1988 Toyota MR2 Mk I
4-cyl. 1587cc/122hp EFI
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With an experienced team and a lot of data.
At the 1983 Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota unveiled an interesting little sports car. It was a mid-engine, wedge shaped vehicle exactly like the supercars of the day, just on a smaller scale. After a few minor changes to the prototype, it soon went into production as the MR2 (Midship Runabout 2-Seater), although it was internally known as the W10. The MR2 was the first mass-produced mid-engine Japanese sports car and indeed one of only a handful of truly affordable mid-engine cars ever built.
Weighing in at about 2,300 pounds, the Toyota MR2 Mk I featured the 1,587cc 4A-GE twin-cam four found in the E80 series Corolla and the popular AE86. 0-60 mph took a little over eight seconds and the quarter-mile in the high 16-second range. While those are not earth-shattering figures, the MR2 was fast for a small, cheap sports car at the time and the it was among the quicker cars per dollar in the 1980s.
Things got even more interesting in 1986 with the introduction of a supercharged model, which Car and Driver called “deceptively quick.” Visually, it was distinguished by raised vents on the engine cover and small “Supercharged” decals that were fairly subtle, at least by ‘80s standards. The first supercharged car offered in the U.S. in two decades, the blown MR2 bumped up performance significantly. With 145hp and 140 lb-ft of torque, 0-60 dropped by over a second and top speed was 130 mph. For efficiency and in low load situations, the supercharger had a clutch system that disengaged it from the engine and an air-bypass valve allowed the air intake to flow around it. 1986 U.S. market cars also added a T-bar roof to the options list.
Over 160,000 Toyota MR2 Mk Is were produced before Toyota updated the range with the larger, faster and altogether more elegant W20 model for the 1990s. Many people of course credit the Mazda Miata with heralding the return of the small, fun, cheap sports car and adding Japanese reliability to the mix. The MR2 may not have ever developed the same enthusiastic following as the MX-5, but the Toyota beat the Mazda to it by several years.
When shopping for a Mk I MR2, the biggest challenge is simply finding a good one. Toyota made a lot of these cars, but they’ve always been cheap, so over the years many have been driven hard, heavily modified, crashed or left outside in the elements where they are known to rust in the usual spots. A clean, low-mileage example is a real find.
While the doorstop-like styling hasn’t aged particularly well, the MR2 is a very rewarding car to drive, plus it has the mid-engine cachet that you just don’t get with a Miata. The most collectible version is of course the supercharged model, although any solid first generation Toyota MR2 is worth owning.