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Terrific Toyotas: 1991-95 Toyota MR2

In our most recent installment, we took a fond look back at Toyota’s quirky, convention shunning mid-engine minivan of the ‘90s, the Previa. However, it wasn’t the company’s most famous or visible mid-engine vehicle of the era; that honor fell to the second generation MR2.

The original MR2 (codenamed AW11) made its American debut in 1985, one year after the Pontiac Fiero. Unlike GM’s half-baked and undeniably confused mid-engine two-seat runabout (Was it a commuter car? A sports car? A device to aid in the invention of new curse words?), Toyota’s midship motorcar – often affectionately referred to as “Mister 2” by car cognoscenti – was most definitely a tool for spirited driving, which just so happened to pack Toyota reliability and quality as standard equipment. However, as the competition grew stiffer, the AW11 – even in peppy supercharged form – became less and less relevant. The dated, wedge-tastic styling certainly didn’t help matters. So for 1991 (model year 1990 in Japan and Europe) the MR2 Mk. II was released. Though American versions were codenamed SW21 and SW22, depending on the engine, the most widely accepted global designation is SW20. Unlike the rest of the world’s normally-aspirated SW20s, which used 2.0L inline-fours, the North American version was equipped with a 2.2L DOHC inline-four which was also used in the Celicas and Camrys of the era. It was rated at 130hp and 144 lb.-ft of torque (increased to 135hp and 145 lb.-ft in 1993), and could be paired with a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission. A turbocharged 2.0L DOHC inline-four, rated at 200hp and 200 lb.-ft was only available with a 5-speed manual; opting for the turbo also featured fog lights (though a few normally aspirated models were fitted with them), raised engine cover vents, a center storage compartment between the two seats, and a discreet “TURBO” badge on the right side of the rear deck lid. The Turbo was unavailable in California emissions states in 1995 due to stricter standards, and ’95 would turn out to be the last year for the Mk. II MR2 altogether in North America. A replacement would eventually arrive in the spring of 2000, but that’s a story for another day…

You can pick up an SW20 MR2 for just a couple thousand if you don’t mind a driver-quality normally-aspirated example; mint, collector-quality Turbos (or any stock version, for that matter) are quite rare these days, though they seldom trade hands for much more than $10,000. Problem areas include speedometer cables on 1991 and ’92 models, grounding straps that can fail or be left disconnected which often leads to fires, and T-top (the overwhelming majority were built with them, making the few hardtops highly coveted) drain tubes. Other than those bits, the SW20 is quite robust, and when you do run into trouble, there’s a vast and knowledgeable ownership community scattered across the country and the world to lend a hand. Bottom line: If you want an affordable, reliable tool for puttering to and from the Man’s salt mines during the week that will also be at home spending weekends gripping our part of the world’s many mountain switchbacks like a raccoon grips a bucket of the Colonel’s Original Recipe (and that’s mighty tight; don’t ask…), the Mk. II MR2 could very well be the car for you.

For more info: Toyota MR2 Message Board (Mk. II/SW20 Forum), International MR2 Owners Club, Toyota Owners Club (MR2 Forum).

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