Okay, stop drooling. You, too, can experience the dramatic styling, the knife-edged dynamics, and the no-it-won't-fit storage capacity of a mid-engine sports car, even if you haven't backdated a bunch of stock options or signed a three-picture deal with Paramount. Now, granted, your quest for an affordable classic won't involve sharing an espresso in a sleek Ferrari showroom with a charming salesman named Mauro. No, your watchwords will be due diligence and caveat emptor, and your pursuit will entail scouring car-club listings, classified ads, and, in the worst of all possible worlds, used-car lots run by guys named Honest Jake. But for those willing to go the extra mile(s), we can recommend three mid-engine stalwarts from three different eras offering three contrasting philosophies at three distinct price points: The 1991 Acura NSX, the 1997 Porsche Boxster, and the 1985 Toyota MR2. Gentlemen, start your search engines.
Driving a car with 112 hp and 97 lb-ft of torque seems like an invitation to get your butt kicked from Woodward Avenue to Mulholland Drive. But when Toyota unveiled the MR2 runabout in 1985, it was big enough news to merit a cover story in the inaugural issue of Automobile Magazine--facing off against a Ferrari 308GTBi! Sounds like lions versus Christians, right? Try David versus Goliath. Spake this magazine's founder, David E. Davis, Jr.: "God help the Italians if the Japanese ever decide to build supercars."
Pontiac and Fiat had gotten to the affordable mid-engine two-seater market first with the Fiero and the X1/9, but Toyota--Japan's stodgiest automaker--was the first to get the formula right. Unlike the Mazda Miata, which would arrive a few years later, the MR2 didn't channel British roadsters of yore. The space-age coupe styling looked forward rather than back, and the free-revving twin-cam engine, slick-shifting five-speed transmission, light-but-stiff chassis, and rear-biased weight distribution added up to a deliriously high fun-to-drive quotient.
Toyota went a different way when the ambitious second-generation MR2 debuted in 1990. Fans claimed it looked like a poor man's Ferrari--critics said it resembled a Fiero--and the top-of-the-line turbocharged version could be boosted to crank out monstrous amounts of thrust (modern-day tuners often claim to achieve 500-plus hp). The last of the MR2s, a roadster that appeared in 1999, returned to the sweet handling and quirky styling of the original, but it was too little, too late. U.S. imports stopped in 2005, and the production run will end later this year.
Among younger enthusiasts, the second-gen turbo is the bomb. But purists prefer the spunk of the original Mister Two, a spirited machine that was light on pyrotechnics but full of personality. A lot of old MR2s have been driven into the ground, so you can find them for less than $1000, but a cheap car isn't necessarily a bargain. Plan to shell out between $2500 and $5000 if you want to spend more time on the road than in the shop.
Rust is a common MR2 killer, and T-tops often leak. Engines, however, aren't merely bulletproof but grenade-resistant. "They last a couple of years past forever," says Jeff Fazio, who's owned thirteen MR2s and currently uses an '85 as his daily driver. A supercharged model was offered in 1988 and 1989. Or knock yourself out and find what's known as a Mk 1.5--a first-gen car retrofitted with a second-gen turbo.