Your handy 1991–95 Toyota MR2 (MKII) buyer’s guide

Tim Stevens

Pop-up headlights at the front, T-top roof in the middle, and a big, sweeping wing at the back. When it comes to ’90s sports car charm, you can’t do much better than the second-generation MR2. The SW20 as it’s commonly known, or MKII more familiarly, is a product of a simpler sports-car era. This mid-engine featherweight gets by without traction control, ABS, or power steering. Full disclosure: I own a 1991 SW20, and in my eyes, simpler is most definitely better.

History of the Toyota MR2 MKII

The MKII was introduced in 1990 for the 1991 model year, replacing the venerable first-gen MR2. Commonly called the AW11, that early MR2 (MidShip Rear-drive 2-seater) was a wedgy and quirky take on the affordable sports car theme. The second-gen smoothed off the edges, bringing a vastly more modern look to the table. (More modern for 1990, anyway.)

The MKII didn’t just look more mature. It grew up in other ways, too; 8.7 inches longer and 1.3 wider, the SW20 gained some 300 to 600 pounds on its predecessor, depending on configuration. Considering the original car weighed as little as 2300 pounds, that’s substantial.

1991 MR2 white front
1991 MR2 Toyota

Two engines were available. On the lower end was the 5SFE, a 2.2-liter inline-four offering 130 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque, sitting longitudinally behind the driver and breathing in through the bisected vent just aft of the left door. That naturally aspirated engine offered a very torque-forward power delivery, not unlike the first-generation Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ. You could rev it up to 6250 rpm if you liked, but there wasn’t much point.

The turbocharged engine is far and away more desirable. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder (dubbed 3S-GTE) offered a nice, square 200 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque. That extra punched changed the dynamic equation in a big way. As an early ’90s turbocharged engine, throttle response was not its strong suit, but you can’t argue with the numbers.

Neither can you argue with the car’s handling reputation. Mention you drive a MKII MR2 and it won’t be long before someone asks you whether the lift-off snap oversteer is truly as bad as everyone says it is. “Yes, it was really that bad,” confirms Justin Burnash, a former MR2 tuner and current seller of MR2 parts, who is Co-Owner of the car giveaway and apparel site PrimeDriven.com. “Toyota revised the rear suspension geometry in 1993 and increased wheel size from 14 inch to 15 inch and all of this made a substantial improvement.” According to Justin, however, the MR2’s bad rep is more the fault of the buying public than the car itself: “People who normally drove Corollas and Civics were all of a sudden driving MR2s like they drove their underpowered FWD commuter cars and chaos ensued.”

1994 MR2 Turbo blue driving action
1994 MR2 Toyota

As the ’90s wore on, the MKII MR2 evolved in other meaningful ways. It gained an optional limited-slip differential in 1993. Transmission synchros, notorious for causing crunchy shifts on the earlier cars, were up-rated, too. In 1994, the car got a slight visual refresh, cleaning up the rear tails and trimming the wide rear wing into something a bit more pert. Then, after 1995, the car was gone from North America, living on in the Japanese market for a few more years.

What to know before buying an MR2 MKII

So which is the ideal MKII configuration? Opinions vary. Aaron Bunch, owner of ATS Racing and a long-time MR2 tuner and owner, reckons it depends on your priorities: “For years, the 1993 Turbo was the best deal. It has the updated rear suspension (I would not personally call it upgraded), optional limited slip differential, and the bigger brakes. But it lacked the updated taillights and solid side moldings of the more expensive ’94–95 Turbo cars. The ’93 isn’t as rare as the [later cars] either so that kept prices lower, too. But condition is more important than anything. I would take a nice 1991 over a rough 1993.”

Despite the exotic layout, these are still 1990s Toyotas, which means no major reliability issues beyond those dodgy transmission synchros. “There were no actual problems with MK2 MR2s that weren’t owner-inflicted through neglect,” Burnash says. “Things to look out for when buying used examples today are the same as any car.”

If you’re looking for a driver—something to just enjoy or tune—the earlier cars are the way to go. True to the MR2’s brief, they’re simpler and lighter. For collecting, Justin Burnash recommends seeking out the later models: “Ultimately, the nicest-shifting and driving cars with the nicest interiors, ride quality, and most benign handling (relatively speaking) are the loaded late-model cars: 1994 and 1995. Turbo models sell for double what normally aspirated models sell for.”

1995 MR2 Turbo engine
1995 MR2 Turbo Toyota

What to pay for an MR2 MKII

Valuations are creeping up. The MR2 has always been a bit of an under-appreciated car from a collectibility standpoint, despite selling a relatively scant 33,111 cars in the U.S. and Canada between 1990 and 1995. By way of context, that’s fewer Miatas than Mazda sold in 1990 alone, but roughly three times the cumulative sales volume of the MR2’s corporate sibling, the MKIV Supra.

