampers and anti-roll bars all round the MK3, much like the MK1 and 2 before it, is a true driver’s car.

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Speaking of engines, when it came to the Toyota MR2 Roadster’s power plant buyers had two choices: a 1.8-litre, four-pot churning out 140bhp to the rear wheels, or the bus. In a bid to simplify production only one engine was offered by the Japanese manufacturer, but it’s a good one so it doesn’t matter. Official 0-60 times vary from under 7 seconds to around 8 with a top speed of 130mph-ish. It wasn’t the most powerful lump but with dual overhead camshafts and variable valve timing it was enough for the lightweight roadster whilst also returning decent fuel consumption figures, if driven sensibly – but then where’s the fun in driving a Toyota MR2 sensibly?

Initially offered with a five-speed manual gearbox this was later augmented with the option of a six-speed manual and five-speed SMT auto box in 2003 as part of a facelift which also included front and rear bracing to further stiffen the body, improved spring and damper rates and larger 16 inch wheels. Aesthetic improvements were introduced too with built in spot lights and a re-designed grille.

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Toyota achieved what it set out to do with the MK3 which was to build a handsome, mid-engined, reliable sports car with excellent handling that further improved upon, yet remained true to the essence of what made the original car so good in the first place. The project’s chief engineer Harunori Shiratori put driver enjoyment at the top of the list when developing the MK3 and it certainly shows with the spirit of the MK1 (that goes all the way back to those historic roadsters of the past) clearly living on in the latest incarnation of the Toyota MR2.

WHAT SHOULD I LOOK OUT FOR?

Corrosion isn’t as much of a concern as accident damage but you should still inspect the rear sub frame for any signs of rot. The body panels are a bolt-on affair so repairs are relatively cheap and simple should you need to replace any sections of the bodywork. If panels have indeed been replaced then be sure to check that the gaps line up correctly and are straight. With regards the soft top ensure there are no rips or tears in the fabric and that it fits snugly with no damage to the rear glass. The drain holes for the roof can become clogged so make sure these are free from any gunk that will allow water ingress into the cabin.

The four-cylinder engines are robust (if well-maintained) but pre-face lift models suffered from an issue with the pre-cats whereby the catalytic converter would disintegrate with bits of it ending up in the engine, which is precisely where they shouldn’t be, so check if they have been removed or replaced. Post 2003 cars are less susceptible but that’s not to say it can’t still happen. A full after market exhaust system will eradicate the issue and make the car sound better to boot. Win-win.

Suspension and brakes are pretty trouble-free, generally speaking, thanks in part to the relative youth of these cars and the MK3 is well balanced with excellent stopping power, although a lot of people do opt to upgrade the suspension to a full set of coilovers. A decent set of pads will further improve the braking for those who like to drive spiritedly, or on track.

Interiors, although not particularly practical, are well made, durable and comfortable, whether that be in cloth or leather upholstery form and the electrics are as reliable as you would expect from Toyota. Electric windows, airbags for everyone and a CD stereo are standard on all models with air conditioning and a CD autochanger being available as factory options. The later face lift variants have additional shiny bits on the air vents, controls and door handles as well as improved seats.

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WHAT ARE PRICES LIKE?

The Toyota MR2 Roadster hit rock bottom a few years ago but we’re now seeing prices pick up, especially for low mileage, face lift models, with the more desirable and technically improved post-2003 cars being understandably more expensive. There are a lot of cars out there still though so finding one that’s right for you shouldn’t be an issue and it pays to shop around.

For around £2-3000 you can pick up higher mileage, face lift MK3s or decent earlier cars but immaculate, low mileage, post 2003 examples will set you back £5000 and up. As mentioned though, there are plenty of Roadsters out there and there are bargains to be had but we guarantee that prices are going to rise.

Running costs remain low thanks to decent parts availability and ease of servicing but it is essential that the pre-cat issue has been resolved. In the increasingly unlikely case that it hasn’t then this will need to be factored into your budget.

WHY SHOULD I BUY ONE?

If affordable, open-topped motoring is your huckleberry then you’d be hard pressed to do better, or cheaper, than the Toyota MR2 Roadster. Not only is it a wonderfully capable car that is a sheer delight to drive enthusiastically on your favourite B-roads, it’s also pleasant and comfortable enough to use as a daily driver. It’s not particularly practical from a luggage perspective but if you want boot space buy a Golf GTI. The grin on your face won’t be quite as wide every time you get behind the wheel though.

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