Review and road test of the Toyota MR2 Turbo (1990 - 2000)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
When it comes to performance cars, you usually get what you pay for. The market is generally well tuned in to what's the hot ticket and adjusts the price accordingly. Every once in a while, however, a car slips under the mainstream radar. Just such a car is the Toyota MR2 Turbo. Never officially imported to the UK, the MR2 Turbo is probably the biggest performance bargain around. Where else will £3,000 buy you a slinkily styled two seat mid-engined coupe with rear wheel drive, Toyota reliability and the sort of performance that can leave a Porsche Boxster gasping? Exactly. Before you write the car off as impossible to service, consider that the MR2 Turbo is ostensibly a UK specification MR2 with a UK specification Celica GT4 engine plumbed in. Suddenly it doesn't seem quite so daunting.
Models Covered: SECOND GENERATION 1990-2000 2.0 COUPE/T-BAR [GT, GT-S]
A number of factors have coincided to make the MR2 Turbo the performance bargain that it is. The first was a series of lurid headlines that accompanied the very first MR2 MK IIs that were imported to this country back in 1990. Car magazine, amongst others, complained that the handling was edgy, and that the previously sweet-natured MR2 had become a rather evil-handling beast that was virtually impossible to catch should you slide the rear wheels. The prospect of one of these cars with a turbocharger bolted to it doesn't sound very appetising.
The truth is a little more prosaic. The MR2 Turbo was offered in three very distinct guises. The first version, referred to by MR2 enthusiasts as the Rev1, was the car that attracted the opprobrium of the motoring press and it's true that in extremis, these cars can be a little snatchy, especially in the wet. With 220bhp on tap, these were very powerful cars and were often purchased by customers who had no experience of mid-engined sportsters.
At the start of 1992, Toyota introduced the Rev2 MR2 Turbo, identifiable by its fifteen-inch wheels and white front fog lamps. A limited slip differential was offered as an option and stiffer Bilstein suspension was fitted as standard. The steering was regeared and the engine features a stiffening brace across it. Power was unchanged at 220bhp but the car was now a good deal more manageable.
This model proved very popular and is the most common MR2 Turbo variant found in the UK. True connoisseurs of the car will, however, want to splash out on a Rev3 model. These can be identified by their more modern modular tail light assemblies with round brake lights. Packing a hefty 241bhp, these cars feature a standard limited slip differential and uprated dampers. If you're looking for a car to use at track days, the Rev3 is the most suitable model. The MR2 Turbo continued to be sold in Japan right up until 2000 with the car receiving a few incremental changes to the in-car entertainment and wheel options but staying mechanically similar, eventually being replaced by the lightweight and less powerful MR-S roadster.
What You Get
The MR2 Turbo is about as practical as a mid-engined roadster can get. The interior is relatively spacious with plenty of elbowroom and headroom and there's even a fairly generous boot tucked behind the engine. The turbocharged models can be identified by their raised engine cover whereas the normally aspirated cars have a flat panel.
Japanese cars are often fitted with a higher level of standard equipment than we generally come to expect in equivalent UK cars and the MR2 Turbo is no exception. The GT-S features cloth trim whereas the upspec GT model features half-leather trim, a more sophisticated air conditioning system and electrically folding door mirrors
What to Look For
As you run your eye down the classified ads for MR2 Turbos, you may well be struck by the fact that many of them are showing 60,000 miles on the clock. The reason for this is that every 60,000 miles, Toyota recommends a cam belt change for the car and this is an engine out job. A Toyota main dealer can undertake this job for around £400. Fortunately the MR2 engine is what's known as a non-interference unit, so even if the belt does go, your valves won't collide expensively with your piston.
The engine itself is a tough little unit and the Garrett turbocharger is also a rugged piece of engineering. As with any turbocharger, idling it for a minute or so after a prolonged high-speed run is a good idea. When test driving the car, you'll need to give the engine a chance to warm up properly before it lets you have full boost. When the engine temperature gauge is reading halfway, you can perform an acceleration test to judge how strong the car's boost is. Trundle along in second gear at 20mph and then plant the throttle. At 2,500rpm the car should surge forward strongly, until hitting the rev limiter at 7,250. During this acceleration the boost gauge on the dashboard should be pegged well into the plus sign at the top of the dial and stay there until you lift off or the limiter intervenes. If it doesn't pull strongly, walk away. Troubleshooting turbo woes is a tough task and there are plenty of MR2 Turbos to choose from.
Because the cars are from Japan, most will still have a 112mph restrictor on them. This shouldn't present too much of a problem unless you plan to do some serious track work whereupon it can be removed by a specialist. Otherwise make sure the car has had an SVA test and is UK road legal. If the speedometer still reads in km/h or there is no rear fog lamp, again, walk away or factor in a £400 fee to convert and put the car through the SVA test. Checking the engine coolant is a good way of gauging how well the car's been looked after. Toyota's ForLife coolant is bright red in colour. If the coolant is muddy brown it's a good indication that the car hasn't been serviced regularly. Give the air conditioning system a good blast to ensure that it's working properly. If it isn't it may need re-gassing and Rev1 and Rev2 models will probably need their CFC-based R12 Freon coolant environmentally disposed of and replaced with R134a gas. Servicing shouldn't be an issue as the engine (Toyota code number 3S-GTE) is exactly the same as that fitted to the Celica GT4.
(approx based on a 1995 MR2 GT Turbo) A clutch assembly should be around £150, a rear box for the full exhaust is around £285 (a front pipe is around £150). A starter motor should be close to £185 and a radiator around £255. The all-important cam belt is £34. Brake pads at the front are about £45 a set. A non-electrically operated door mirror is close to £75. Major and minor services are around £115 and £195 respectively.
On the Road
A well-sorted MR2 Turbo is a seriously underrated giant killer. Although the horsepower figures are measured using 100RON Japanese fuels, the cars run very reliably on performance 97 and 98RON fuels in this country. With a top speed of 152mph and a 0-60 capability of 5.7 seconds, the Rev1 and Rev2 cars are quick enough to embarrass plenty of today's best roadsters. Bear in mind that many owners will have also opted for simple upgrades to their engine management software that can see the little Toyota turning out in excess of 260bhp. If you see an MR2 with a raised engine cover, the bottom line is it's probably faster than your car. 300bhp is an attainable target for a modified Rev3 car.
Few owners have retained their standard wheels and tyres with the optimum wheel size probably being 17-inches. Lateral grip is very high and a Rev2 car will cling on resolutely, even in the wet. A bootful of throttle will overcome rear end grip, whereupon fast and accurate corrective lock will bring the car back into line. The gearchange is slick and positive and the pedals are ideally spaced for performance driving. Many buyers increase the effective gearing of the steering by fitting a smaller wheel than the somewhat bus-like standard fit Toyota item.
The MR2 Turbo isn't the most relaxing car to drive, as the turbo is very vocal. It's sited just a foot or so behind your head and the suspension is rather firm. The electric aerial position also generates a fair amount of wind noise. Although it may not be a serene cruiser, it's certainly exciting and the look on other driver's faces when they see their brand new BMW 330Ci dispatched by £3,500 worth of twelve year-old Toyota is almost worth the price of admission alone.
As a performance bargain, nothing really gets close to the Toyota MR2 Turbo, especially in Rev2 guise. The difference in price between Rev1 and Rev2 cars makes it a false economy to plump for one of the early models but it's rarely money wasted to save for a Rev3 model. If you want Porsche performance at Peugeot prices, the MR2 Turbo supplies the answers.
Toyota MR2 Turbo (1990 - 2000) review by ANDY ENRIGHT