Pros: Affordable, Fun to drive, Unique-looking, Oversteer heaven.
Cons: Impractical as only car, or for long-distance driving.
Wow, this little car changes everything! I didn't think the Japanese knew how to build a fun little car until I got my '86 MR2. What an unusual car, from Toyota of all people: A Mid-Engined, Rear-Wheel drive, 2 seater (most say that's what "M.R.2." stands for) with a pretty high-revving 4-cylinder engine that makes a nice sound. What did I just say? A 4-banger making a nice sound? Yep, this car changes my whole view on Toyota, Japanese cars, and 4-cylinder "sports" cars. I'm not converted quite yet, but this could be a start... I mean, it is one of the few affordable mid-engined cars (those with money: other mid-engined cars are usually exotics, including Ferraris, Acura NSX, Lamborghini, etc.).
The American counterpart for this car is the Pontiac Fiero (R.I.P.) and both cars look similar, but the boxy and edgey first-generation MR2 (1985-1989) is a lot more distinctive and stands out in a sea of modern (Japanese) cars that all look so bland and boring. Rumors also have it that the first MR2 was built from a collaboration of Lotus and Toyota, and the 4AGE engine used in the MR2 was taken right off of the ones used by Toyota racing teams. Let me do my usual review of the car, and then run through some list of tips/quirks which I normally do for used/older cars.
Styling and Interior
Love it or hate it, but you have to admit that the boxy MR2 does stand out. I personally find the car very cute, considering its short wheelbase and low height. The style of the MR2s from 1985 to 1989 (aka Mark I ("MKI") MR2s) are almost the same with minor changes from year to year. For example, for 1986 on, you get body-colored bumpers (1985 had black ones). I believe the rear spoiler was an option, but almost all MR2s you see on the road have them: the car doesn't look right without it. The standard "triangle" 14x5.5" alloy wheels might look ugly out of context, but on the car it looks just right. The wheel was considered very light back then, but some of you might prefer a more "open" type of wheel. For aftermarket buffs, VW GTI wheels and earlier Miata wheels will fit the MR2: as long as they are about 39mm offset and have a 4x100mm bolt pattern. 38mm offset is common, so that will do. There is not much choice in the aftermarket for 14" wheels and tires, but once you go 15" and up, your choices expand greatly. I'm thinking about 15x7" wheels for the track.
The interior has a few nice things I should mention and some annoyances. The gauge cluster is really nice in that it has not only your typical tachometer and speedometer that are easy to read along with a coolant temperature gauge and fuel gauge, but also a voltmeter (cars nowadays don't have them anymore!) and oil pressure gauge. The headlight switch and wiper switch are oddly placed around the gauge cluster housing and not off the steering wheel. And they are prone to breaking because of their design. The turn signal stalk is to the left of the steering wheel column like it's supposed to be, and the cruise control stalk is on the right: It's odd because it doesn't move and yet looks just like the turn signal stalk. I would have put the wiper controls there, like on other import cars...
The shifter column sits very high, and this is actually a plus, because with your arms resting on the center column, you can shift with just your wrist. It's very comfortable like that, since I find myself shifting a lot in this car to try to get the most out of the rev-happy little engine.
Mounted on the rear firewall between the seats is a little console/cubby for storing tapes and what-not, but it's almost impossible to reach for anything there while seated and driving without having to resort to odd bodily contortions!
Being a mid-engined car for 2 people, don't expect big trunk space. But it's better than most roadsters like the Miata in that there are two "trunks"-- one behind the engine bay, and one in the "hood" compartment in the front of the car. Under the front hood you'll find the spare tire, radiator, A/C components (if so equipped), Brake master cylinder, Windshield fluid tank, Fuse box. So there isn't much space for your junk there, but if it comes down to it, you can use it. And if you're short enough and pull your seat up, you can stash some junk behind the seats as well. Just don't plan on doing cross-country trips with this car.
The Good Stuff: Performance/Handling
Let's make sure we understand the layout of this car's drivetrain: The engine is behind the driver and in front of the rear axle, and the transmission is also back there driving the rear wheels. Because of this, the car is heavier in the back than the front. (This is the exact opposite of most production cars nowadays.) Overall, I'd say that the car isn't as well balanced as my BMW, but it's infinitely more communicative, which is why it's so fun to drive.
The MR2's come in two engine formats: a normally aspirated 1.6L 16-valve 4-cylinder, and a supercharged version of the same engine. Of course, the supercharger is very nice to have to give this car some much needed low-end torque and a little more horsepower. The regular engine produces about 115hp, which is not much at all, yes. Too low to call this thing a sports car, but I dare you to sit with me when I drive this thing to its limits and then you tell me if you think it's a sports car or not. :)
Part of that has to do with the rev-happy nature of the engine. It redlines at 7500rpm, which is very high for an 80s car (I know, Honda does crazy things with their 4-cylinders as demonstrated in their S2000). Step on the throttle and the rpm's just shoot up very willingly. The car, however has a higher than usual idle: It likes to idle around 1000-1100rpm, even if specs call for 800rpm. The 5-speed manual gearbox is very easy to shift very quickly because of its short throw. It's a bit notchy, and on cold mornings it is hard to shift it from 2nd to 3rd (maybe I need to lubricate the joint and cables). It's not even close to the buttery smooth feel of the ones on BMW 3-series/Z3s (the best in the world, I think). Also there is a common problem of the 5th gear popping out (see "quirks" below).
