So Eighties - Toyota MR-2


The original MR-2 is a time warp back to an era of straight line design and pop-up headlights. Here we tell the tale of a supercharged targa.

Words: Kyle Cassidy   |   Photos Tom Gasnier
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Toyota has only recently rediscovered its sporting mojo after too many years spent churning out mere appliances. But wind the clock back to the eighties, and its line-up included a few gems, including the original MR-2.

This little coupe was conceived to be both fun to drive and economical as the world grappled with the oil crises of the 1970s. In a bold move, a mid-engine layout was adopted, with a small bore, transversely-mounted four-cylinder providing the modest but economical thrust. The first MR-2 prototype dates back to 1976 though the project was shelved for a time only to re-emerge in 1980. Toyota showed an SV-3 concept at the Tokyo show in 1983 and with just minor changes to the styling it would debut as the Midship, Runabout, Two-seater or MR-2 for short in March of 1984. It employed simple yet effective MacPherson struts all round and the motoring world was impressed with its nimble dynamics thanks in part to suspension honed by Lotus and input from a test driver named Dan Gurney.

You’ll hear aficionados refer to this first model as the AW11, the model code of the car. It refers to the 1.6-litre version sold new here, and most of those subsequently imported, which used the company’s 4A-GE engine. Genuine buffs will point out the AW10 was a JDM-specific MR-2 fitted with a 1.5-litre engine. The 1.6 4A-GE was also used by the Corolla GT models (and tuned to hell in Formula Atlantic single seaters), the twin-cam unit featuring a head developed by Yamaha to let it spin to beyond 7500rpm. With big intake ports, the engine developed good power up top, but to compensate for a lack of low end torque, it had something called T-VIS to vary the air flow in the intake tract, increasing its flow at low engine speeds to help kick it along. Japanese and NZ-spec models were rated at 88kW with 145Nm at 5000rpm. This was sent via a five-speed manual or four-speed auto to the rear. The MR-2 weighed between 950 and 1060kg, depending on the model and was said to turn in a 0-100km/h time in the high eight-second bracket.

With big intake ports, the engine developed good power up top, but to compensate for a lack of low end torque, it had something called T-VIS to vary the air flow in the intake tract, increasing its flow at low engine speeds to help kick it along.

In 1985, a supercharged model was added to the mix. The resulting 4A-GZE engine had a Roots-type supercharger and intercooler. It did away with the variable intake tech while power was pushed out to 108kW at 6400rpm with 186Nm of torque developed at 4400rpm. This helped remove almost two seconds from the 0-100km/h time. In a bid to save fuel, the belt-driven charger was clutched so that it only spun when excess throttle was added. Toyota gave the supercharger model a beefed-up trans, stiffer springs and an extra vent on the engine cover. Along with the supercharger badging, it gained more body plastic to bulk up its looks.

Given you see these things rarely, it’s easy to forget how diminutive they are, the MR-2 measuring up at just 3.9m long and 1.6m wide, while it’s a mere 1250mm tall. That sees it fit comfortably inside the space the current Yaris takes up on the road.

This 1987 supercharged example belongs to mid-engine addict, Stephanie Bickerstaff. No stranger to the allure of the MR-2, she’s owned five of them. This is her fourth ‘a-dub’ and she has also owned one of the second-generation SW20 models.

Stephanie had been looking for a supercharged MR-2 for sometime, and given their relative rarity now, decided to snap this example up here a couple of years back. Despite its condition, and its automatic gearbox, she reckons she couldn’t pass it up. Described as a ‘total mess’ it had been off the road for 18 months prior to her purchase, which had allowed the chassis rot to really take hold. “There were holes you could poke your fingers through”, she explains so the restoration involved plenty of rust removal. It’s the brown metal bug that’s the reason these cars are getting ever rarer; most have rotted away. Once the cancer was carved out, it got a lick of new paint and received its new rego in March 2019, a year to the day after Stephanie had purchased it.

Mechanically, the powertrain, which is still as per the factory, got a full service, while the majority of the steering, suspension and brake bits have been replaced with new, mostly reproduction parts. Stephanie tells us there is a healthy supply of these reproduction pieces for the MR-2.

Most of the mechanical meddling she has carried out herself. She says she crashed her first car, and hated the bill for the repairs so vowed never to suffer those costs again, learning to do most of the spanner twirling herself.


A bigger job that’s in the pipeline is a manual conversion. It’s apparently not too hard of a job, as she says all the necessary holes in the bulkheads are already stamped, though the clutch line assembly poses a bit of a headache. And a few parts required for the job are hard to come by, with some she might have to end up getting made. But as she puts it; “it’s the things you do for the thing you love”.

For Stephanie, the MR-2’s main attraction is its shape. “It looks like a door wedge, it’s something a five-year-old would design. It’s just so eighties, I love it”. She’s also enamoured with the concept of the design and its mid-engine lay-out. Her other car is a NA1 NSX, another mid-engined car with pop-up lights, (we see a theme developing here), while her absolute dream car she rates as the BMW M1, yet another mid-engined machine. And the only thing she could think of replacing the MR-2 with would be a Mk1 Lotus Elise. “I had the use of a friend’s one for a few months once and I loved its go-kart charms.”

But back to the MR-2, and the only real let down to her mind is the set-up of the shocks. “It’s a bit soft on the turn, but that’s how they came out”. A set of coilovers is planned to stiffen it up and reduce the wallow but Stephanie notes “I’m happy with it for the time being. I’m just glad to have it back on the road again.”

And as such, Stephanie enjoys it as much as possible. “It’s intended to be used - I didn’t want a garage queen - and I take it to as many events and shows as possible.” Once the manual trans is sorted, it’ll be off to the Toyota Festival and a few track days are planned. And road trips, with an eye to taking in the South Island.

She points out it’s not as impractical as you might think. “It’s got more luggage space than an RX-7,” she says, as she shows us the small boot up front and a hold in the rear that’s quite deep and wide. And filled with a few towels. “Yeah, you need those for the odd leak around the targa top,” she says. A set of new seals for the removable glass roof is on the wish list. It doesn’t take long for her to whip the top off the MR-2, the glass inserts fitting neatly in behind the seats. She says the sunroof models are the rarest, the hardtop is lighter (less rust and leak prone too) but the targa is the one for her, another feature that’s so eighties.

Stephanie says the supercharger gives a little whine when on boost, its operation accompanied by a light that flashes on the instrument cluster. She says she likes the linear power delivery, though there is a bit of kick as it ramps up through the midrange, but nothing to worry about as she reckons it’d be lucky if it’s making 100hp in its current state, “but it’s light so feels fast enough.”

The MR-2 is something she calls her forever car; “I’ll die with it, though hopefully not wrapped around something!”

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