There are plenty of fun cars you can buy right now, but enthusiasts often run into the same problem with the new toys: too much digitization, too much assistance, not enough flavor. A 1991 Toyota MR2 Turbo might not catch today’s cars in a zero to 60 sprint, by my God, it’s got the teeth to make up for it, and then some.
If you happen to have the great fortune to drive one, as I did, be warned: You might wake up one morning in a daze, a few thousand dollars short and with a mid-engine Japanese sports car in the driveway.
The Middle Child
A 1991 Toyota MR2 Turbo is the higher performance variant of the Japanese automaker’s mid-engine sports car. There was a naturally aspirated version, too, but the surging, boosted MR2 is the one you want. Specifically, a second gen like this one, which befittingly looks like the perfect cross between the wedge-shaped original MR2 and the smoother, final third-gen.
First-gen MR2s were notoriously twitchy to drive, with a tendency to snap-oversteer without much warning. So, Toyota gave the successor an improved suspension setup, a more luxurious interior, a larger and heavier body and even tapped motorsports legend Dan Gurney for handling advice. The resulting sports coupe was magnificent; sleek and refined, with looks that still make it stand out today, 27 years later.
The example that Jalopnik was lucky enough to test out belonged to a reader named Jordan and only had 13,000 original miles on its odometer. It was a lovely shade of Nautical Blue with a fully optioned out leather interior. Perfection comes in many forms; this is one of them.
More Than Meets The Eye
The most striking thing about the MR2 Turbo is how petite it is. I know that modern cars are comparatively massive to what their predecessors were decades ago, what with new safety regulations and crash standards, but the MR2 is truly tiny. It’s low-slung and quite short in length, though its mid-engine silhouette makes it seem longer than it is
And despite how small it is from the outside, it felt surprisingly roomy inside. Jordan, who is six-foot-two, does not have a problem fitting in it at all, even with the T-tops in place. Inside, visibility was incredible. The curved glass of the rear window added a nice aesthetic touch.
Legroom was abundant, too. And there was a truly shocking amount of storage space. The trunk behind the engine would easily fit a couple weekend bags, and if the spare tire were removed from the frunk, additional things could be stored there.
There are ample nooks to store things in the cabin, too. The doors have pockets, there’s a glovebox, extra space behind the seats and two center compartments for smaller items. The engineers really made full use of the space they had available to them.
You Don’t Drive It, You Ride It
The MR2 Turbo is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, good for a claimed 200 horsepower and mated to a five-speed manual. The engine buzzed mightily through the compact steering wheel, hooked up to an electro-hydraulic power steering system, and the shifter throws had some weight to them. I had to push and pull harder than I was used to to settle it into the gates.
This was especially enjoyable because modern manual transmissions lack that extra shifter resistance that makes the action feel like you’ve actually accomplished something substantial when you change gears. The throws are too often feather-light, making you question if you actually did shift or if you’re just going through the motions.
I suppose a new Fiat 124 Spider would be philosophically similar to the MR2 Turbo. Both have turbocharged inline fours, manual transmissions and rear-drive. But whereas you will always feel like you are driving the Fiat, taking out the MR2 Turbo will always be more like riding it.
Jordan insisted that we drive with the T-tops removed. It was an excellent call on his part.
Things were loud; the furious, mechanical and pissed-off hornets’ buzz of the four-cylinder drilled into the cabin, the ravenous whoosh of the turbo spooled up powerfully as the revs climbed, drinking in the air. Turbo lag was a very real thing—I wouldn’t say there was no power below 3,000 RPM, but the car was definitely most alive—and feral—between 3,000 and 6,000 RPM.
The front tires fed the road beautifully up through the steering wheel and I always knew where the nose of the car was pointed. So crisp was the turn-in, so sharp that it felt more like tracing a pencil down through the curvy roads instead of a car.
Around corners, the MR2 gripped hard with its 195-section tires. It had the peculiar sensation of pivoting around itself like a twirling dancer, with very little weight over its front wheels and a larger weight in its middle.
But however much that I wanted to really cane the MR2 on the road, I also wasn’t a moron. I was driving an unfamiliar, mid-engined car that didn’t belong to me on unfamiliar roads with the owner in the passenger seat beside me. Wrecking was more out of the question that day than others.
Jordan isn’t a casual owner, though. This is his second MR2. The first one he owned he’d auto-crossed and daily drove. He knows his way around the thing. And he knew the roads well. I found a quiet pull-off and asked him to switch with me.
Sure, the MR2 Turbo has 45 more HP than the current Miata, but those extra 45 should not have made this huge of a difference. It might as well have made 150 more HP with how much more energized it felt. Even though I wasn’t driving, I could tell that the power was much more usable than in the Miata. Keeping it between second and third gear helped, too.
The car is a dream to own, according to Jordan. The engine is fairly reliable even after 100,000 miles—except if something does go wrong, it has to be dropped out through the bottom because it doesn’t fit through the top. That part can be a pain in the ass.
Yet, by far one of the best things about the car is the community that surrounds it. Over lunch, Jordan talked about the friends he’s made on the forums and what an incredibly supportive environment it is. The MR2 is a silly car, never pretending to be anything more serious than that, and it’s a sentiment that’s reflected in its owners and fanbase. Between them and a group of 911 die-hards, I know who I’d rather have a beer with.
Driving the MR2 Turbo brought me profound joy, but that joy also made me sad. What fun, reliable mid-engine sports car do we have today that isn’t ludicrously expensive? A Lotus? Only insane people buy those. An Alfa Romeo 4C? You can barely count that as a car. The Porsche 718s? Perhaps, but those are pricey toys. Toyota discontinued the MR2 in 2007 and there’s been a hole in the market ever since.
Later that day, Jordan sent along the car’s original window sticker. In 1991, the MSRP came to $19,378, but $24,943 out the door with options like power steering, cruise control, a premium sound system and leather trim. In today’s money, that’d be $46,429.
As soon as I got home, I immediately went online to look for used MR2s for sale. I wanted one. I was ruined for wanting one.
“Yes,” Jalopnik boss Patrick George said when he heard. “They will do that.”