Product Type: Toyota cars
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Comprehensive MR2 Review, which to buy and how to care for it!
Toyota MR2 (1990-99)
Member Name: MR2man
Toyota MR2 (1990-99)
Advantages: Affordable to buy, fun to drive, great club and parts support.
Disadvantages: Image, costs of running and maintaining if using local garages.
Hi, and welcome to my review of the Toyota MR2. I have owned 5 MR2's over 6 years from an early Rev1 through to a Japanese import model, a G-Limited Rev3. I have had sunroofs, T-bars and Tin-tops. Most have been well cared for and serviced, however two were more restoration projects and I'll go into some detail about this for your benefit. I'll do my best to list what to look for when buying and how to best care for your aging beast.
My Rev1 was blood red, built in Japan in October 1989 for the UK market. Like all UKDM (United Kingdom Domestic Market) MR2's there was no power steering and no air conditioning. It came with a cloth interior, sunroof, and original 14" alloys hiding small brakes which are sadly prone to fading under heavy use, be it on track or on a twisty country road. The Rev1 is the rawest of all the Mark 2 (MK2) MR2's with no catalytic converter meaning the engine is free to produce 158bhp at the flywheel. The throttle response is also much sharper than later Revision MR2s which combined with slimmer tyres (195 front 205 rear) can lead to snap oversteer. If your thinking about purchasing your first MR2 than this basically means that an MR2 is capable of going side ways, and if your not quick, spinning, almost instantly. This is not a forgiving or learner friendly car, especially coupled with the heavy steering and poor brakes provided by Toyota.
Sadly the Rev 1 is now getting on in years and this has exposed a number of problems with any potential purchases. Sills can rot especially at the rear near the arches. On T-bar models the leading edges of the roof can rot and many arches are now starting to show corrosion both front and rear. A major problem is that brakes will seize with lack of use. After a test drive carefully feel all four wheels (not discs, you will be burnt) for any that are much hotter than the others. This will denote binding callipers. Lack of engine power will also denote sticking brakes, which is why you must drive a selection of MR2s before committing to purchase. Be aware that larger wheels will upset the handling significantly, fashion seems to point to people putting 17" wheels on a car originally designed to accept tiny 14" rims. This will affect acceleration and the handling adversely, and place further stress on suspension components.
Furthermore evidence of what many would consider adequate or normal servicing is no longer sufficient, buy an MR2 that is over 19 years old with only 19 service stamps and you'll find thick black oil and rust blocked radiators. Oil should be golden brown and not thick black gunk. Coolant should be red and free from rust, neglected cars block radiators quickly and overheat even faster. Furthermore cleaning and flushing the 15 litre coolant system when it is full of sludge and rust is a time and labour intensive activities that few garages will be bothered to do to any sort of acceptable standard. Gearboxes can suffer from damaged synchromesh especially on 2nd gears which will crunch when down shifting. This will spoil the driving experience, however gearboxes are available for around £125 from SMR and a clutch for around £90, and its not a horrific job for the competent home mechanic. Clutches can last as little as 40,000miles though so check that yours does not slip. Check that there is no knocking or banging from the suspension when going over bumps which can denote worn drop links. Even though a complete set of anti roll bar drop links can be had for around £75 removing the old ones is a fiddly and job that usually necessitates some grinding! Any MR2 with changed drop links is a bonus.
However the very best way to get into an MR2 is to buy from an enthusiast. From someone passionate about the MR2 an early rev1 is still a potentially enjoyable and reliable buy, however there is some seriously abused rubbish just waiting to have its way with your wallet, so be warned. Buy with your head, and your heart will follow when you new purchase turns out to be reliable!
Rev 1s go for attractive sums, with crash damaged or neglected examples fetching little more than £500 on eBay. Average cars that need work for the next MOT can fetch from £800-1000. Expect 130,000 miles, worn seat bolsters, worn steering wheels and some oily days in the garage though for this sort of money. Straight cars can fetch up to £1450 with changed cambelts, tensioners, and strict servicing with high quality materials. For this sort of money the service history you get is often reflective of many thousands of pounds over the last 5-6 years.
The Rev 2:
Of all the MR2's that I have owned, the Rev2 represents 3 of the 5. I have had two UK sunroof models and a UK T-bar with full leather. All were 1993 models in either metallic aqua (green) or Zircon blue, which is especially fetching. The difference between Rev 1 and Rev 2 is surprisingly large, Toyota added bigger 15" wheels with fatter tyres (195 front 225 rear), a deeper front splitter, power steering as standard, larger brakes (indeed older 14" wheels will not fit the Rev 2 models) and a dulled throttle response (longer pedal travel). Inside you get a revised three spoke sterring wheel and a shorter throw gear change compared to the Rev 1. Lastly Toyota felt it necessary to reinforce the suspension strut towers to reduce the possibility of them being damaged over the cars life. By 1993 'K' registration all bar some rare examples of MR2s retained by Toyota are Rev 2.
The Rev 2 feels much more like a grand tourer, it is both more comfortable and refined. Furthermore these represent a much better buy for your first MR2 due to the safe understeer Toyota built into the revised suspension geometry effectively warning you about the transition to oversteer about to take place. Don't underestimate the car and heed its warnings and you'll be fine with a Rev 2 where a Rev 1 would be demanding more skilled driver inputs. The range also came in more attractive modern colours replacing navy blue for a light metallic blue (Zircon blue), the blood red for a much more Rosso red for example.