If you want a taste, MR2 prices are still quite reasonable in the grand scheme of things. A 1991 non-Turbo in #3 (Good) condition has a average value of $11,300, up 13 percent in the past year, while a similar-condition 1995 Turbo will run you about $21,800, up 4.8 percent. Keep in mind that an automatic transmission deducts 15 percent from the average value, and a limited-slip diff adds $2000.

It’s easy to look at the trajectory of Supra prices with high expectations when pondering the state of the MR2 market, but Burnash warns against stumbling into that trap. “I hesitate to say never with anything in a world of COVID and six-figure Supras, but at the end of the day the MR2 is the baby brother,” he says. “It will never hit Supra numbers.”

Bunch hopes the MR2 never does. “If the values of original stock cars skyrocket and everyone focuses on keeping stock engines and stock turbos, that’s almost tragic.”

Driving impressions: The mods make my 1991

Why tragic? Because the MR2 is such a tunable car. Take mine, for example. What started off as a humble, 130-horse, 5SFE-powered MR2 is now putting down closer to 300 hp thanks to a fourth-generation 3S-GTE engine swap. That much power easily overwhelmed the stock braking system, so I installed a Wilwood big brake kit with a set of adapters, custom-made for the SW20 by a company called Wilhelm Raceworks, which offers all sorts of tempting upgrades. A set of coilovers improved the tired stock suspension, while a staggered set of 17-inch Enkei RPF1 wheels and sticky tires provided a massive upgrade over the stock, 14-inch units.

1991 Toyota MR2 front end
Tim Stevens

Originally, my car was torquey and fun but, honestly, pretty gutless. Get on the power hard and it made a very nice sound, and the instant throttle response was engaging, but you had little incentive to rev it out. It struggled to put down what little power  it had thanks to the lack of a limited-slip differential. Powering hard out of corners, particularly on an autocross circuit, would spin up the inside tire. And, as the car aged, finding anything resembling a performance-oriented tire suitable for the car’s 14-inch wheels became difficult.

My car is a monster these days. That new motor, borrowed from a Japanese-market Toyota Caldina, changes the MR2’s character completely. There’s less lag than in a stock MR2 3S-GTE, but it’s still a good one-count between pedal hitting the floor and the power mashing my head into the car’s striped, velour seats.

Even with the bigger wheels, stickier tires, upgraded suspension, and more aggressive alignment, I still need to be extremely careful applying power mid-corner. I have a limited-slip diff now, too, but with all that power it just means I spin both tires instead of one. This being a mid-engine car, the rear-end steps out in a hurry and catching it requires fast hands. My car’s unassisted manual steering has an extremely lazy 20.5:1 ratio, demanding opposite-lock in dollops rather than dabs. A firm grip is essential on that skinny, shiny plastic steering wheel—again a side-effect the unassisted rack. However, the reward for that upper-body workout is a delightful feel unlike anything in modern cars.

1991 MR2 driving action
1991 MR2 Toyota

A wheelbase of 94.5-inches makes the MR2 MKII a whopping seven inches shorter than a modern GR86. Pulling up next to a modern F-150 at a traffic light is enough to make you fear for your life, but escape traffic, find a flowing, twisty road, and the MR2 is an absolute delight. On a summer day, T-tops stowed in their bags behind the seats letting the sun and wind flow in, aftermarket blow-off valve chattering like a hopped-up hyena behind my head with every lift of the throttle, and three-inch Berk exhaust screaming when I get back on it, it just doesn’t get much better.

An MR2 is for enjoying

My advice would be to find yourself a good example while they’re still affordable, and to consider leaving some room in for a few choice upgrades. Driving it with enthusiasm is half the fun of a car like this, and done right this is a car that can consistently deliver big grins.

1991 Toyota MR2 side profile wide
Tim Stevens

Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it.

Leave comment
Read next Up next: Homegrown: “Garagefather” Dave Piontek has built dozens of visionary cars

Comments

    The second generation is peak MR2. The first is interesting and the third is ok but the second is one of my favorite cars Toyota ever did with the Celica All-Trac and the MK4 Supra Turbo. Great cars. Finding a good one is not as easy as it used to be just due to the affordability of these cars.

    Fun little car. This car (a 93 Turbo example), an 89 Conquest/Starion ESI, and an 85 Supra P have always been on my short list of Asian cars I’d like to own. I’ve never really had a sports car from that side of the world other than an 84 Mitsubishi Cordia I had back in the day and a 2013 Veloster turbo that was more of a commuter-sporty not sport.

