MR2 or Fiero? Choose your mid-engine ’80s fighter … while it’s cheap
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Today, the terms “mid-engine sports car” and “affordable” aren’t terribly compatible. Sure, the Corvette Stingray is a fantastic bargain relative to its peers, and the Porsche Cayman is an absolute delight, but they’re still a big reach for the average enthusiast. However, for a brief time in the 1980s, there were multiple mid-engine cars in the North American market that were legitimately affordable.
The 1970s brought the mid-engine platform from racing to the road, most notably with exotics from Italy, like Lamborghini’s Miura and Countach and Ferrari’s 512 BB. More affordable options came to the masses with the likes of the Fiat X1/9. It wasn’t until the ’80s, though, that major players in the U.S. market got in on the act.
The Pontiac Fiero debuted in 1984 to much acclaim, and the Toyota MR2 joined the U.S. market a year later. These were both mainstream brands that primarily churned out more staid layouts—front-engined, front- and rear-wheel-drive cars aimed toward everyday transportation. Sure, Pontiac and Toyota had their existing sporty models, but the fact that the MR2 and Fiero were so radically different from their respective stablemates is why we’re still talking about them today.
Prices for both models are creeping up, and today, buyers will pay a premium to relive some of that mid-priced, mid-engine magic, especially for the most desirable versions.
Our own Jason Cammisa’s dive into the Fiero’s origins is definitely worth watching. The basics: GM brass gave Fiero the green light based on the assumption that it would be an economical commuter. As a result, Pontiac borrowed heavily from GM’s parts bin to keep costs low. Cribbing the front suspension from GM’s compact RWD Chevette and repurposing the front suspension of GM’s front-drive Chevy Citation/Pontiac Phoenix for the rear, the Fiero’s underpinnings might have saved money, but the car’s performance didn’t match its eye-catching styling.
Unfortunately, the Fiero never received the powertrain it deserved. The 2.5-liter Iron Duke was the car’s sole powerplant at its launch. Known for dogged reliability and simplicity, it was a 92-hp economy-car engine that fit the Fiero’s stated mission, if not its looks. The 2.8-liter V-6 that became optional with the GT model in 1985 was significantly more powerful, with 140 hp, but still hardly the stuff of sports-car dreams.
Despite its lackluster powerplants, the Fiero managed to be fun. It was compact, rigid, and relatively lightweight (around 2600 pounds), and Pontiac made tweaks every year to incrementally improve it. The GT model, along with its improved power, brought wider tires and, for 1986, a new pseudo-fastback look. A five-speed manual transmission made its debut in June of that year as well.
The Fiero’s steel spaceframe construction and fiber-reinforced plastic body panels made styling updates a breeze for Pontiac and also contributed to the Fiero’s popularity as a donor vehicle for faux-exotic kit cars of the era. Pontiac dealers even got in on the action by selling the Mera, a Ferrari 308 clone made using a new Fiero, in 1987 and 1988.
The Fiero sold incredibly well at launch, but sales tapered as the years went on, even as Pontiac added power and introduced the sporty GT fastback. The final year of Fiero production, 1988, saw its lowest sales despite the car finally receiving the improved suspension it needed to live up to its sporty looks. A second-generation Fiero was planned, and a prototype was built, but the sagging sales numbers spelled Fiero’s end.
While the Fiero was an economy car that would look and eventually drive like a sports car, Toyota’s MR2 was a sports car that happened to deliver good fuel economy.
Toyota offered the public a peek at its mid-engine intent when it showed the SW-3 concept in 1983, and it introduced the MR2 in North America in early 1985. The entry price, including destination, was $11,195—about $31,000 in today’s dollars. The MR2 reaped praise for its sharp handling, crisp-shifting five-speed gearbox, and finely constructed, 1.6-liter, 112-hp powerplant.
In other words, the MR2 delivered the driving experience that its looks promised. Several buff books placed the MR2 into their various “best of” lists, including Car and Driver (10Best) and Motor Trend (Import Car of the Year).
