Mid-engined car designs are usually the preserve of expensive and exotic supercars produced by exclusive marques such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, and McLaren, but it’s also possible to buy used, cheap mid-engined cars if you know where to look. A mid-ship layout is often the preferred placement for the engine in high-performance cars, as focusing the centre of gravity towards the centre of the car improves balance and makes it possible to change direction more quickly.
Driving a mid-engined car can take some getting used to – who of us hasn’t come across an MR2 snap-oversteer meme in their time? – but if you learn to treat the layout with due respect, it can be extremely rewarding.
It’s getting rarer to find mid-engined cars at affordable prices these days, but our list of reasonably cheap mid-engined cars shows they are still out there. Many of them will be counted among the most influential models ever produced by their manufacturers, others are unlikely to go down in history in quite the same way but still technically fit the mid-engined bill…
Of course, you could also make your own mid-engined supercar at home like this guy…
Japan’s first ever mid-engined production sports car that brought affordable mid-ship thrills to the masses. The Midship Runabout 2-seater (MR2) was released in 1984 as a cheap-to-buy, but fun-to-drive sports car that was also fairly economical. It came with a mix of advanced features for the time, like disc brakes on all four wheels, and cost-saving minimalist designs such as a simple MacPherson strut suspension setup.
The Mk1 MR2 was also powered by the legendary 1.6-litre 4A-GE. This engine has a pretty passionate fan-base, helped in part by Takumi’s legendary Toyota Corolla AE86 in Initial D, and produced around 122bhp in the Mk1 MR2 for the UK. There was also a supercharged version of the 1.6 4A-GE, known as the 4A-GZE, which produced around 145bhp, sold in Japan. Many of these models have been imported to the UK and elsewhere over the years.
The Mk1 Toyota MR2 design is extremely 80s, with the wedge profile, pop-up headlights and the optional T-bar removable roof panels very reminiscent of the era that conceived it. That’s part of the charm, though, and there’s not much on the roads these days like it. A Mk1 will set you back around £5,500 and prices are only increasing.
‘Mature sporty personal, more innovation, more adult, a man in dandism, powered midship specialty’ – Toyota’s bizarre marketing slogan for the SW20 MR2… What does it mean? What is Dandism? Who knows. Each to their own, but the second generation of the MR2 is our favourite of the three. It was nicknamed ‘the poor man’s Ferrari’ which may have been intended as a slur, but is quite the compliment when you consider it was made by the brand behind the mundane Corolla. Produced from 1989 to 1999, the second generation MR2 improved on the original’s formula, with Toyota’s intent to make it into more of a grand-tourer than before.
The pop-up headlights and T-bar roof stayed, but Toyota improved the refinement and added a surprising amount of practicality for a sports car with a big boot and ‘frunk’. The car came with the 2.0-litre 3S-GE naturally aspirated engine in the UK, which produced 154bhp or up to 170bhp depending on the year, but Japanese and US models were available with the 2.0-litre turbocharged 3S-GTE engine. JDM GT and GT-S turbo models produced around 222bhp, until 1993 when that was uprated to 242bhp, and were commonly imported to the UK.
The words ‘snap’ and ‘oversteer’ in combination are synonymous with the MR2, but don’t let the memes phase you. As long as you don’t let off the throttle too suddenly when approaching a bend, learn to adapt your technique, don’t fit cheap rubber or go for a later model where some of the flaws were ironed out, you should be ok.
While the Mk2 Toyota MR2 was a more attainable sports car than others, like many 90s Japanese performance models, prices are rising astronomically. If you’re unsure whether a Mk2 MR2 Turbo is genuine and it has a moonroof (one-piece removable sunroof), it means it’s a UK car so can’t be genuine. Prices for a road-worthy NA car start from around £5,000 at the time of writing, but vary depending on the condition. Coveted turbocharged Japanese models in good condition start from around £8,000. As it so happens, a Mk2 MR2 is a great basis for all manner of engine swaps.
If the Mk2 SW20 was ‘the poor man’s Ferrari’, the Mk3 roadster was ‘the poor man’s Boxster’. You won’t get the pop-up headlights or the same range of roofs as with the first two MR2s, and the looks of the third gen can divide opinion. Prices haven’t risen as sharply as those of its forebears (yet) which means the W30 is more attractive than it seems at first glance.
Power comes from the mid-mounted 1.8-litre variable valve timed motor producing 138bhp. It weighs a very light 1000kg and hits 60mph in a Toyota GT86-beating 7.5 seconds.
It’s not as practical as either of the other two MR2s, but it’s great fun on a budget and could come into its own as a future classic. Prices for Mk3 MR2s start from around £2,000 – that’s a bargain for open-top mid-engined thrills!
This is where the similarities stop, but the MG was produced from 1995 to take on one of the best-loved sports cars of all time, the Mazda MX-5. The roadster was fitted with a choice of 1.6-litre and 1.8-litre engines, the most powerful 1.8-engine produced 159bhp. The MG F and TF are definitely an affordable way into mid-engined car ownership, though, with prices starting from £1,500 if you’re tempted.
Be warned that the cabin is not of particularly high quality (there’s a reason MG eventually went out of business in the mid-2000s) but if you’re interested in owning one of the last hurrahs of the British-owned MG brand, or a cheap mid-engined car, then the MG F and TF are your answer.
Another forgotten sports car of the early 2000s was the Smart Roadster, which had a tiny 0.7-litre engine placed in the middle of the car. The most powerful version of the standard car was capable of 80bhp which makes it the least powerful car on this list, but it’s very light with a weight of 790kg.
It was only available as an automatic and as gearboxes go it wasn’t a good one, but Smart Roadsters are getting rarer to see on the roads these days so there is that exclusivity value. You’ll be looking to fork out around £2,500 to get your hands on one, but for even more rarity you’ll need from £12,000 to bag a Brabus version which had an uprated power figure of 101bhp.
The Porsche Boxster 986 is the option to go for if you want that premium image and feel without the actual premium cost. 986 models can be found from £3,500 if you’re brave enough, but be aware that the engine can be difficult to work on (although this is generally the case for all mid-engined cars) and not really intended for an amateur mechanic should anything go wrong.
One of the Car Throttle team bought the 2.7-litre Porsche Boxster seen in our £5000 JDM vs Europe vs USA challenge which was then looked over and given a clean(ish) bill of health by a Porsche professional. The first-gen Boxster has also been officially designated as a classic by Porsche themselves.
The fact is that this mid-engined sports car is a viable option for affordable thrills – plus you’ll get the badge prestige that goes along with a Porsche. It’s the perfect mid-engined car for a mid-life crisis…
OK, so we may be clutching at straws here. It’s bland, it’s ugly and it would get lost in a car park, but you might be surprised to learn that the Toyota Previa is in fact a mid-engined car from the same brand that brought you the MR2, making it one of the weirdest minivans ever.
The engine compartment in a Toyota Previa is found underneath the front seats – not where you’d expect to find it in a people carrier. The family runabout was even available with a supercharged engine producing 133bhp and all-wheel drive, making it even quirkier. Subsequent iterations of the Previa ditched its unorthodox mid-engined RWD and AWD setup for a simple front engined configuration.
A first-generation Toyota Previa is actually pretty rare to come across these days. We found one for £4,500 which might sound like a lot for a mundane minivan, but how many people can say they own a mid-engined seven-seater?
What do you think about our selection of reasonably cheap mid-engined cars? Let us know of any other cheap, quirky mid-engined cars we’ve missed in the comments…