Something that we’ve learned about the automotive industry in recent years is that nothing can stay gone forever. With the recent resurrection of the Ford Bronco and the impending rebirth of the DeLorean, it’s more than apparent that what’s old is new again. With the current rumblings about Toyota resurrecting the MR2, it only appears fitting that we take a look back at one of the most unique offerings to ever arrive from Japan. With its mid-engine layout, rear-wheel drive, and sleek two-seat design (hence the name), the MR2 holds a place in the hearts of many. The Toyota Supra has already made a comeback worthy of its legacy, and the MR2 has the potential to do the same. If you’ve ever caught a glance at an MR2 from afar at a used Toyota dealer, your interest might have been piqued. Join us as we take a look at the history of a vehicle that may be about to receive a long-overdue resurrection.
1984-1989: The Beginning
The saga of the MR2 begins back in 1984. While the dystopia prophesied by George Orwell never manifested during the year in question, a new offering from Toyota did. At first glance, the MR2 bears a slight resemblance to the early Fox-body Ford Mustang, which was also produced around this same time. However, Toyota proved that you could do more with less. Rather than attempt to copy the V6 and V8 powertrains from domestic offerings such as the Mustang, Toyota opted for a 1.5L four-cylinder engine, which was later replaced with a 1.6L that delivered 115 hp and 100 lb-ft of torque. A supercharged version of the engine was also available and raised the output to 145 hp and 140 lb-ft of torque.
The MR2 was geared towards performance with its optional five-speed manual transmission (though there was also a four-speed automatic). Aside from the domestic competition from vehicles such as the Trans Am, Camaro, and Mustang, the other dominant sports cars of the era included the Nissan 300ZX and the Mazda RX-7. Still, the formative years of the MR2 saw it gain accolades from industry critics, most notably Car & Driver Magazine and MotorTrend. The 1980s had no shortage of flashy cars that thrived on style, but the MR2, with its unique engine placement and pop-up headlights, certainly resonated with many throughout the decade. However, by the time the 1980s ended, so did the first generation of this car. An upcoming decade meant new changes were in store and new vehicles to compete against. And if there were any manufacturer who was up to the challenge, it would be Toyota.
1989-1995: Innovation and an End of an Era
The shift in the cultural landscape that occurred between the 1980s and 1990s was massive. The Toyota MR2 would hit the ground running as it began what would be its second generation. While the second generation began in Japan in 1989, North America wouldn’t see the offerings until the 1991 model year. Even by today’s standards, the specs and results are impressive and even rival some offerings that are on the marketplace today. The optional turbocharged 2.0L engine pushed out 200 hp and had the capability to generate 200 lb-ft of torque. Even with its increased performance, the MR2 possessed a common attribute that many Toyota models share, and that was its conservative fuel consumption. Rated for up to 19 MPG in the city and 26 MPG on the highway, driving this car meant that one didn’t have to sacrifice fuel savings for a little bit of kick in their commute.
While all of these feats were admirable, the second generation of the MR2 was living on borrowed time for the American marketplace. Despite sales of the previous generation surpassing 96,000 units in North America, the second generation saw only 33,000 cars sold before it was discontinued in 1995. However, production would continue in Japan for another four years, and the vehicle would even be a part of the first Gran Tourismo video game series for the original PlayStation. Unlike other Japanese sports cars that met their demise in the 1990s, there was still more in store for the MR2.
1999-2005: The Legend Lives On
While the second generation of the MR2 ended somewhat prematurely, a notable comeback was in store as the 1990s came to their inevitable conclusion. Arriving for the 2000 model year, the Toyota MR2 Spyder was a fresh look at the model that moved away from the straight-lined body style in favor of a curvaceous shape that rivaled many of the designs offered by European manufacturers such as Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW. While the turbocharged engine had been phased out, the new design was lower to the ground, which resulted in much better handling. A five-speed manual transmission and an available automated manual transmission allowed drivers to exert maximum control while on the road.
The new incarnation of the MR2 proved that there was still a place for the vehicle on the market. It showed a higher level of innovation than its main rival, the Mazda Miata, which had remained virtually unchanged for over a decade by that point. Much as it had done when it first debuted two decades prior, the MR2 Spyder proved that it could do more with less. A 1.8L four-cylinder engine producing 138 hp propelled the vehicle forward with minimal effort and could launch from 0-60 mph in seven seconds flat. The fuel economy from the engine was improved as well, with drivers getting 22 MPG in the city and 27 MPG on the highway.
Despite the grandiose return to style and performance, the declining sales which had dogged the previous generation were once again going to rear their ugly head and put a damper on the MR2’s return to prominence. The vehicle left the North American market in 2005, and for the final model year, the number of cars produced didn’t even reach 800 units. From its return in 2000 to the end, slightly over 27,000 examples were produced, a far cry from the sales figures during its formative years. Production would cease altogether in 2007, and it was time for the MR2 to head off into the sunset.
A Brighter Future Looms and a Legacy Is Secured
A wise man once noted that nothing lasts forever. While the Toyota MR2 would come and go like so many other vehicles that exude innovation and ambition, its legacy as one of the more unique offerings to reach American shores is certainly set in stone. Toyota proved that you could think outside the box in terms of design and offer exceptional performance with just four cylinders, delivering a mid-engine sports car at commuter car prices.
What does the future hold for the MR2? With the Supra already making a prominent return in recent years, there’s certainly a great deal of potential for the MR2 to reclaim its former glory. While Toyota has not officially announced that the MR2 will return, in late 2021, the Japanese automaker unveiled a compact mid-engine concept car dubbed the “Sports EV.” When the MR2 debuted, it succeeded in turning heads and going against the grain of convention. With a potential revival looming on the horizon, history could certainly repeat itself once more.