The MR2 received an engine upgrade partway through its first generation: the addition of an intercooled supercharger. That boosted the little 1.6-liter to a peppy 145 horses. Though available to Japanese buyers in 1986, Americans had to wait until 1988. Enthusiasts got just one angular body style on the MR2, but Toyota made yearly changes to make aero bits, trim, and mirrors match the body color, bit by bit. Time has been kind to the MR2’s design—it’s basically a rolling representation of how we like to remember the 1980s.
For collectors, the supercharged version of the MR2 is the most desirable, with the average #2 (Excellent) condition value of a boosted model coming in at $31,200. That’s 44 percent higher than their naturally aspirated counterparts in #2 (Excellent) condition at $21,700. Even more impressive, it’s a 161 percent increase compared to its value just five years ago. In addition to rising interest for the MR2 on the model’s own merits, the rise of the Japanese segment as a whole may well be a contributing factor to MR2 values’ steep growth.
Fieros have been on the march too, just not to the same degree. Five years ago, values for 1988 GTs, the most desirable model, were similar to those of its supercharged Toyota counterpart. Today they’re up 50 percent, with #2 (Excellent) models coming in at $19,600.
That’s a 58 percent premium over the mechanically similar 1988 Formula at $12,400 for #2 (Excellent) condition. Other desirable Fiero models include the 1984 Indy Pace Car, the most valuable Fiero powered by the 92-hp Iron Duke.
Our insurance data suggests that these cars have a solid future, as younger buyers are interested in both of them. Sixty-five percent of the people who called us last year for an insurance quote on a Fiero were Gen X or younger (compared to that generation’s 61 percent market share for all enthusiast vehicles). The overall number of insurance quotes for Fieros grew faster than the collector car market as a whole in 2021–2.
The news for the MR2 is similarly optimistic. For the 1984–9 Toyota MR2, the share of quotes from Gen X and younger in 2022 was 82 percent, and interest is also outpacing the growth of the market as a whole. However, based on sheer volume of quotes, the Fiero is nearly three times more popular than the MR2.
That popularity shouldn’t come as a surprise. In the North American market, Pontiac sold 136,840 Fieros in 1984 alone. That’s more than Toyota’s entire run of the first two MR2 generations through 1995. In this foray into affordable, mid-engine runabouts, the Fiero emerged victorious in the battle of ’80s mid-engine coupes by sheer volume.
However, the relatively rarer MR2, the more fully developed sports car from the get-go, brings in higher prices. And since the MR2 survived long enough to fight on in the ’90s, you might also say it won the war.
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Here is the low down on both.
The MR2 is a good car but not without its issues.
#1 Rust. These things rusted not as bad as a X 1/9 But they are rare to find clean unless it is from a dry area.
#2 They do take work like changing timing belts and the later models have a $7 hose that both require the engine to be dropped out. While out change the water pump.
#3 Parts specific to the car can be difficult to find and even more difficult to find in good shape.
#4 Few are in junk yards due to the fact do few were sold here.
#4 But with rarity comes value. Best to buy the SC engine as the other revs but really has no power.
#1 Rust! Yes rust is a factor in salt areas. Make sure to pull left side of the carpet down in the rear trunk. If it is clean you have a good car. If you have a hole walk away.
#2 They built a lot of these and the parts all interchange. The space frame was the same for all years and only the suspension changed in the last year.
#3 The 88 Suspension is best but parts are getting impossible to find. But the 84-87 is good and you can remove the steering damper and add some sway bars and get nearly the same results as the 88 to drive. It was not that bad just some under steer and some bump steer. Bushings fix the latter.
#4 most parts shared with the part bin are still available and easy to find. Only interior specific parts and T top parts can be hard to find along with the 88 suspension.
#5 lots of these are around yet so junk yards and pick a parts can have often more than one.
#6 The V6 does run well with the 2600 pounds. But the engine bay was designed to hold a V8 by Pontiac. This is why a LS engine swap fits well. An all aluminum V8 is near the V6 weight. Super Charged 3.8 also work well.
#6 T tops were available any year as a dealer option and factory in 88 the parts interchange in all.
#7 There was a large after market for the Fiero and many things you could buy like Suspension kits to full race body conversions for the street. You could install the IMSA GTU race body on any street Fiero with no major mods.