    I’ve always admired the baby, Ferrari-esque styling of this generation MR2, and their relative good build quality.

    The second generation MR2 is peak MR2, especially the turbo. One of my favorite Toyota cars along with the Celica All-Trac and the MK4 Supra Turbo.

    Gorgeous car. Could have sworn I’ve seen that tooling around the Finger Lakes area a few years back.

    Still on my short list for “undervalued Japanese ’90s sportscars” – I think they’ll have their moment soon.

    One of the coolest cars Toyota ever made! An prior customer of mine had three of these at one time, and enjoyed every one of them.

    I passed on a so-so ’91 MR2 several years ago for $8000. Probably could have improved it for a flip, but just didn’t have the time to invest. Bought a near perfect SC300 instead that I absolutely love. I also picked up a Z3 to satisfy the roadster itch.

    In 1995 I was shopping for a replacement for my ’90 Prelude which was stolen from the train station. Went to the Toyota dealer asking about the MR2, was refused a test drive. Ended up buying a ’95 Prelude SRV. That moment could have been a fork in the road, possibly switching from Honda to Toyota, but the Prelude was the clear winner, and I’m happy I bought it. Too bad for the Toyota salesman that underestimated that 30 year old kid. I’ve always admired the MR2, and maybe there’s still a chance for one in my future. Only problem is trying to juggle 5 cars with only a double garage which has been home to 3 cars the last few winters.

    I owned a N/A 1995 Mister II for eight years and it was generally a trouble free delight. There were two issues that caused me to sell it. We are getting old and falling in and climbing out became a chore. The other was if it was raining i had to slow down to keep it on the road. I had good tires and alignment but it was scary when the road was wet.

    These are nice cars and better than the first gen.

    But the cost can run up as they age. They need more work than some. One $6 hose requires the engine to be pulled. Some claim not but I have not seen it changed in the car.

    Same on the cam belts. The engine comes out. Water pump etc.

    The best to buy is the best car with low miles. Unless you can do the work yourself it can be expensive.

    I own a mid engine Fiero and over all there are sone things that are a pain but most do not require the engine to come out. If it come out a LS will go in anyways.

    Owning a mr2 turbo, both the &6 hose and the cam belt do not require removing the engine, it’s not hard and does not take a lot of time. Just another urban myth.

    Nice writeup of an interesting car. And good for you, making the changes you wanted rather than falling prey to the correctness/originality police. All my cars are modified to suit my taste, even the ones creeping into forbidden territory like my 1985 911.I remember when it was standard practice to hot rod 911s–they were a perfect canvas. Now the purists shriek. You should continue to hope the MR2 does not fall into the collector car straitjacket.

    I have had 4 MR11 and the first edition was fun, but lacked a lot. It was fun to drive, but I ran into a good deal on a N/A 1990. That was a big step up. Unfortunately, a van pulled out on front of me and totaled it. I bought a 1991 turbo. Another step y and even more fun to drive.
    Then, along came a 911 Porsche and I fell in love. That ended my rice burner era.
    Unfortunately, I got to be an old geezer and had to give up on my fun years. I know drive a Tesla Model Y. It has the power to make it fun and the suspension to get it around the corners in a hurry.

    When these 2nd generation MR2’s came out for the 1991 MY, I was working at Automobile Magazine – I distinctly remember the test driving editors commenting about the car (turbo version with 5 speed manual) and its propensity to want to “swap ends” when driven hard through corners / bends…and to proceed with caution! These same editors said the 1st generation car was noticeably more stable / predictable when driver hard.

    I’ve had 4 AW11’s, 2 N/A’s and 2 Supercharged. I still own my last Supercharged model. White with the “rare” maroon interior. I get soooo many thumbs up and “wow your car is so clean” from people when I drive it. I’ve done many engine mods, including the usual(for this model) pulley on the Supercharger which instantly gives you an extra 40HP. It’s been lowered and the shocks are adjustable. Disc brakes have been changed to drilled rotors with ceramic pads. The SW20 is nice (and I’ve driven plenty of them), but I just don’t find it as fun and as “head turning” as my little wedge!

    I got my hopes up when I read about “the largest seller of MR2 parts in the world” because I have been hunting fruitlessly for struts for my 1986 MR2. I looked at primedriven.com but all I found was keychains, sunglasses, T-shirts and detailing products. Apparently people buy products from the site to try to win a monthly raffle for a car. Justin Burnash even sells a book on Amazon: “Mastering the Giveaway.” I didn’t find any car parts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *