The Toyota MR2 is a wonderful little mid-engine, rear-drive masterpiece that was conceived back in the ’70s, launched in 1984 and soldiered on for more than twenty years. Mid-engine platforms had been rolling off a number of production lines since the 1960s (and even prior to that in a few micro cars), yet the MR2 set itself apart from the others by combining performance, economy, quality and excellent handling into a single package.
Interestingly enough, it debuted right around the same time as the similarly mid-engined Pontiac Fiero. What the MR2 had that the early Fieros didn’t was genuine sports car handling and a selection of engines well suited for spirited driving. The car below appears to be a 1988 Mk1b model powered by a supercharged 4A-GZE:
By the end of the ’80s, the Fiero, Bertone X1/9, Matra Murena and Renault 5 Turbo had died off, likely leaving the MR2 as the only non-exotic, mid-engined sports car available anywhere. It was time for a change, though, and I suspect that Toyota’s designers were keen to leverage their suddenly unique market position.
Sure enough, 1989 saw the next generation MR2, dubbed “the poor man’s Ferrari,” become a prime example of Japanese bubble-era aspirations, lighting up the imaginations of young salarymen with visions of nouveau riche life. The Japanese auto industry’s affectation of mid-engine Italian exotica persisted well into the ’90s, also inspiring the Autozam AZ-1 micro-monster and the Honda NSX.
Ferrari dreams aside, the second generation MR2 was good enough for a ten year run until the third generation car, MR-S (also called the MR2 Spyder and MR2 Roadster abroad) was introduced. The MR-S also had a long run, ending just over ten years ago in 2007. In early 2001, Toyota revealed a special variant designed by Zagato called the VM180. As far as I can tell, only about 200 examples were produced, which were offered only in Japan. Lucky for us, I managed to capture one in the wild:
With muscular body panels applied directly to the stock body and a modest performance boost to 155bhp, it is, well, fast and bulbous as Captain Beefheart might say:
The Smart Roadster parked nearby, with its similar insect eyes and bulging fenders, sapped some of the visual presence from VM180 I caught here. Both cars are easily recognizable, but the VM180 is far more controversial, as Zagato designs tend to be. It’s certainly not one of Zagato’s more tasteful shapes, but neither is it an atrocity on par with, say, any of their Ferraris.
For all of you MR2 fans, there’s reason to be excited about the future. In an interview with EVO back in March, chief engineer and defender of rear-drive goodness, Tetsuya Tada talked about a possible MR2 successor. “We hope to have the three brothers in place as soon as possible,” he said, referring also to the GT86 and Supra. Welcome back into our hearts, Toyota.
Next week we’ll examine some true JDM design atrocities from fashion-car powerhouse Mitsuoka.
Every week on Gaijindom, we feature an automobile sighting. Usually the automobile is Japanese; sometimes it’s not. But it’s always an automobile in Japan.