Toyota MR2: Catch it While You Can

Look, we know that if you're shopping for a sporty little number with two seats and a soft top for anything less than £2,000 or so, the chances are you're probably going to end up with a Mazda MX-5. After all - altogether, now - Miata is always the answer.

Hello Mister Two!
Hello Mister Two!
Except that, sometimes, it isn't. Because right now, the answer should really be MR2. Mk3 MR2, to be specific; a car whose mid-engined layout, taut setup and fabulously revvy engine give it more than an edge over the MX-5 in terms of car enthusiast cred.

The Mk3 MR2 isn't for everyone, mind you. For starters, let's talk about its looks. Were someone to pitch to you the idea of a two-seat roadster with a Boxster-u-like nose and tail, the former of which brings to mind the expression a frog might take on were it to be surprised by another frog in a particular way, you probably wouldn't say 'Now I like the sound of that; when can we start building it?'

However, that's exactly what Toyota's bosses did. The result is a car that has to do without either the classic sports car proportions of the MX-5, or the lithe, taut athleticism of the Lotus Elise, but instead exudes a chunky charm that some will love, but others will loathe.

More than skin deep
But of course, there's more to the MR2 than its looks, and we picked the MX-5 and Elise for comparison for a reason - because the MR2 sits somewhere in the middle ground between the two cars. Tauter, stiffer and faster than the Mk2 MX-5 which was its contemporary rival, the MR2 is nevertheless more usable, more benign and (all things being equal) more reliable than an Elise. It's the best of both worlds, in other words - and no matter what you might think of its looks.

Post-2003 facelift worth seeking out
Post-2003 facelift worth seeking out
With all that in mind, you might expect the MR2 to fall somewhere between the two cars in terms of its value. And it does. However, at the moment, it's most certainly skewed toward the MX-5 end of the spectrum, which makes it feel like something of a bargain.

You can pick up a Mk3 MR2 these days for as little as £800 or so. We wouldn't recommend it, mind you, because at this price it'll almost certainly be a scabby old parper, with high mileage, several uncaring owners and perhaps even a Cat C or D marker against its registration.

However, you don't need to spend all that much more to get a shipshape example. We found a very tidy-looking pre-facelift with 95,000 miles on the clock, a long MOT, a full service history and even the optional hard-top going for just £1,640, and it was just one of several very tempting-looking examples offered between there and the £2,000 mark.

Frog's legs
If that's all you can stretch to, you'll have a fabulous little car in a pre-facelift MR2. But then again, if you can push your budget further, the post-facelift car is the one to have. That's because it came with a six-speed gearbox, instead of five, and got a series of suspension tweaks and wider rear wheels.

Pack light. Pack really, really light
Pack light. Pack really, really light
To say this transforms the MR2 is an overstatement, but there's certainly a noticeable difference in the way the two cars drive. The post-facelift car feels more honed, more edgy and more direct, with a gearbox better suited to cruising and and greater traction at the rear end.

There's another reason to choose the post-facelift car, too, which is that it seems these examples were far less likely to wreck their engines in sudden and spectacular fashion, an MR2 tendency which results from the pre-cats breaking down, and their ceramic shards being sucked back into the engine through the exhaust gas recirculation system.

There are ways and means to avoid this - for the sake of brevity, we won't go into too much detail here, but there's plenty of information on enthusiasts' forums - but anecdotal evidence suggests tweaks made to the engine by Toyota at facelift time solved the problem, and these cars have far fewer instances of failure.

Light, fun, cheap - go get one!
Light, fun, cheap - go get one!
How much for one of these, then? Well, again, prices start low - £1,300 or so for a daggy example - but you'll need to up that to £2,500 or so if you want a respectable example. At the other end of the scale, the very best - this 25,000-miler, for example, shouldn't cost you more than £6,000.

When Mk1 Elises are moving into double figures, that doesn't sound like too bad a deal. And while it'll be a while yet before numbers dwindle and the MR2 starts the inevitable, inexorable climb toward classic status, one day the true talents of this stocky little sports car will be better-known and more widely sought-after, so you'd best get into one while you still can. To correct the meme, then, Miata is sometimes the answer - but right now, MR2 is a better one.

P.H. O'meter

Join the PH rating wars with your marks out of 10 for the article (Your ratings will be shown in your profile if you have one!)

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Rate this article

Comments (81) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Luke. 11 May 2017

    ...and the rust.... MX5 must be one of the worst cars around for this.

  • james_gt3rs 11 May 2017

    A lot of rubbish in this article... all the UK cars had an LSD, and the prefacelift is more pointy than post because the newer cars have bigger rear tyres...

  • TameRacingDriver 11 May 2017

    I've had mine for 6 months now, and its a wonderful car to drive, probably one of, if not the most fun car to drive I've ever had. I've had a couple of Mk1 MX5s, including a rare RS Limited, which was tricked up to the eyeballs with performance enhancing goodies, but for me the MR2 is more fun to drive even than that was.

    Few corrections though. Firstly, more usable than an Elise? Not likely, the roof is easier and better, and its easier to get in and out of, but it has virtually no luggage space whatsoever, even the Elise will best it. Secondly, they all had LSDs except for the imports. Third and finally, the post facelift ones still can and do suffer from pre-cat failure so its recommended to get those removed if you can do. Also a good idea to keep a close eye on oil consumption as some 1ZZs can use a lot (mine does).

    These are so good out of the box, that honestly, the only mods I feel are truly essential are a decent exhaust (standard one far too muted), some good tyres and an alignment. I do have a chassis brace to fit which some say makes a good difference but honestly, I'm not sure its strictly necessary.

    The looks of it have grown on me, but they ARE an acquired taste!

    Honestly though, this has to be the best drivers car you can get for under £2k if you can live without almost any practicality and are not too fussed on straight line speed; its not slow, but its certainly not fast either, but it has a perfect blend of performance, handling and braking ability.

  • Dave Hedgehog 11 May 2017

    OH had 2 of these, the last one she put 120k miles on it

    a lot of fun, needs a decent vtec engine thou to really make it shine

  • rallycross 11 May 2017

    These are a great little sports car, drive one and be impressed.
    I've had Elise (in Vx220 shape) and the MR2 is about 100 times easier to live with day to day, its a proper car as well as being a great handling sports mid engined 2 seater (MR2)

View all comments in the forums Make a comment