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A Mid-Engined Near-Great

October 1, 2011 by Matt

First Generation Gen Toyota MR2 MR-2 AW11 Supercharged

Constrained by existing hardware, engineers can get really creative. Case in point: The ’84-’89 first-generation Toyota MR2, yet another in a long list of “cars to own before I die.”

What existing hardware were the car’s developers stuck with? Toyota’s freshly-designed 4-cylinder FWD powerplant, transversely-mounted, just introduced several of the automaker’s lower-end and midrange family cars such as the Camry, Corolla and Tercel. Tasked with cooking up an image-busting two-seat sports car, and aware of the fun-killing handling liabilities of a front-engine, FWD car, Toyota’s engineers ingeniously decided to flip the engine and transmission combo 180° and install it just behind the passenger compartment. The car abandoned all pretenses of being a practical family hauler, but that was really beside the point—what the car did, it did exceedingly well, blessed by the harmonious convergence of a low polar moment of inertia, a rev-happy DOHC 16-valve 4A-GE engine, sharp steering, nicely-tuned suspension and an admirably low curb weight of 2,350 lbs. The net result was a flickable, puppy-doggish handler, at once eager, reliable and safe.

First Generation Gen Toyota MR2 MR-2 AW11 Supercharged Interior Inside Cockpit

Although the first-generation MR2 deservedly attracts a cult following, why don’t its faultless dynamics entice a wider cross-section of the automotive community? Considering what it was—a brilliantly-executed Japanese take on classic Italian and British mid-engined sports cars like the Fiat X1/9 and various Lotuses—why didn’t it set the world on fire the way the later Mazda Miata did? The answer, I believe, lies in its styling, penned during a particularly bad spell for Toyota, when the automaker was banking a little too heavily on the boxy, techno-futuristic design trend to continue, when in reality it petered out in the late ’80s. Other than the awkward, two-angle fascia, the MR2’s outside is fairly restrained, but the interior is a pull-out-all-the-stops orgy of geometry, festooned with plastic wedges, angles and that weird canopy-like instrument cluster shroud. The ergonomics may work, but it certainly doesn’t look like the most visually appealing place to spend a Saturday afternoon tearing up the autocross course. I’m not saying the dated design details would constitute a deal-killer in and of themselves, but they do, unfortunately, keep the car from joining the ranks of bonafide modern Japanese classics like the 240Z and first-generation RX-7. It’s a shame, really, given the car’s milestone status and the brilliance of the engineers in its conception and creation.

Filed under: Toyota

5 Comments

  1. John D says:

    2nd gen turbo.

    …and that is all I have to say about that. ;)

    • Matt says:

      The 2nd-generation car is gorgeous, no doubt about it.

      Funny thing is, read most of the reviews and they’ll say the car lost something in the generational transition. Maybe the first-gen MR2 just wasn’t fast enough to get you into trouble, so it was more fun? Or maybe its lighter weight made it feel less “serious” than the later car? I just don’t hear the same kinds of accolades leveled at the second-gen other than for its exterior styling, which is by all accounts a knockout.

  2. John D says:

    I have a hard time getting excited over anything that is, in my mind, underpowered. I know this car, the first gen RX7, and the like have very fervent followers…but as much as I may appreciate the styling (FB and 240Z, not first gen MR2), handling (all of the above plus similar generation miatas), and their minimalist sporting natures, it all seems a bit futile if there’s not enough grunt to put a smile on your face. With another 50 hp all of these cars would be incredible fun and that fact that such a crucial element was, in my mind, overlooked kind of ruins the experience for me.

  3. WRJ says:

    As to it’s power, in 1988 Toyota added a supercharger as a factory extra. For a 4 banger motor, wow, that car could really move. That with the handling of the first gen, was a real blast to own and drive!!! ~ WRJ

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