The 1984–89 Toyota MR2 is getting pricier, but you can still score a deal
We absolutely heap praise on the Mazda Miata for bringing the cheap, cheerful sports car back from the grave in 1989. Fair enough—Miatas are great, and it’s the world’s best-selling sports car for a reason. Then again, the folks at Toyota beat Mazda to the punch by a half decade with their similarly diminutive, similarly cheap and cheerful MR2.
By the time Mazda’s new smiley-faced roadster was hitting showroom floors, Toyota had already sold 160,000 MR2s worldwide and designed a brand-new version to soldier on into the 1990s. But even though the MR2 has similar ingredients to the Miata (reliable small-displacement engine, rear-wheel drive, flickable five-speed, and a low price) and also sold in huge numbers, it just never cultivated the same fiercely loyal following, and surprisingly few are left on the road. If prices are any indication, however, people are coming back around to the MR2’s potential as a great deal. Miata may always be the answer, but not if you’re asking, “What if I want a cheap mid-engine sports car?” Then, that pretty much limits your choices to MR2, Fiat X1/9, or Pontiac Fiero. We’re not into picking favorites, but you really should get the Toyota. The market seems to agree.
Toyota unveiled the MR2 (Toyota-speak for “Midship Runabout 2-seater”) at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1983. With its mid-engine layout and wedge styling, it echoed the exotic European supercars of the day, just on a smaller scale and built with much more humble mechanical bits. Known internally as the W10, the MR2 uses a 1587-cc version of the 4A-GE twin-cam found in the E80-series Corolla and everybody’s favorite drift car—the AE86. Other existing Toyota parts were used throughout, but this kept the original base price to a temptingly cheap $10,999 (about $26,500 in 2019 dollars). And although sitting in most mid-engine cars from the ’80s will make you think there’s no word in Italian for “ergonomics,” the Toyota is a different story. The pedals are where they should be, the controls are all within reach, and it’s roomier than it looks. No contortions or yoga poses necessary to get into this two-seater.
Open-air motoring arrived in 1987 with a T-bar roof option, but the biggest news came the year before with a supercharged model. The first supercharged car offered in America in two decades was, surprisingly, a four-cylinder Toyota. Car and Driver called it “deceptively quick,” as the blower brought the MR2 to 145 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque, enough to drop the 0–60 time by more than a second compared to the base car and enough to hit 130 mph. Supercharged models received raised vents on the engine cover as well as subtle (by 1980s standards, at least) “Supercharged” decals, stiffer springs, a stronger transmission, and special wheels. The supercharger itself features a nifty clutch system that disengages the blower from the engine in low load situations, allowing for about 28 mpg on the highway. Naturally, the supercharged models are the most collectible, but any well-kept “Mister 2” is a fun, tossable car and worth having.
Toyota redesigned the MR2 for 1990 as the larger, rounder and faster W20-series, and the first-gen cars immediately looked dated with their doorstop-like lines. They stayed cheap for years and years, so factors like hard driving, deferred maintenance, and prolonged exposure to the elements made for a high attrition rate. Being a mid-engine car, the MR2 also suffered from the kit car curse. As was the case with the Fiero, a lot of people got the idea that their MR2 would look a lot better dressed up in a cheap imitation Lambo or Ferrari suit than with the bland, but at least clean, Toyota body. Go figure.
Starting in 2015, though, values for the remaining Mister 2s gradually rose. This makes sense given the increased interest in 1980s and ’90s Japanese performance cars; for MR2s, that growth has been significant. In 2014, the condition #2 (Excellent) value for a supercharged model was $9000. Today, it’s $15,600. For a base model, the #2-condition value grew from $7200 to $12,100 over the same period. Given that supercharged cars are rarer, faster, and better looking, they get the most attention and are appreciating faster. On average, supercharged MR2s were up 9.3 percent in the latest update of the Hagerty Price Guide, while base cars were up 4.2 percent.
The most expensive first-gen MR2 we’ve seen at a live auction was a 1541-mile bone-stock 1986 model for $18,700, and a few prime examples have sold in the low teens on Bring a Trailer, but although MR2s are no longer dirt cheap, they’re still definitely affordable. The #3- condition (Good) value for a blown car is $10,000; a base car is $8400. Things look bright for the MR2 over the long term as well, since the cars are popular with younger enthusiasts. Nearly half of buyer interest (measured by insurance quote activity) comes from Millenials, which is more than twice the rate measured across the rest of the market.
One of the only affordable mid-engine sports cars out there, and arguably the best (aside from the later W20-series MR2), the first-gen MR2 also has room for value growth, so it has a lot going for it. The trick is to find a good one—in other words, one that doesn’t have a billion miles, cheap mods, and terminal rust. If you find one of these baby Ferraris that’s been pampered like an actual Ferrari, snatch it up. You and your wallet probably won’t regret it.