By on March 8, 2017

Toyota MR2 AW11, Image: Toyota Europe

On occasion, Ace of Base will scour the web for the details and minutiae of a ride from the past that we feel fits the Ace of Base ethos. This is one of those cars.

Offered in naturally aspirated and supercharged guises for 1989, the MR2 found itself in the last model year of its deliciously wedgy styling language. Travelling back in time to the late ‘80s, let’s find out what one could expect to get for their money in a base Toyota MR2.

Directly astern of the driver, the base MR2’s 1.6L DOHC inline-four was good for about 115 horsepower and less than 100 lb-ft of torque. Even by the lax standards of the mid/late ‘80s, this was not a quick car. It was, however, a happy car, more than glad to zing from idle to redline at any given prod of the go-pedal.

It was also a small car, just 155 inches in length with a 91-inch wheelbase, tipping the scales at 2350 pounds. That’s an impressive number, but consider this: nearly 30 years later, burdened with all manner of mandated safety nannies, airbags, and cries for modern touchscreen nav systems, Mazda’s MX-5 Miata still manages to weigh in at only 18 pounds heavier than the MR2. I think that underscores Mazda’s remarkable achievement with the newest MX-5. But I digress.

The MR2’s lightweight chassis featured MacPherson struts front and rear, discs on all four corners, and quick-ratio rack-and-pinion steering. The base MR2 had 56 percent of its 2350 pounds draped over the rear wheels, leading to great handling dynamics and general fling-ability.

Toyota MR2 AW11, Image: Toyota Europe

At the time, most other interiors of mid-engined cars (think Pontiac Fiero, Ferrari 308, Fiat X1/9) were rife with ergonomic horrors and failed to provide enough space to comfortably change your mind, let alone change a gear. The MR2’s cockpit, in contrast, was a master class in ergonomics, particularly the ’87-’89 models that flipped the e-brake from one side of the transmission tunnel to the other for greater driver space, and deployed a sharp-looking three-spoke steering wheel with MR2 embossed in the centre pad.

To this jaundiced eye, there’s more than a hint of Ferrari Mondial in the MR2’s rear backlight, especially around the flying buttress and engine cover detail. Pop-up headlights (which will never make a return — thanks a lot, pedestrian safety laws) still look cool today, and I confess to being a sucker for the side gills and taillights apparently designed by a Lego engineer.

A base MR2 started at about $14,110, which is about $27,600 in today’s money. The supercharged model was a not-insignificant 25-percent dearer. A buyer could load up a base model with an automatic transmission (yeah, right), leather seats (which you’d simply stick to in the summer), and power interior accessories (which added weight). If, by chance, a time-travelling visitor from 1989 is reading this in 2017, I also recommend you leave the optional t-tops back at the factory in Japan. My pen would have lingered over the box for the optional air conditioning, though.

The memory of a well-worn MR2 brochure taken from Toyota Plaza on Kenmount Road by my nine-year old self was bolstered by information found on fabulous site, which appears to house scanned copies of nearly every Toyota going back to the mid-’80s. My productivity has suffered since discovering this site. Yours will too.

Toyota MR2 AW11, Image: Toyota Europe

The name MR2 stands for either “mid-ship, runabout, 2-seater” or “mid-engine, rear-drive, 2-seater,” depending on who you ask. Urban legend holds that the MR2’s name was shorted to MR in France, as MR2 was awfully close to merdeux which means “shitty.” Call it whatever you want. With a lightweight frame and wedgy good looks, I call it an Ace of Base.

Older metal from years past which looked good in base form? They help make automotive history a lot better. Any others you can think of, B&B? Let us know in the comments. Naturally, feel free to eviscerate this selection.

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30 Comments on “Ace of Base Redux: 1989 Toyota MR2...”

  • avatar

    I realize that business is business, but the MR2 is what we need (want) from Toyota…now.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree, but if the FT 86 isn’t selling well, I can’t imagine how a mid engine car would fare better.

      • 0 avatar
        30-mile fetch

        Exactly. Toyota has a car about as close as you can get to this one in the current market, sitting in its showrooms right now. Light, agile, tactile, RWD, approachable limits, and sells for about the same inflation-adjusted price.

        All people do is b*tch about how it isn’t fast enough. A new MR2 would be no different.

        • 0 avatar

          The last MR2 was a better car than the contemporary Miata and, in a lot of ways, better than the Boxster but “heritage” and “pedigree” and “appliance” and something-something.

          I agree that a new one would rot on the lot, and for the same reason. If they do one, it’ll have to a) be a Lexus, and b) cost twice as much.

          • 0 avatar
            Middle-Aged Miata Man

            “The last MR2 was a better car than the contemporary Miata and, in a lot of ways, better than the Boxster but “heritage” and “pedigree” and “appliance” and something-something.”

            Agree completely. Although the NC1 Miata that replaced it is a sublime vehicle, I still miss my ’01 MR2 Spyder that was slightly bigger inside, had a slightly better ride, and just felt a bit more “special” thanks to its mid-engine layout and comparative rarity.