It seems to be easy to find an MR2 Rev 2 from an enthusiast or club member keeper with extensive history for around £1250-2000 depending on spec, mileage, and the extent of work carried out. Remember that cambelts need changing every 60,000 miles or 6 years, and that most local garages will want around £250 to complete this job. Buying an MR2 with the belt changed within the last few years makes sense, even more so the clutch, radiator, and gear selector cables, other expensive labour intensive jobs that will cost you dearly. However if your willing and able to do jobs yourself parts are not unreasonably priced and there is more room than you would imagine when working on the mid mounted engine. Don't forget to check the catalytic converter fitted to the Rev 2 cars, they can rot away and be expensive to replace. On paper the Rev 2 is 4bhp down on the original rev 1, however due to the tamed experience it all just feels like part of the package.
In all the Rev2, from my point of view, is a better everyday car with more humane road manners that don't bite as hard as the earlier car. However much as owners of the original 1980's MK1 bemoaned the extra bulk of the MK2 when it was launched those who have sampled the Rev1 will often be bored by the dulled responses of the Rev 2. Try extensively before you buy to see what suits you.
The Rev 3:
Most probably my personal favourite, according to the motoring press of the time it took Toyota until the Rev 3 to get the MR2 formula right. Further changes were made to the exterior including colour coded splitter, sills, new round rear lights and painted centre panel, and new interiors amongst other more subtle changes. My Rev 3 was a JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) G-Limited with a tin-top roof, cloth interior and air conditioning. Engine power was increased to over 170fwhp with a higher compression engine (all MR2 used developments of the 3S-GE engine designed by Toyota and tuned by Yamaha excepting the 3S-GTE and Beams engined cars). The Rev 3 felt much more 'together' and seemed to handle much better, the turn in was sharper, some of the oversteer had been bought back albeit in a gradual and well controlled manner. A Rev 3 in good order will really dance through the corners, however I would be hard pushed to notice any major differences between sunroof, T-bar and tin-top cars. The extra rigidity is marginal compared to the thrill of taking the Targa roof off on a summers day. Even if seals can perish and leave you being dripped on in winter. Check T-bar seals for dry rubber, Vaseline can help as can silicone grease, however new seals are expensive so factor this in to any potential purchase price accordingly.
On the Rev 3 third gears seems to suffer, especially on higher mileage cars. This will be evident as grinding synchromesh when down shifting into third. Again this will compromise the driving experience and should be given careful thought. Remember that the Rev 1 cars are unique in that they had a cable speedometer drive, and that the Rev 3 used all new gear ratios due to the power hike. Be sure to get the right gearbox for your car if you have to change.
Rev 3 cars are now reaching low prices, as low as £1300 for big mileages, however £2000 will buy you a car you would proudly show. UK or JDM is down to personal choice, some companies demand higher premiums to insure JDM cars.
Servicing and maintenance:
Servicing is not as horrific as you might imagine. Oil filters are obscured by the exhaust manifold on Rev 1-2 cars which can be tricky. However on Rev 3 cars the oil filter was relocated to the sump and as such is easier to get to. Coolant changes are straight forward thanks to logical Toyota having the filler cap at the very top of the system and providing bleed tubes for both the radiator and heater matrix in with the original tool kit. Over heating is usually caused by blocked radiators and/or neglected fluid changes leaving silt and sludge in the large cooling system. Flushing is best done part by part and is labour intensive, and under floor pipes can be hard to get to due to corroded fixtures holding in the multi part under tray. Suspension top mounts can wear denoted by metallic clangs and knocks on full lock, these are however readily available and not too hard to fit. As mentioned earlier drop links are a pain but necessary to keep the ride quiet. Brakes present no especial difficulties for the home mechanic and exchange callipers or re build kits are easily available. Drilled/grooved discs and good pads such as EBC Greenstuff do make a welcome difference especially to the earlier Rev 1 cars. Plugs, leads and the distributor are all easily within reach and no more expensive than those for a Rover K series engine.
Big bore exhaust & induction kits are fitted by many well meaning enthusiast owners, including myself. These are expensive new and do add both noise and drama to the driving experience. Your wife will hate it, but I guess that's at least part of the point of a middle aged crisis. However large stereos, subs, amps and neon lights that hack into the complicated Toyota wiring are to be viewed with caution, ask who fitted them, even some auto electricians have been left stumped by the electrics in these cars when they remove a stereo.
Simply not cost effective unless you get parts from a breakers yard (of which there are many specialist UK based MR2 breakers) and do the work yourself. Garages hate working on mid engined Japanese cars and few will have the experience or motivation to treat your car with the care and respect you deserve. Costs of restoration will often exceed the price difference between your 'project' and a good straight car in the first place. My advice, having restored a Rev 1 and spent £3500 to make it perfect is spend as much as you can in the first place. Why not enjoy driving the car straight away? Unless the track awaits your unlucky new purchase, then the cheaper, the better!
Summary: An excellent, flawed, enjoyable and ultimately great old car worth saving.