The legendary influence of Lotus, especially strong throughout the 1970s, spread to some unlikely places. Toyota produced cars a world apart from Lotus’ philosophy of sports car design. Only their research team had the freedom to explore the possibility of a practical, above all economical, car that was also fun to drive. Toyota’s MR2 began not as a Lotus wannabe, nor even a sports car. It began with a purely Toyota brainwave, to base a design on a transversely-placed engine sited near the middle of the car.
The obvious engine to use was the 4AG series developed in close consultancy with Lotus engineering; and that decision segued into the design of the MR2’s suspension and handling under the supervision of Lotus engineer Roger Becker. At that point, Toyota realized they were building a sports car. The Toyota MR2 had European and American manufacturers gnashing their teeth at being challenged on price and performance. Fiat, ahead of the economy game with the XI/9, winced at the MR2’s highly affordable package.
The MR2 had the soul of a sports car, its light weight and mechanicals distributed to devastating effect within a really stylish and visually balanced body. It was rigorously tested on real race tracks; tweaked, and tested again. Shown at the 1983 Tokyo Motor Show as the SV-3 concept car, it attracted an avalanche of publicity. By the time it went on sale, it had effectively created a new market outside Toyota’s self-imposed remit of the purely practical and economic, and redefined it for everyone else.
It was Japan’s first mass-produced, mid-engined car: noting the MR2’s ‘unfailing reliability’ and ‘ability to thrill with superb handling’, Auto Trader proclaimed it ‘an absolute blast to drive’, and it was on the Ten Best Cars lists of both Road & Track and Car And Driver.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: Japan
FIRST MANUFACTURED: 1984 (until 1989)
ENGINE: 1,587 cc DOHC Straight Four
PERFORMANCE: Top speed of 130 mph (209 km/h); 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 7.9secs
YOU SHOULD KNOW: ‘MR2’ was variously defined as ‘Mid-engine Rear-drive 2 seater’, ‘Midships Runabout 2 seater’ and ‘Midships Recreational 2 seater’. In France it was called ‘Coupe MR’, because in French, saying ‘MR2’ sounded like est merdeux (‘it’s shitty’). But generally the world refers to the first generation of the MR2 by its factory code of ‘AW 11’.