            No contest between an NB Miata and a Spyder.

        • 0 avatar

          Compared to the Miata and new 86, the MR2’s limits were “approachable” in the “approach with caution” sense. I speak from experience :)

      • 0 avatar

        What does the FT86 have to do with it? The MR2 is the only thing that’s ever made me RUN to the Toyota dealer, let alone ever think about the place.

        I drove one around the block, on a lark. Then had to have one. The first guy I let drive mine bought two!!

    • 0 avatar
      This Is Dawg

      Say no more!

      “Toyota engineer and Gazoo Racing chief Tetsuya Tada told Evo that “the three brothers” would be in production together “as soon as possible.”

      I looked at all of the used MR2s in a hundred miles of me for a few months, first and second gen. I couldn’t find a single one that looked maintained enough to have any confidence in for less than $5k, whereas I had the pick of the litter of used miatas.

      Maybe one day I’ll find a unicorn garage kept one.

  • avatar

    Test drove a well-worn rusty craigslist example back in college that a guy my age was selling for $1200 or so as I recall. Fantastic fun, nothing modern compares in terms of driving feel and excitement at low speeds, period.

  • avatar

    I’m surprised you don’t see more of these turned into track day cars. What kind of engine swaps work here? I’d guess any modern FWD high strung turbo 4 would be perfect. Would a WRX boxer fit? Likely too wide. VTEC yo? What about a FWD V6s, maybe from a Mazda? An MR2 is basically a tiny NSX the possibilities beg to be explored.

    Found the answer:

    • 0 avatar

      Tons of JDM engine options bolt up: hotter versions of the 4AGE (20 valve “silver top”), 4AGZE (supercharged, we got these in the US actually), I’d imagine a 3SGE (2.0L NA making ~170-200hp) could bolt up, or a newer 2zzge (celica GTS/Matrix XR-S 1.8L w/ VVTl-i). The Silvertop 4AGE would be the easiest drop-in swap I think.

  • avatar

    I’d say we need a car like this around, but we have one: Miata. Thank God.

  • avatar

    I never owned one but a good friend from college has a 87 model. We did a road trip from Florida to Texas in the summer of 01. He eventually sold it for a Fiero in our senior year of college. I never knew why.

  • avatar

    Yup. In French, MR2 would indeed be pronounced like sh!tty. And this car was anything but. I might have gotten one, except that it didn’t have enough head room for me.

  • avatar

    Not much room in that engine bay for larger engines. I imagine even a turbo would be a tight fit. The 4A-GE 16-valve engine was about as high-strung as you can get. Redlined at 7500 and loved to rev. It had a variable intake runner design that kicked in at about 3500 RPM to give a bit more grunt. Maybe non-US market later-gen versions of the same engine might fit and give more power but I am not certain.

    The original MR2 was just a sweet car to drive and it was pretty quick – or at least, felt quick – despite what the article claims.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah I just read the article, Matthew have you ever driven one of these little buggers? The go-kart sensation and minimal weight makes that little 1.6L feel like plenty. But yeah hi-po variants of the 4AGE that drop right in are easily found and swaps are well documented.

      • 0 avatar

        Never mind “Redline”, I’d shift at 8,200 RPM, also known as its Fuel Cutoff. Driving it like it was stolen, it was OK fast.

        I’d feather the clutch to not “bog” leaving the line, otherwise its contemporary V8 assassins would eat my lunch, from a dig. If their’s was an automatic, they’d lose.

  • avatar

    “Any others you can think of, B&B?”

    I think we need an AoB Redux on a Panther.

  • avatar

    What a great blast from the past. Fun car to drive. The second gen turbo (17 years ago or there-bout) had stats that pretty match match up with the FRS.

    I’d love to see an updated MR2 from Toyota though I know it wouldn’t happen.

  • avatar

    The engine swaps for this car are almost unlimited. The 4a family had the SC as well as the 20v. Plenty of folks turbo the stock 4a for more power. The 3s turbo from the turbo mr2 second gen is also a popular swap. Those engines can make silly power with big turbos. There is also a kit that mounts k series Honda engines into the car. Have owned 3 of the first gens cars they are very fun cars.

  • avatar

    $27k for this car for the base model it’s a bit much for many poorer enthusiasts. Maybe if it had the FRS engine and Miata weight.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    One of our sales reps wanted one as a company car. Convinced me to go and take a test drive. Naturally after about the first 10 minutes, I was in approval.

    Other non-standard cars that we approved included a CRX and a Mazda MX-3 which is a sadly overlooked model.

  • avatar

    Owned two MkI MR2. Just fun, reliable little cars. Sure, many family cars today will easily leave them behind off the stoplight…but head into your favorite twisty and things got very entertaining. These are my best friend’s favorite car, having owned quite a few…to include what was known as the Mk1.5 conversion…now that one was seriously fast. Ah, for the days when Toyota still built some excitement…

  • avatar

    What? Ate Up With Motor, The Old Car Brochure Project, BITOG, and other sites weren’t enough of a time suck for me? Now you turn me on the the Toyota reference link too. Damn you TTAC!

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