9 Things You Need To Know Before Buying An SW20 Toyota MR2
Second-generation MR2s are still great value even in today's mad used car market, but there are some things you need to be aware of before handing over your money
Not so long ago, Toyota revealed a concept we’re fairly certain is the next MR2. It’s fully electric, and the production version, should it go ahead, won’t be here for a long time.
Right now, though, you can go out and buy an example from any one of the Mister Two’s existing three generations, and without paying a huge amount of money in the process. It’s the second-gen ‘W20’ or ‘SW20’ we have under the microscope today - perhaps the most popular from an enthusiast perspective.
These are old cars now, so you do need to be aware of a few things before going rooting through the classifieds. The usual rules of checking for evidence of regular oil changes and appropriate cambelt swaps (60k miles) apply here, but these are far from the only things that should be on your mind. To find out what you need to know about buying and modifying an SW20, we sat down for a chat with Andy Weightman of MR2 tuning experts Fensport. Here’s what we learned:
You were expecting this one, weren’t you? No buyer’s guide of a car more than a few years old is complete without a section about rust, and the MR2 does indeed have some problem areas to keep an eye on. Chief among these are the sills, thanks to some foam Toyota thoughtfully installed underneath, which soon soaks up any water coming its way.
“It absorbs it all in the foam and then it rots the car from the inside out,” Andy explains. Be sure to do all the usual checks on the exterior bodywork for any bubbling, and also have a look under the boot carpet.
If your MR2 prospect is leaking water, headaches likely lay ahead. For instance, there are a couple of copper heater hoses that run over the top of the fuel tank, and they tend to crack at the brackets. Changing them is “a massive job,” Andy explains, as the fuel tank needs to come out along with the handbrake cable. Rubber replacements stop this problem from arising in the future, at least.
There are issues at the other end of the car too. “The radiators tend to get damaged from the front end because it’s so open,” Andy says. The pipes that run from the rads to the mid-mounted engine should also be carefully inspected. Also, the MR2’s bleeding process is described as “complex”.
We’re not saying don’t buy one of the T-bar models with its removable roof panels - just do so in full knowledge of the additional problems you’ll likely encounter. “No matter what anyone says, they all leak! I spent a year trying to fix mine,” Andy says. There are bodges to stop the unwanted interior rainfall, but the best thing to do is simply replace all the seals.
Leaks will stain the seats, quite possibly cause mould, and also make the sill rust problem worse, since the water runs down to those infamous chunks of foam.
Sorry, but we had to address this at some stage. Mention the Mk2 to a lot of people, and the first thing they’ll respond with will be to do with snap-oversteering backwards into its hedge. There is some element of truth to the SW20’s supposed unruliness, but if you’re expecting it, particularly on a wet day, it’s not something to be too fearful of.
“It does do it,” Andy says, adding, “I had a Rev 1 Turbo - it has a different subframe to the others [and a different suspension setup], and it was called the ‘widow maker’. I used to have quite a lot of fun driving around in the rain!”
He concludes, “They’re got a bad reputation, but they are incredible cars. They handle really nicely.”
There are various areas SW20s like to drop oil from, including the cam cover, the distributor o-rings and the head gasket. One particularly irritating consequence of oil leaks can be alternator failure, and due to the car’s tight engine bay, switching one of those out is not a fun job.
Everything on this page applies to the Turbo models, along with some issues specific to these cars. A lot of the smoke-related. You need to check for blue/white smoke on startup, smoke from the dipstick tube, and smoking under hard acceleration and deceleration.
Full boost should be arriving at 3000rpm, and if it isn’t, be worried. On that subject, if the car overheats on boost, this could point to a cracked block.
In addition to all the cooling problems mentioned further up, Turbo cars also have a small pipe in the cooling system not so affectionately known as the ‘Hose From Hell’ which likes to dramatically explode, often around the 100,000-mile mark. Replacing the ‘HFH’ is difficult thanks to its proximity to the exhaust manifold.
The turbo cars are a great platform for tuning. Depending on supporting mods, the stock turbo can provide 280bhp to 300bhp on a “safe” 1 bar of boost. Beyond that, it’ll start to get expensive, as you’ll need to think about upgrading the fuel system (Andy says “ they tend to run out of injectors quite quickly”), upgrading to forged internals and going for a hybrid turbocharger.
“Whilst it’s out [the engine] it makes sense just to do it all because they’re so hard to work on,” Andy explains. Once finished, you can look forward to an output in the region of 350 to 400bhp.
The stock MR2 ride height is amusingly high, so you can get away with a decent drop. If it’s intended mainly as a road car, Andy’s advice is to go for more subtle tweaks rather than splurging on coilovers. “Try and keep the stock shocks and have some Tein lowering springs and polybushes. That’s as far as I’d go,” he says. The Tein kit lowers the car by 37mm at the front and 38mm at the back.
The SW20 had two major updates, giving three distinct ‘Revisions’ - ‘Rev 1’, ‘Rev 2’ (Dec ‘91 - Nov ‘93), and ‘Rev 3’ (Nov ‘93 to June ‘96). There were another couple of tweaks after that, but they’re mostly cosmetic. Although it is still possible to bag an early Rev 1 for less than £2000, it’s worth paying more for Rev 3 or later, Andy reckons.
See also: 10 Things You Need To Know Before Buying A Toyota GT86
Along with the chassis changes of the Rev 2 car that made the MR2 friendlier to drive, Rev 3s received new suspension bracing at the rear, some sizeable styling changes, and revised engines. The newer powerplants are pokier from the off and are more tuneable thanks to changes such as a switch from 440 to 550cc fuel injectors.
Tempted to buy an SW20 MR2? Or do you already own one? Let us know in the comments.