#8 The 4 cylinders should be avoided. No power and they leak oil. The covers never had gaskets. Put one on and the oil issue is gone. The V6 was pretty much trouble free and reliable. Most things can be done on the engine in car and no need to drop it.
#9 Transmissions. Both the auto and man were reliable. The Auto could need a conveter lock up switch replaced but that is easy in car. The manual the clutch like the Toyota needs the trans axle removed. Both have cable shifters. The Toyota is a bit better but both are vague with wear.
The Fiero I can attest to as being pretty safe in a crash. I was in one that hit a Dodge van at 45 MPH and I drove it home. It broke up the body but the radiator remains in tact and the space frame did its job.
Neither car is going to be the next Shelby. But both are fun and somewhat affordable to own and drive. The parts deal is the big difference and can be a problem on the Toyota.
I have owned my Fiero for going on 40 years and I have no regrets. I have a number of mods from the 80’s on my car including the Indy Scoop over the roof and a Herb Adams VSE suspension upgrade. I added a T top in 87 and added my own touches here and there. I kept the stock V8 as it is so easy to drive and fast enough to get you in trouble as it is. This is more like a go kart vs a drag car.
What I like is often I am the only one like my car at many events. I have even been able to attend some high end concourse shows because of the styling and condition of my car.
The Fiero when I bought it made me the local Celerity. Boy it was like driving a Ferrari for a little while. Then after the bad PR I was the idiot with the FIero. Today times have come back and many people are like I had one or wish I had one etc.
The bad PR was blown out of reality. Not every Fiero caught fire and it was by far not the most burned car either. The greatest issue was the oil leaking on the 4 cylinders and igniting on the exhaust manifold. Once burning the plastic body over it fed the fire.
I would love to one day do a book on the true history of the car as much of it is distorted or even flat wrong in some cases. It was not a perfect car but it was no where as bad as some like to claim.
In either case my car got me into places where I never expected to go I have turned laps over 100 MPH at Indy. Been on display at GM plants and even in the show room for Summit Racings headquarters. I have taken top 5 at the Pontiac National vs much more expensive cars. etc. Never under estimate the little car.
In either case they are both fun, different and a blast to drive.
This is what I cruise the comments for. Great stuff here, thank you!
I own a 2002 MR2 and after adding racing sway bars, front and back, the little car now corners more like the x1/9’s I had in the 70s The only real complaint is the car is under powered and my son and I are in the planning phase of turbo charging. I had to settle for the third version of the MR2 but it’s a fun little car.
Yes, thank you for the insight!
I think you covered most of it! I had 3 Fiero’s and 1 MR2, not all at the same time though. Wish things had gone differently for the small car industry back then. For the commoner, We couldn’t have known and didn’t see the brick wall we were driving towards
Nice post! My first guess was MR2 all day long based solely on the Toyota reputation for quality.
Agree with most of your post, but disagree on the Fiero 4 cylinders. Power isn’t going to be earth shattering, but it is adequate. As for the oil leaks, a cork gasket on the valve cover and Permatex sealant pretty much everywhere else has worked great for mine.
Power is a personal thing. Today I can drive my wife’s SUV and then my V6 and it is very slow.
Nothing in the 80s was over powered.
The 4 cyl is really that bad, I have driven a few and to say they were undewhelming is an understatement. When accelerating 0-60, you do not break out a stop watch, you break out a wall calendar. The Manual 4 cyl were better than the slushbox Auto however. They are far from being adequate in today’s world. In 1984, yes, they were fine when the speed limit was 55… Just like Sammy Hagar, “I cant drive!! Fifty Five!!” I have an 88 GT, and it really is a lot of fun to drive.
Well my Fiero lovin friend, you Sir win the BEST COMMENT on the internet award for today! Unfortunately this award come’s with no cash value, but it certainly come’s with my Gratitude & Respect 👍
I bought a used, but in great shape w/low mile’s ( 26k ) 86-GT for my wife back in 96, was a fun little car & my wife loved it, the only issue I had was it did NOT turn worth a damn, but otherwise I sure wish we had it back now. Thank’s again for very well thought out, very well worded comment.
The key to the Fiero I always found was to be honest about the car due to all the myths and false info.
