Most car enthusiasts dream of one day owning an exotic, turbocharged mid-engined 2-seat sports car. Few of them ever reach this goal; have you seen how expensive Lotus Esprit V8's are these days? Or Jaguar XJ220's? Heck, even a used Noble M12 is far beyond the means of the average automotive enthusiast. I've always said there was a direct correlation between how expensive a car is, and how far back in the chassis the engine is mounted. A Honda Civic is cheap; the engine is in the front. A Lotus Elise is quite pricey; the engine's in the middle. A Porsche 911's ungodly expensive; the engine's in the back. It all makes sense.
But if you've been fiending for some mid-engined lift-throttle oversteer antics and don't have a huge budget, there may be hope for you yet. How do these stats strike you? Light weight. 200 horsepower. 0-60 in 5.9 seconds. 149 miles per hour. Mid-engined, rear wheel drive. Sound pretty good?
How about Toyota dependibility, a vast and resourceful aftermarket, low entry prices, striking good looks and a T-bar roof? Well, a Toyota MR2 Turbo might be just the thing for you.
This guide focusses primarily on the 2nd-generation MR2 Turbo models, although to be fair the Lotus-designed first generation models and the bizarre looking 3rd generation convertibles deserve their own buyer's guide on their own merits. First, a little background.
When the MkII MR2 went on sale in 1989, it replaced the MkI which had been on the market since 1984. The MkII MR2 went after a different market, trading miniscule size and go-kart agility for more poise, power, and grace. It was stil a flyweight car by modern standards - an MR2 Turbo only weighed 2734 lbs - but it was more of a GT than a classic sports car.
The SW20 (the chassis code for the MkII MR2) was available with different engines in different markets. US models got either the 2.2L naturally-aspirated 5S-FE from the Camry, or the turbocharged 200bhp 3S-GTE shared with the Celica All-Trac (GT4.) Other markets had a 2.0L 118bhp 3S-FE, as well as a 156bhp naturally-aspirate 3S-GE, such as the UK and Australia. Japanese market MR2's had slightly higher outputs, with the original Turbo making 221bhp and later 242. We'll discuss those later.
The US-market N/A MR2's (called SW21's) were nice enough cars, but they're a bit underpowered so we'll ignore them for this guide. When the MR2 Turbo went on sale in the US in 1991, it was available only with a 5-speed manual transmission and had a base price of $20,278. Early MR2 sales were strong, but during it's 5-year run in the US, they tapered off dramatically.
Why? Well, by 1995 (the last year of MR2 sales in the US) the price for the MR2 Turbo had ballooned up to $29,238, largely due to the unfavorable dollar-to-yen exchange rate in the US. This is the same thing that killed the 300ZX, Supra, RX7, and other Japanese high-end sports cars in the US market. A loaded MR2 Turbo in 1995 cost more than $33,000, which was enough to buy a new Corvette - you begin to see the problem.
Still, the MR2 definitely had it's merits. The first and foremost: the engine. The 3S-GTE was race-bred and felt like it, being one of two engines sold in the US in the time period that made more than 100bhp/l; the other was the Lotus Esprit Turbo, which was considerably more expensive. And, if you prefer tradition over logic and reason, then the RX7 had a "1.3L" engine making 255bhp. Still, 200bhp from 2.0L was mighty impressive back then, and it had a healthy 203 lb-ft of torque to go with it. Performance was impressive: Toyota qouted a 6.2 second 0-60 time and a top speed of 147mph, although some testers achieved better numbers than that.
Then, of course, there was the MR2's handling potential. Although the suspension setup was basic (struts in front, multilink independent in rear) the MR2 enjoys 50/50 weight distribution thanks to the transverse-mounted mid engine layout. The MR2's are very balanced and have high levels of adhesion, but once you breach the limits - look out.
There was one major revision in the MR2's lifespan, which occurred late in 1993 for model year 1994. There were some minor cosmetic changes: round quad tail lights with a color-coded center section replaced the older-style square ones, the three-piece rear spoiler was consolidated to one piece, and a new front splitter gave the MR2 a slightly more aggressive stance.
More significant were changes to the greasy bits. Toyota changed from a CT-26 to a CT-20b turbocharger for the Turbo models, which provided quicker spool-up and better flow despite it's smaller dimensions. Also, due to complaints of lift-throttle oversteer, the rear suspension was recalibrated for greater stability, a larger front-roll bar was fitted to induce more stabilizing understeer, and the rear tires were bumped up in width relative to the front to give more rear-end grip. The handling difference between 90-92 and 93+ MR2's is pretty significant; early cars have much less progressive break-away at the limit and are more prone to snap oversteer than later models, although some MR2 enthusiasts prefer the early car's more "lively" nature, since it requires - and rewards- a more talented hand behind the wheel.
Japanese market Turbo cars made more power than their US counterparts due to different tuning for higher octane Japanese-market fuel, 221bhp in early models and 242bhp in later CT-20b turbo models. These rarely show up in the US market, but are frequently imported in the UK and Australian markets since they never received Turbo models officially, and the JDM market cars make more power.
The Turbo is a pretty solid car mechanically, but there are a few things you should check out on your potential purchase to make sure you're getting a good deal.