The steering response is awesome: immediate, communicative, and linear. These cars don't have power steering, so you have to work a bit when parking, but when you're driving on the track or around town, it's so nice to have nothing stand between your steering inputs and the wheels. You turn the steering wheel and the front wheels turn, no questions asked. You have to get used to driving with a rear-weight biased car, though. In another words, if you're driving fast and then you twitch your wheel to the right and then quickly back left, the front end will respond immediately, but the rear end will be a split second slower and you can feel the car's tendency to oversteer (have the rear end come out).
But oh, that's what makes it so much fun! At any given corner, if you take the car to the limit, it will drift with the rear end sliding out. But you have to be very careful (don't try this on public roads, please), because the limits of the car's handling is in a very small range. If you push it more than it can handle, you will very quickly spin the car out with the rear end coming all the way around. That's why it's such a great car to learn how to race, since it forces you to be a good driver and be in touch with the car. That's why I plan on taking this car to the track and driving schools this coming summer, so I can learn how to be a better driver. My other car (the BMW 325Ci) is very forgiving and lets me get away with a lot more, so I can't really tell if I'm driving well or not.
A lot of MR2 owners actually do race their cars, I've noticed. Autocross is the most popular, since the car can be fairly competitive and the sport rewards good driving skill and car's handling a little more than mere gobs of horsepower.
Yes, the car lacks a lot of low-end torque and if you're below the 3000rpm range, there is not much power for you to work with. You have to really work the gears. Which brings me to my next point: Don't get this car with an automatic because then you'll have that much less power and I don't think the automatic will let you go to redline often. Most first-generation MR2s still in existence are manual, so it's not a big deal.
The exhaust sound is fairly loud on my car. It has a really low tone and yes at highway speeds while driving more than 45 minutes, it get tiring. Like I said, it's not a long-distance kind of car. Great for quick drives around town and for racing, but the raw nature of this car makes it feel like you're driving a race car and race cars don't do long distance trips...
Quirks, Common Problems, and Tips
Some of this stuff you can get from the numerous MR2 enthusiast sites on the web (there are a lot, since these cars enjoy a sort of cult following). Here are some important points to keep in mind when looking at a used MR2:
1. 5th Gear Pops Out: The only fix for it would be to rebuild the transmission (expensive), but eventually the problem will come back again, so just learn to live with 4 forward gears. You could shift into 5th and hold it there with your hands (you'll feel it wanting to pop out). Fuel economy isn't effected much by doing 4th gear on the highway (28-30mpg)
2. "Frozen"/Rusted Parking Brake Cable: In places where it snows, there is a little rubber boot that covers the parking brake cables near the rear wheel, and this boot rips easily and water/ice gets in there and up the cable and "freezes" the cable. Do not leave your car in "park" if you expect freezing conditions the next day-- you need to thaw it out. If it's all rusted, you need to replace the cables ($150 + labor [possible to do yourself]). Also, rust on these cars (especially in the rear tire wells) in general is a common problem, as with all earlier Japanese cars driven in the snow belt.
3. Bleeding the coolant is a complex task, unlike on other cars. The radiator is in the front of the car and the engine is the back, so there are two coolant pipes running down the car and there are about 4 different places where you have to bleed the system. Instructions are provided in the owner's manual and in service manuals, but plan on spending time doing this yourself or paying higher-than-normal labor at a service station.
4. In cold weather, the car will idle VERY high (around 2800rpm, up to 3000rpm!) until the engine is warmed up. You should just drive very lightly (shift at 3000rpm) until the engine is warm, and then you'll notice the idle will go down to normal (1000-1100rpm). This is considered "normal" and every first generation MR2 does it, strangely enough.
5. The oil filter is located on the engine towards the front of the car, right above the exhaust manifold, which can get very hot and will burn the skin off your arms if you're not careful. So allow the car to cool down, then jack up the back of the car, loosen the filter a little, and then start the car and idle for a few minutes to get the oil warm, drain oil from oil pan, and then carefully unscrew filter to drain. Some oil will spill on the warm exhaust manifold and will smell and smoke as it burns off after you're done and when you drive for the next few miles. Try to wipe as much off as you can (be very careful!).
6. The lug nuts must be torqued to exactly 76 ft-lbs. No less, no more. Otherwise you will damage the rotors (which is very commonly warped on earlier ('85, '86) MKI's. I do this myself, since I don't trust those quickie tire places and service shops, since they never torque lug nuts and they always use those harsh impact wrenches. If you don't change wheels yourself, then insist that they torque it to 76 ft-lbs. God forbid they don't have a torque wrench on them.
7. The timing belt needs replacement every 60,000 miles. Unlike other cars, though, even it it breaks it will not damange the engine as it is a "non-interference" engine. As with anything, good preventative maintenace goes a long way for an older car.
Websites / Resources
There are a lot of enthusiast websites for tips, how-to's, modifications, racing information, etc. for the MR2. Some places to get you started:
www.mr2.com -- International MR2 Owners Club (IMOC)
www.mr2.com/Mk1Articles.html -- MKI Information Articles: Assorted modification and information. Invaluable.
www.mr2.org.nz/maintenance.html -- Maintenance Manual: Someone was nice enough to post up pages from the Toyota Factory Manual for maintenance.
www.board.mr2faq.com -- MR2 Discussion Board
www2.msstate.edu/~sgn1/MR2/mkimr2.htm -- AW11 Archive: Lots of helpful info/modification tips on MKI (my fav. site)
www.board.mr2faq.com/showthread.php?s=6ac4bf0a5517a4b52695968abc73027a&threadid=46476 -- Replacing the frozen Emergency Brake Cables yourself
www.racingstrong.com/aw11/index.asp -- Racing Strong: Interesting project MKI MR2s with crazy mods (engine swaps, etc.)
www.mr2dc.com -- MR2 Driver's Club (UK): Their "Technical Discussion Forum" is good