Having driven this 1991 Toyota MR2 for over three years now, in just about every driving situation imaginable, it’s time for me to write up a review of the car so far. I’ll cover everything from interior ergonomics to driving dynamics, with a dual emphasis on both daily- and performance-driving comfort and capabilities. As a reader-requested bonus, I’ll also do a scientific test of the “WAY2BLU” paint job.
MR2 stand for “Mid-Engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-seater,” “Midship Runabout 2-seater,” or various other things, depending on whom you ask. It’s Toyota’s mini-supercar, its lil’ Lamborghini, a mid-engine machine for the masses. The fun thrills of a Ferrari with the tame repair costs of a Toyota.
Produced on-and-off from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, the Toyota MR2 saw three generations of design. Mine belongs to the second, commonly referred to as the SW20, or in the case of naturally-aspirated models like mine, SW21. Toyota produced the SW2X-generation MR2 throughout the 1990s, and it was available in the United States for the 1991-1995 model years.
With a transverse mid-engine layout, the MR2 uses engine and transmission combinations typically seen in front-wheel-drive Toyotas. Don’t be fooled though, the MR2 neither drives nor sounds anything like a FWD Toyota. The mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive powertrain combines with a short wheelbase to create a highly engaging driving experience.
With snappy cornering abilities and a rear weight bias, MR2s have developed a reputation for being notoriously dangerous to drive. Later in this review, we’ll debunk some common misconceptions about the Toyota MR2’s “snap-oversteer” handling.
The 2nd-generation MR2 is small yet spacious. Outward visibility is almost entirely uninterrupted. With the windows down and the sunroof open, it’s almost a convertible in overall vibe.
At a leggy 6’2” and 180-lb curb weight, I’m probably not the driver Toyota had in mind when designing the MR2. Yet, I fit in the car surprisingly well. With only a tilt (but not telescoping) steering wheel and a 2-way manual driver’s seat, I still found a comfortable driving position easily. The large-diameter steering wheel is easy to turn, despite the manual steering rack.
While the factory gear shifter doesn’t have “short-shifter” angles, it is very easy to use due to its proximity to the steering wheel. It takes minimal time and effort to change gears, as long as one’s hands are at the 9- and 3-o’clock positions on the steering wheel, as they should be.
The door armrest and shift-linkage tunnel are positioned perfectly as elbow rests for relaxed driving. With comfortable seats, the MR2 can actually cruise nicely for longer drives around town and on back roads.
The SW21 (non-turbo) MR2 comes with Toyota’s “S-54” manual gearbox, which has a very short 4.176 final drive to aid acceleration. This means the naturally-aspirated car actually accelerates nicely around town, but struggles on the highway. At 65 mph, the 5S-FE engine is already spinning at around 3,000 rpm in 5th gear. Positioned right behind the driver, this motor blares its song loudly just to reach the speed limit on most freeways.
The MR2’s engine makes only 130 horsepower, but that’s not a deal-breaker in a ~2,700 pound car. The 5S-FE, which displaces 2.2 liters, is very much a “daily-driver” motor. It make a strong 144 lb-ft of torque early in the rev range, which makes the MR2 easy to drive locally.
It’s a car that makes even short trips to the grocery store an occasion. Everything, from the gearbox to the steering to the windows, is manual on this car. It feels a lot like driving an older classic car, but without the “this car feels old” vibes. Toyota’s chassis design and overall build quality provides confidence while remaining engaging to drive.
The chief benefit of the mid-engine layout in daily driving is how close the engine’s intake is to the driver’s ears. Right outside the window, you get raw induction note on acceleration. Just listen:
It’s even more addicting on an autocross course.
This is a car that comes alive at the limit. To drive this car fast takes focus and commitment. The most common opinion about ‘90s MR2s is that they display “Snap-Oversteer” and cause crashes with little warning.
This is one of the biggest misconceptions and oversimplifications in the world of import cars, right up there with the blind glorification of 4th-generation A80 Toyota Supras. MR2s do not “snap-oversteer.” That implies some degree of unpredictability. This is a car with highly predictable, if unconventional, handling.
Without delving too deeply into the physics of driving fast, here’s an explainer: MR2s have lots of weight in the back of the car. This means good traction for the rear wheels, when the car’s weight is on them.
Lift off the gas abruptly, and suddenly the weight shifts forward. The path of least resistance is for the back end to swing around. Since you’ve just lifted and taken away weight from the rear wheels, the tires have less resistance to sliding and break traction readily. BOOM, sideways.
To go from full-throttle to no-throttle, mid-corner, is just poor driving. An error. An MR2’s abrupt oversteer doesn’t mean you carried too much speed into a corner. It means you got scared and let off the gas, when the car would have been much happier if you kept it going.
This isn’t a car that requires otherworldly skill to drive. It just punishes bad driving. Smooth driver inputs are one of the first lessons in any motorsport class, and they apply here too. Drive smoothly, and an MR2 will reward you endlessly.
Drive an MR2 properly – brake smoothly and stay flat-out on the gas for the rest of the lap – and enjoy. This car is fun. The steering is direct, if a somewhat wide ratio, and has good road feel. If you can nail the corner entry in this car, the rest of the lap flows effortlessly. Acceleration, out of corners and beyond, is quite planted.
The chassis deserves far more than the stock 130 horsepower. Luckily, plenty of engine swaps are well-documented, such as Rat2 Motorsports’ Toyota V6 crate engine and Hux Racing’s Honda K-Series swap hardware. Even electric MR2 conversion kits are becoming available from outfits like EV West.
I’ve had this car for 3 years and haven’t even begun to explore its full potential. It’s comfortable to daily drive and a treat on an autocross course. If you ever get the opportunity to test drive an MR2, I have two words for you: Do. It.
Readers have often wondered, just how blue, really, is WAY2BLU? In the following, highly scientific test, here’s a comparison of the WAY2BLU paint job to the MR2’s original Nautical Blue:
On the RGB color scale, Nautical Blue reads a B-value of 146. That’s the blue part of a screen’s pixels lighting up to 146, on a scale of 0 to 255. WAY2BLU reads a B-value of 251.
251 out of 255 is very close to the bluest a blue can be. 98.43% of fully blue. The bluest of all blues, bluer than the sky itself.
Yet, with those WAY2BLU plates, I feel the car deserves to be even bluer. Stay tuned for more blueness, Blue Stage Two.
If this story blue your mind, check out @WAY2BLU on Instagram too for more blue MR2 content and adventures! Now for the real question: just how blue is Blue Stage Two going to be?