Also like with many brands you get fan boys who will go off the deep end. The X1/9 fans or I should say some went nuts on Autoweek. They hurt the brand and image of the other owners.
I have been involved with the car since 1980 and have tried to be honest to what it was. No it was not the second coming of a F40 but it was also a decent car with the right options and engine. With some easy mods to address some shot comings it become a pretty fun car to drive.
It is not a super car, or drag car but a sports car in the way of most low power sports cars. The won SCCA autocross championships and had a good race history in IMSA.
For the money they are fun and much different than many other cars and for the era few were safer from that time. I can attest to that myself.
It is a shame the Corvette team really was worried so much about it that they got it killed. The funny thing now is many. Corvette owners own a Fiero too.
I went to a Fiero/ Corvette show in Cleveland years ago and the Vette boys treated us well and I walked away with class and best of show awards.
I used to show a Chevelle SS. I did ok but the Fiero has done so much better than any car I had. It is very clean but also being different helps.
We all should dare to be a little different.
I would love to see a book like that. Went to the Pontiac Fiero 30th Anniversary and listened to Hulki (design engineer) talk about some of the stumbling blocks he and his team had to negotiate to make the Fiero happen. I’ve got an 88GT 5 speed owned for 22+ years. Autocrossed for a few years. Found the car would wash (light front) in the slalom. Had an expert in the passenger seat suggest left foot brake going in with some gas on, made a big improvement in my times. Love the exhaust sound.
Thanks for the book report
You can take out #2 for the mr2. That was the SW20 2nd gen turbo. That $7 hose can be removed in car regardless, you just remove the oil cooler to gain full access to it, it’s how I did mine. As for the AW11 1st gen, you can strip either side of the long block down to bare in 30 minutes each. You don’t even need a jack for the intake side.
Awesome info! You Sir should write that book stat! Reading your post made me want to scratch that Fiero itch I have had for years.
Scratch now as still good clean cars are easy to be found at reasonable prices.
The Fiero and C5 Corvettes are two cars you can buy reasonable yet and are analog enough you can do about anything you like. The Vette has a much better parts support system. Many Fiero owners are also Corvette owners.
Just make sure to get a good car.
The 40th show is in Michigan this year and they may have over 300 cars in attendance. Many other makes seldom come close to that number.
I had an 86 v6 SE with the 4 speed manual back in the day. The factory suspension was junk, or at least the shocks were. Replaced with Koni adjustables, and cut one coil off the rear springs made the car sit level like it should have from the factory. My wife at the time and I drove it to BRR SCCA championship in men’s and ladies classes, D – Stock besting some other pretty hot cars and drivers. It was a good solid car that if driven carefully would net a bit better than 30 mpg on the highway still was fun to drive. The V6 was quick enough in stock form to be enjoyable without having enough power to get you into trouble. Still regret getting rid of that car.
Hyperv6, I love your comments and insight. Was in college at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, IN, ’88-’92 after my military service, a dorm mate was gifted a black over black ’88 Fiero GT with the auto. I had a lifted Jeep CJ5. Mine handled like a hippo on a mud bank. His handled like a rat in a drainpipe. Made a joyful noise as well, his aftermarket exhaust allowed backtalk on the overrun.
I get your reference to the supercharged 3.8 out of a Bonneville as a potential replacement, had one, as a big heavy car it moved with alacrity and had a great sound (I installed a smaller diameter SC pulley and reflashed the ECU), and at 6’1″ and 250+/- lbs with a 36″ inseam the Bonnie fit me well. But if I built a Fiero GT, I’d use the Olds Aurora 4.0L V8/transaxle, a compact and versatile semi-exotic unit with a performance history. I did put this combo in a ’68 Chevy Corvair coupe, and with the needed upgrades to the brakes/front suspension it ran low 12’s, averaged almost 28mpg, high strung V8 noise and handled like electricity in the wire. Never shoulda sold that one, but it’s easily duplicated with some $ and minimal effort.
Keep up your informative posts, I’m certain that I’m not the only fan. Peace!
FYI one more thing. Do your self a favor and spend the extra money to buy a lower mile clean example of either.
