A quarter of a century has passed since the first issue of AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE arrived on newsstands. It seems like only yesterday to many of us, but surely that cannot be so, since the 1986 Toyota MR2 that graced the cover of our premiere issue has migrated to the back of the book. Once a cover model, the first-generation MR2 is now a Collectible Classic.
Not that the AW11-chassis MR2 was brand-new in April of 1986. It had already been on the market for more than a year, but that made it a spring chicken compared with the Ferrari 308 parked next to it, which was in its twelfth year. In that first issue, we did the unthinkable, pitting a $14,778 Toyota against a $54,300 Ferrari. Then, we lost our minds and declared the cheap Japanese car the winner.
“God help the Italians if the Japanese ever decide to build supercars,” wrote David E. Davis, Jr. Time, the Acura NSX, and the Lexus LFA would prove that divine assistance is not yet required for Ferrari, but it’s still true that the MR2 was a very special car. Special because of its looks, performance, mid-engine layout, and, above all, because it was so unexpected, coming from a conservative company like Toyota.
Still, the MR2 was very much a Toyota. Whereas the cabins of other mid-engine cars were crammed with more compromises than cubic feet, the MR2’s cockpit was a model of ergonomic perfection, if somewhat less than aesthetically perfect. The dashboard’s multiple pods and appendages appear, in retrospect, to be an attempt to torture interior designers, but all of the important controls are placed within easy reach. To describe the cabin as minuscule would be an understatement, but with a greenhouse interrupted only by the thinnest of pillars, the view out is better than that from a modern convertible with its top down.
Despite the MR2’s microscopic dimensions, the cabin feels quite spacious. Highly adjustable seats are so supremely comfortable that you’ve no choice but to forgive the oh-so-1980s scrunchie-accordion-rubber doohickeys on the headrest uprights. The pedals are placed properly in front of the driver (rather than pushed toward the right because of wheel-well intrusion, as in many mid-engine cars). The two-spoke steering wheel was not pretty back then, and time hasn’t helped its cause, but it’s attached to something we seldom see in cars today: a manual steering rack. With fewer than 1100 pounds on the front axle, the steering isn’t unduly heavy, even at parking-lot speeds, but flick the wheel on a back road and the MR2 reacts with notable aplomb. That is no surprise, since Toyota recruited Dan Gurney to help with the final chassis tuning.
A testament to his efforts is the fact that the super red 1986 MR2 on these pages is the champ in its local autocross class. Its owner is high-school science and math teacher Richard Lee. The MR2’s front trunk, or “frunk,” as Lee calls it, houses a spare tire and enough room for an overnight bag and the removable glass roof panel (T-tops became available in 1987). The rear trunk, which he appropriately calls “the trunk,” is spacious enough for a couple duffel bags. But it’s the middle trunk (which we’ll call “the engine compartment”) where the magic is.
There lies a transversely mounted, twin-cam, sixteen-valve four-cylinder with a 7500-rpm redline. Large valves help high-rpm breathing, but in the days before variable valve timing was the norm, that benefit came at the expense of low- and midrange torque. To combat that problem, Toyota installed a flap that closed off half of the intake runners at engine speeds below 4350 rpm, boosting the intake-charge velocity and, therefore, torque. Sadly, the Nippondenso-badged derivative of Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection, which uses a flapper-type airflow meter, muffled what should have been a recipe for glorious intake noise. Still, the 4A-GE engine is smooth, happy, and torquey from idle to redline, making the MR2 a sensible everyday driver.
Speed demons needed to wait a few years for more power. A supercharger showed up as an option on the 1988 MR2, the first U.S.-market production car to wear such a device in more than two decades. The Roots-type blower bumped horsepower to 145 and knocked almost two seconds off the normally aspirated MR2’s mid-eight-second dash to 60 mph. Even cooler, the supercharger was coupled by an electromagnetic clutch so that it could be disabled when not needed-and when it was in use, a green LED illuminated on the dash.
Not so cool, however, was a host of suspension revisions that dumbed down the MR2’s handling and softened an already comfortable ride. It seemed that in the 1980s, like today, Toyota couldn’t resist tinkering with something that wasn’t broken. But if one thing has changed big time in the last twenty-five years, it’s the disappearance of the reasonably priced, two-seat sport coupe. When it was new, the MR2 played the part of the serious sports car among Pontiac Fieros and Honda CRXs in a class of cars that no longer exists.
The Mister Two, as it’s affectionately known, is perhaps the best evidence that, buried deep in the corporate hallways of Toyota, there exist true car enthusiasts whose passion could take ordinary components and build a serious rival to real sports cars. A Toyota that could beat up on a Ferrari, as it were. Perhaps, as we wrote back then, “we should drop the Mister nickname and start calling it Sir.”
ENGINES: 1.6L DOHC I-4, 112-115 hp, 97-100 lb-ft;1.6L DOHC supercharged I-4, 145 hp, 140 lb-ft
TRANSMISSIONS: 5-speed manual; 4-speed automatic
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Strut-type, coil springs
BRAKES F/R: Vented discs/discs
WEIGHT: 2400-2600 lb
92,000 (U.S. market, est.)
The MR2’s handling put Japan on the mid-engine map. Its cool, 1980s, origami-inspired styling still looks great, and these cars have lived up to their reputation for reliability and indestructibility. Plus, Dan Gurney helped with the chassis tuning, and there are two trunks. Numerous clubs and websites are dedicated to modifying these cars, so finding a stock example-like Lee’s-can be difficult. In your favor, though, is the fact that the first-generation MR2 outsold each of the next two generations by approximately three to one.