Scott Leone’s 1992 Toyota MR2 Turbo ought to be the ultimate cautionary tale about Craigslist trades. He thought he was getting a perfect, no-problem car. But when it turned out to be a basket case, Leone didn’t scrap it. He brought this MR2 back to life using a more powerful V6 engine that the car always deserved. The end result is one of the best things I’ve driven all year.
Leone certainly got the worse end of a series of Craigslist trades (with the same person, no less) when he acquired his MR2. He somehow went from trading two Mark IV Toyota Supra shells for a Lexus SC300 project car, which had Toyota’s near-universally loved 2JZGTE inline six engine. That Lexus project ended up getting traded with for the MR2, as Scott understood from the seller that the MR2 was working and in pristine condition.
As a longtime fan of MR2s, Scott jumped at the chance to own a nice running example. But that’s not what he got.
“The motor was blown, clutch was shot, brakes were shot, suspension was shot, tie rods were shot,” Leone told Jalopnik. “I mean, if there was a problem that you could imagine with a small Japanese car that was 25 years old, I had it.”
The MR2 was in such bad shape that he nearly scrapped the little car, but his wife—clearly a woman of good taste—loved the car and wanted him to keep it. I can’t blame her! The MR2 was painted the rare, delightfully sparkly Steel Mist Gray color, and let’s face it: T-tops are a universal good.
Because the engine was toast, Scott was left with the perfect opportunity for an upgrade. Turns out, the 3VZ-FE three-liter V6 that was used in the Toyota Camry, Lexus ES300 and Japanese-market Toyota Windom fits in the MR2's compact mid-engine bay without much fuss at all.
Because it was used for only a couple years in American-market Toyotas but was used for most of a decade abroad, he got a JDM Windom engine and ECU for the car. (Finally, we all have a practical excuse to overnight parts for Japan if there ever was one. Thank you, Scott.)
Over the next five years, Scott poured his extra time into making it run again—swapping out parts that were toast and upgrading others where needed. He roped in a friend to help with the wiring and engine installation.
Since the MR2 Turbo’s E153 transmission is closely related to the E351 transmission used in Camries with the 3VZ-FE engine—as in, it’s almost the same, except the gear set is flipped backwards from the E153—Leone was even able to fix and use the transmission that came with his car. He also swapped in an aftermarket Fidanza flywheel to get it going again.
“This is a Camry backwards,” Leone said of the MR2's engine bay.
Somewhere around the middle of the engine swap, the MR2 actually started to grow on him. This car might actually be fun!
Perhaps the trickiest part of making an engine-swapped MR2 run well is the coolant system. Scott put in a new Mishimoto radiator, but it still was going to be mounted in the front of the car, as is stock. That’s where cool air can flow into it. The problem is that the engine sits back behind the driver in the middle of the car, so there is some 17 feet of coolant lines in the teeny tiny MR2. Making sure all 17 feet of coolant lines are free of bubbles or leaks was quite a challenge. Scott installed a coolant overflow system from a Honda Civic just in case.
Then, of course, came the addition of some creature comforts. The MR2 was originally equipped with leather seats, but the previous owner kept those. In their place were a set of cloth seats, the driver’s seat of which was rather annihilated. Scott patched up what he could in the meantime, but finally swapped in the bucket seat from a Scion FR-S on the drivers’ side. Reproduction floor mats from MR2Heaven.com finished off the look inside.
Some of Scott’s mods were flashier than others—literally. He added bulbs with repeaters in them into the taillights to make them flash four times upon first press of the brake pedal. Likewise, the louder air horn Leone installed makes sure no one misses the little MR2 on the road.
This was a thrash car, so Scott figured he might as well make it feel like a go kart. When he put in adjustable Megan coilovers, he put them on the stiffest setting. On top of that, he added a smaller-diameter steering wheel from DND Performance and a really quite short short shifter, all to quicken up and improve the driving experience.
Scott mentioned that he always dreamed of getting a contemporary 964-generation Porsche 911, but in some ways, maybe the MR2 is the better deal. With an expensive car—one you’ve worked a while to save up for—it can be hard to really let go and enjoy the thing. Meanwhile, Scott has no problem driving his little Toyota like it was meant to be driven. While he has a lot of work into it now, it was the ultimate throwaway car when he first got it. You don’t garage-queen a throwaway car. You use it!
At least the MR2 rides on bright orange Momo R3 wheels that came from a Porsche, so Scott can say that at least part of his Porsche dream was achieved. And this Toyota even has six cylinders now, sort of like a 911! The Camposites Autopista replica wing Scott installed was plasti-dipped orange to match, with glitter added into the finish as a fun extra touch.
Most importantly, the MR2 was built into something that’s truly all Scott’s own, and the V6 swap managed to preserve the bare-bones, manual character of the second-gen MR2. After all, a car can only tell you what’s going on with it through the behavior and sensory feedback of its components. In my brief test drive of Scott’s beloved build, everything happening with the car seemed to scream at me through the pedal box and steering wheel.
The smooth power delivery of that naturally-aspirated, Lexus-grade V6 in something this light meant that the MR2 easily rockets up to higher speeds without ever feeling like it’s going to surprise-boost you backwards into a tree. (Scott, with a madman look in his eye, told me he’s considering adding a turbo in the future, though, along with meatier brakes.)
I even appreciated that the throttle pedal was stiffer than I expected. It’s actually connected to a real, physical throttle cable! The amount of sensory feedback you get while driving this car is simply incredible.
I’ve missed that kind of feedback in new cars, where the pedal boxes all too often don’t feel like they’re connected to anything but the sensors reading their inputs. Scott’s resurrected beater is a whole lot more fun than most of the modern supercars I’ve driven for that exact reason. You feel connected to functional parts of the car in the MR2. You are the one in control of the car.
In an era when companies are even patenting clutch-by-wire systems that remove the manual connection between the pedal and what’s happening in the car’s gearbox, these simpler, older sports cars take on a new value of their own. Cars like this MR2 remind us what a car is supposed to feel like, and why driving as an activity in its own right is so much fun. Let’s keep more of them running, and out of the scrap yard.
We’re featuring the coolest project cars from across the internet on Build of the Week—some of which now even make it on video! What insane build have you been wrenching on lately? Seen any good build threads we should know about? Drop me a line at stef dot schrader at jalopnik dot com with “Build of the Week” somewhere in the subject line if you’d like to be featured here.