Too often I find people saving money by buying a high mile used up car only to spend as much or more to restore it correctly or they never get it right as some parts are hard to find. T top gaskets for example on the Fiero are very rare used and impossible new.
Both often were used as a third car and can be found in low mile condition yet.
Oh that is so true. I wish we knew that last year when my 16 year old daughter picked an ’85 GT auto for her first car. Got it for $3k and have put $9k more into keeping it roadworthy. I could have gotten a mint 36,000 mile ’87 GT for $3000 in the midwest. Live and learn. Great article!
I worked on and drove an MR2 but never a Fiero. The engine compartment is murderously small. I drove it after finishing someone else’s botched repair and drove it. The main thing I noted is for a small nimble car, you can feel the weight in the back and it has a significant effect on handling. As someone who has spent a lot of time driving RWD V8, I found it to be extremely loose feeling and was very reluctant to jump on it going around a bend. I love the styling, but the two factors together effectively removed MR2s from my want list
The issue that started the downfall of the Fiero was the seats had the speakers built in and became favorite and easy targets for thieves. They would steal them, sell them to resellers and insurance companies would (being the cheap thieving turds that they are) only buy used seats for used cars….. thus feeding the circle and making a real mess. The Feds stepped in and changed things eliminating this problem. While this was going on… the fires started.. but as mentioned above…. was not nearly as wide spread as media makes it out. I was a 20 something trying to make a living and ended up selling Pontiacs. Everyone wanted to sell the T/A’s and Grand Am’s of the day…. I loved the little Fieros and made a good living selling them. Best memory was when another young guy and I took the VERY FIRST GT on the lot for a “test drive.” Lost control and slammed head on into a traffic island. Front wheels went both both directions. We sneaked it in the back gate and said NOTHING. GM blamed it on “transport damage.” and got a new one……… no one ever knew. But it was awesome for the time and fun to drive. They were underpowered… did leak… and a few other issues… but corporate mismanagement and media bias did them in.
The last line of mismanagement and media bias is true.
While you may have had a seat issue in your area that was not a major issue. They moved the speakers as they were tough to service at the time.
As an aside, I found speakers in seats to be a good idea that didn’t work too well in practice. I have a 1990 RX-7 convertible with them. While putting them in a convertible seems the ideal solution, in practice they are small, tinny, and sound dreadful. I usually keep them turned off.
Much of this is the need to get the speakers and radio matched properly.
Wrong speakers and or ohms can make for a poor sound.
The factory sub went out in my system and the replacement just was never right. I had the factory sub restored and it is back to what it should be. The factory amp is just matched better to the original speaker.
Mid engine can have drop throttle oversteer. This happens when you lift off the gas in the corner. To stop it you get back on the gas. You do the opposite of a normal car.
Stock Fiero’s have a lot of understeer to prevent this. But it creates understeer. My sway bars keep the car mostly neutral with only a hint of oversteer.
The short wheel base also creates fast rotation on both cars.
One of my sons had a girlfriend who was looking for a car (probably late ’80s or early ’90s). She knew I was a car guy and asked for my help (her dad had other interests, apparently). She looked at a used Fiero, and I couldn’t find a real fault with it except that the armrests on both doors were inexplicably torn to shreds. It being underpowered was actually a plus for a couple of teens to be running around in. I was all ready to co-sign for her when all of a sudden, her father woke up and dove in. He’d heard that they caught fire and forbade her to buy it. He then picked out a Super Beetle for her (at about twice the money) because it was “a girl car”. I told him, “hey, you’re her dad, and you picked the car, so I guess you can co-sign for her 2X loan, right?” That little car turned out to be a money pit for her. I’ve often wondered if the Fiero wouldn’t have been the better choice…
I’m about as anti-GM as they come (have even worked for them as a tech), and I’m a pretty big Toyota fan.
Having said that, I’d still take the Fiero. I bought a cheap one on a whim a couple of years ago to tidy up and sell, and it’s one of my favorite cars I’ve ever owned. (And now I have two fieros). That little V6 makes an awesome noise, the car looks great, and build quality seems so much better than any other GM of that era.
That exhaust is one of the best non V8 sounds out there.
