With its snappy handling, gemlike gearbox, and enchanting engine, the Toyota MR2 didn't feel like an amalgam of off-the-shelf parts. But this corporate kit car was from Toyota, which drew on excellent components and knew how to use them.
MR2 means "Mid/Rear engine 2-seat." Japan's first mid-engine production automobile went on sale in the United States in 1985 as an early '86 model but was born in the late 1970s with Toyota looking for sports-car possibilities in existing hardware. When its popular Corolla sedan was reengineered for front-wheel drive, it had the building blocks. Corolla's transverse four-cylinder engine and transaxle were lifted and put midships in a unitized coupe hull; the same car's front strut suspension and disc brakes were used at both ends. All U.S.-market MR2s had the twincam version of the 1.6 liter first seen in the rear-drive Corolla GT-S coupe. Steering was rack-and-pinion and didn't need power assist, given the front/rear weight distribution of 44/56 percent.
Critics disliked the styling, but the MR2 was a model of efficient packaging and satisfied that vital sports-car criteria by being no larger or heavier than necessary. Its cabin was snug but surprisingly airy and loaded with practical standard features, such as tilt steering and power mirrors. Leather, air conditioning, and power windows were options.
Few modern cars made their drivers smile so much. The engine loved to rev -- it had to for best performance -- but was so smooth and willing, and the shifter so quick and precise. (Car and Driver in 1986 tabbed the MR2's gearbox and ergonomic layout as the world's best.) Noise levels were reasonable and the car was eminently tossable, with dreaded mid-engine over-steer surfacing only at racetrack cornering speeds. All that and Toyota reliability, no wonder the first MR2s sold at over sticker.
When demand cooled, Toyota tempted the fickle market with optional automatic transmission, removable T-tops, a spoiler package, and for 1988, a supercharged model that had 145 hp and did 0-60 mph in seven seconds. Low mass and low cost, high fun and high quality, cars like the original "Mr. Two" don't often surface, much less emerge hot to trot right from the parts bin.