-Brakes: the 90-92 models use smaller discs than the 93-95 models, and they are prone to overheating and warping under hard use/track time. If the car judders when you hit the pedal, factor in the replacement cost of rotors and pads. 93+ cars dissipate heat better and brake harder, so they're preferrable in that aspect.
-Catalytic Converter: the catalyst on the MR2 is unfortunately integrated into the turbo down-pipe. I say unfortunately because the MR2 Turbo's engine bay generates a lot of heat, and extended high-speed running can cook a catalyst, since it's directly downstream of the turbocharger. And you know - cat's aren't cheap. Suggestion: these cars are all OBD-1. Get a test pipe.
-Gearbox/Differential: The MR2 thankfully used a beefier gearbox than the N/A MR2, which is good as it has another 70bhp to deal with. So weak gearboxes aren't really a problem on MR2's - my envy is palpable, as 900's have transmissions made of glass, hopes and dreams. 93+ US model cars all come with the limited-slip differential standard. The use of Redline MTL gear lubricant is recommended for smoother shifts, and extended synchro life. Clutches are relatively robust, and can last up to 100,000 miles with thoughtful use. Otherwise, you're good.
-Cooling System:Make sure it's in good nick. The Turbo uses a significant 15L of coolant, and has 4 bleed points - so a coolant flush should be done by someone who knows what they're doing, as air pockets in the system can lead to overheating and head gasket replacement, which you don't want.
-Oil: MR2's use Synthetic oil only. Non-synthetics break down too easily under the extreme stress and heat of turbo life (the turbo is oil cooled, remember) and can lead to coking on the turbo bearing and lots of bad things. Make sure the PO has documentation of synthetic oil changes, on time (every 4,500 miles, filter ever 9,000.) It's worth it. Also, after hard use Toyota recommends a 3-minute idling cool down period for the 3S-GTE to avoid coking on the turbo bearing. An aftermarket turbo timer already installed would be a good sign.
-Ignition Components: The MR2 Turbo surprisingly doesn't chew through spark plugs like most turbo engines do, but they should be replaced every 60,000 miles or so. Since the MR2 is distributor-ignition, one particularly heavy wear point are the distributor arms, which can cause misfires and other unpleasantries if heavily worn. Thankfully, distributor rotors are cheap.
-Alignment: The MR2 is heavily dependent on correct alignment settings for proper handling, and they go out of alignment easily. Check the front tires for heavy inner-shoulder wear - these cars like to gain negative camber for the fun of it.
-Timing Belt: The MR2 Turbo's timing belt should be changed every 60,000 miles. Thankfully, Toyota had the insight to realize that this is a massive PITA and that people were going to push this as far as they could, and the 3S-GTE is a non-interference engine- meaning if the belt snaps, valves don't strike pistons. This is another great thing about the MR2.
-Turbocharger: a major sore point of MR2 ownership. The turbos are basically good themselves - the CT26 uses a ceramic impeller and is a twin-scroll design for faster spool-up, which is a good thing. However, heat buildup in the MR2 Turbo engine bay is a problem, and this can wreak havoc on your turbo's lifespan. Check to see if the car emits white smoke under boost/WOT conditions; this is a sign of a shot turbo. Stay away, as this is an expensive and labor-intensive repair.
Other than that, the MR2 is a pretty solid car. Pre-purchase inspection is always critical to getting a good deal. Speaking of good deals, how much should you pay for your slice of the turbo mid-engine pie?
Edmunds.com says an MR2 is worth between $2,100 for an averag-condition stripped 1991 Turbo to $5,300 for an excellent-condition loaded low-mileage 1995 T-bar Turbo. However, the MR2 has acquired something of a cult status in the States, and values are artificially inflated a bit. After a quick search on AutoTrader, I found MkII MR2 Turbo's retailing for between $3,500 (for a 1992 with 150k on the clock) to $20,500(!) for a very low-mileage mint 1995 example with 38k on the clock and lots of options. Most prices seemed to hover between $4,500 and $8,000, though, with a few outliers and heavily modified ones messing up the average.
The hardest part about finding the right MR2 is - well, finding one in the first place! There were a grand total of 23 MR2 Turbo's (1991-1995) listed on AutoTrader nationwide in the US. It helps to look on enthusiast and import forums (as well as CraigsList, but looking on CL never hurts!) to find the right MR2 for you.
As for aftermarket modifications, well, the sky's the limit. Here's a good starting plan, though:
-Intake/Exhaust: Let 'er breathe a little easier. Good standard first modifications
-Retuned/Remapped ECU: to increase fueling rates and boost-pressure threshold. The stock turbo and internals on CT-26b's are good for 16psi which equates to about 280bhp; later CT-20b's can take more boost (19psi or so) and can potentially yield 300bhp from a stock turbo
-Downpipe: the MR2 falls under OBD-1 inspection status, meaning emissions inspections are more lenient. Check with your local laws, but there are big gains to be had by replacing the choked-up stock downpipe with one without a catalyst attached. Also, faster turbo spool-up due to reduced backpressure is an added bonus.
Last but not least, let it be known that Toyota's 3.0L V6 fits neatly into the SW20 MR2's engine bay, and that TRD offers a pretty nice supercharger setup for said V6. So if you've really wanted an NSX all along... well, there you go.