A 1988 Fiero GT, manual, with t-tops. Still one of the sexiest mid-engine cars ever designed. Maybe a supercharged 3800 swap to keep up with the modern stuff.
No sir. The 4.0 Olds Aurora V8 is what you need. You just don’t know it yet.
Great comments. I had 2 Fieros. First one was an 88 with the 2.5 and 5 speed. Because of a divorce that I was given and the loss of a company car, I put it into service as my daily driver. Yes summer and Michigan winters. I picked up the car in Pittsburgh but found out the car spent most of its live in Texas. I later had the bottom sprayed with rustproofing. I drove it for 127,000 miles and 10 years until an idiot in a new BMW turned into my turn lane. LOL Poor brand new BMW had red paint all over it. LOL the car ran and I drove it for some time. The passenger head light would not go down becasue the front frame in that area was bent. So the insurace company offered me a bunch of money so it went away. Should have kept it as it had a lot of new parts on it. I took the money and bought an 87 GT with the 3800 SC V6 installed. Wow was that fun. Love the supercharger wine. Sold it after 4 years. I got tired of correcting previous owners mistakes. NOW I wished I had a Fiero again and yes my wife knows how much I would like another. LOL
Oh I forgot to mention that on the highway I would get in the 40’s MPG with the 88.
There’s a reason Japanese cars are higher regarded during this era. I know folks who had trouble giving a Fiero away for free. Few cars become true classics and it doesn’t look good for Fiero, ever.
Well you sold never get Shelby money out of one but few other cars from the 80’s have doubled in price. That is better than most.
Few Japanese see from the i-‘s are left or worth the cost of restoration.
We owned both; bought new a ’85 MR2 and a ’87 Fiero GT V6. Both were excellent cars but the nod goes to the Fiero. With the V6 & 5-speed it pulled stronger and was much roomier for two adults. Neither gave us a bit of trouble and both were fun to drive. We bought the Fiero because we also had a 308QV & I’d hear about it all day long by patients (“hey doc, I see the car I’m paying for”, “hey, that’s one of them expensive foreign cars”, “what’d that car cost me?” etc etc). The Fiero? they never resented it and would bump into it, bang it with their doors, rub up against it; and that plastic/rubber body looked perfect; never had a mark on it. The MR2… would’ve been destroyed. Of course, neither are a Ferrari but for everyday use the Fiero was great. So… buy the Fiero, get a V6 with the 5sp; the nicest low-mile one you can find. It’s the most car fun you can have for cheap.
I liked the the MR2 style of the 90″s more like the Fiero. My son has one and it is a looker I did not get why they put blue seats in a car that was red outside and mostly black inside (some red) this was factory. I got him some seat covers that would better fit the car black with red trim.
The Mr2 was the better engineered car. It was solid from the beginning, the second generation was fantastic.
The Fiero was a good idea, but poorly executed as time went on they fixed the things and at the end it was a good start. That second gen with a possible Quad 4 motor would have been fantastic.
If I see either car I am excited. I really wished the Fiero had a second generation.
At the time, I didn’t care for the MR2. I thought it’s styling was not as good as the Fiero GTs. I wasn’t a fan of the 2M4/2M6 styling. For me, it would be the supercharged MR2 vs. Fiero GT. Today, I think the Toyota would win for the better reliability vs. the Fiero, even if it comes with some nuisance maintenance work.
However, once you’ve driven a Ferrari F355, the point is moot. Neither is fun anymore. 😁
I bought one on release and liked it OK. It was light on power but fun to drive. Luckily it would get about 35 MPG so the 8 gallon tank wasn’t a real large problem.
The next spring I was buying my wife a Grand Prix and they had a big sale on 4 speed Fieros. I picked up a new 2M6 for lees than I paid for the 2M4. The Muncie 4 Speed was great and I wouldn’t have a different manual with the V6. At first I thought it drove just like the I4, but then on day I needed to whip out into traffic on a small road. I let the clutch out at about 3200 RPM and got a real surprise. The engine was a totally different power plant above 3500 RPM.
After a little engine work it put the dumb 85 MPH speedometer to shame. I had it up to just under 6000 RPM in 4th and the speedo had no clue. I was truly impressed.