Toyota MR2 Mk3 – review, history, prices and specs
Toyota’s third mid-engined marvel was a true Mazda MX-5 alternative – but arguably even better...
While the third MR2 was, like its predecessors, a mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car, Toyota went back to the nameplate’s roots. Smaller, lighter and nimbler than its immediate predecessor, the MR2 also ditched coupe and T-bar-styled roofs in favour of a full roadster format – and the end result was all the better for it.
Chief engineer Tadashi Nakagawa described the Mk3 MR2 as having broken the ‘cycle of growth’ in the industry, something almost completely unheard of today. Both dimensions and weight are both notably lower than its predecessor, making it a much more desirable driver’s choice.
The MR2 served as Toyota’s last proper sports car until the GT86 launched five years after MR2 production ceased – and with no replacement on the horizon, it could also be the swansong for the much-respected badge. Today the MR2 represents excellent value and a genuine alternative to the MX-5.
Toyota MR2 Mk3 in detail
Pair its 975kg kerb weight with its 1.8-litre DOHC naturally-aspirated four-cylinder, and its 138bhp output feels much more spritely than in the Celica it’s derived from – sent to the rear axle through a five-speed manual gearbox, 0-62mph comes in a respectable 8sec with top speed at 129mph. A five-speed automatic gearbox became available not long after launch, with the five-speed manual replaced by a six-speed in 2002.
The MR2 was a strong performer from its launch, but new crossmembers, front and rear braces, rear struts and modifications to the floor pan and transmission tunnel increased rigidity in 2004. Regardless of whether you opt for a pre or post facelift though, you’ll be in possession of a cracking driver’s drop-top. Though not as exotic as the MX-5’s double-wishbone layout, the MR2’s MacPherson struts still perform well, helping it outperform cars in a much higher price bracket.
As is becoming increasingly apparent in 2024, running a lightweight performance car benefits more than just the driving experience. Running costs are considerably lower, with consumption of fuel, brakes and kinematics components all naturally lower – when you do finally need to replace components, they also tend to be much cheaper than those designed for heavier machines.
As with most cars of this age, there are a few things to be aware of when buying used. Its aluminium wheels are known to corrode more than you might usually expect, causing irreparable damage and the potential for complete structural failure should it be a particularly bad example. Rust is something else to keep an eye on, particularly on the rear subframe, and if the car looks to have been used on track there are obvious risks of increased wear to a variety of components regardless of mileage. Drain holes for the roof are also prone to being blocked, something that can cause water ingress into the cabin.
The engine is a solid unit overall, but pre-cat failure can cause debris to fall back into the engine, something that isn’t particularly favourable for obvious reasons – this is more common on pre-facelift cars produced before 2003 and can be solved with the removal of the pre-cat. Early warning signs are an oxygen lambda sensor warning light, excessive oil use and smoke) – if you spot either of these when viewing a car, it’s probably wise to look elsewhere.
Predictably, the MR2 is the most affordable of this selection by far, with prices for early, six figure-mile cars starting at just over £1000. A sensible budget would be somewhere in the region of £3000, though, with the very best examples with c30,000 miles costing from around £7000.
Toyota MR2 Mk3 specs
|138bhp @ 6400rpm
|127lb ft @ 4200rpm
What we said
Toyota MR2, ‘Topless Darts’ (evo 017, March 2000)
‘With some fantastic roads ahead of us, nothing’s going to get me out of the Toyota. It takes but a few minutes to know it’s a sweetly sorted car. It reacts incredibly sharply, cutting left and right with keen precision, the smallest of steering inputs bringing minute but crucial adjustments to the car’s attitude. It feels light but it’s not light on feel.
‘It has the same 1.8-litre VVTi engine as the new Celica, but it’s amazing how much sweeter the 138bhp motor feels in the MR2. With less weight to haul around, it’s zingier at the top end, lustier at low revs and keener through the meat of the mid-range.’
Toyota MR2 (vs MGF Trophy vs MX-5 1.8) (evo 033, July 2001)
‘What really separates the Toyota from the MG is the fine interplay between steering and throttle that determine the car’s attitude through any given bend. It adjusts with the precision of a volume knob on an expensive hi-fi amplifier. The way the MR2’s chassis effortlessly sponges away the worst ruts, dips and camber shifts is more than a match for the mostly smooth-riding Mazda.
‘The Toyota’s feisty little twin-cam wins, too. Despite having the least raw horsepower, it revs with the most freedom, top-end zing, mechanical smoothness and sporty engine note. Add a dead-comfy, low-slung driving position, proper torso-hugging seats and big, readable instruments and it looks like a bigger bargain than ever.’
Toyota MR2, ‘Great UK Drives’ (evo 258, March 2019)
‘Turns out the light and nimble MR2 is quite brilliant. The beautifully surfaced, shiny wet road heads into the trees and starts to roll and dip, nip and tuck. Visibility dictates a moderate pace but the chassis of the little Toyota is a joy.
‘You can feel through the steering wheel rim in fine detail when the front tyres just start to slip but you don’t back off, you simply factor it in. Occasionally the rear edges fractionally wide too, and you keep the throttle steady and work with it. Driving the MR2 calmly on the edge and comfortably on its own side of the road is very satisfying.’
What to pay for the Toyota MR2 Mk3