Small, light and reliable, the mk3 MR2 embodies the sports car mantra down to the last bolt. In a world of heavy, cumbersome performance cars hell-bent on top speed and refinement, the MR2 is a much-needed tonic. If you buy well, it is also terrifically cheap to buy and own.
When the mk3 MR2 was introduced in 2000 it quickly gained the reputation as an affordable Lotus Elise, and deservedly so. Toyota did the impossible by making the mk3 lighter than the original, weighing only 975kg. The engineers achieved this by removing the boot altogether, replacing it with a slim compartment behind the seats. While some continue to criticise the lack of boot space (don’t expect to bring more than a toothbrush and your own enthusiasm on road trips), the MR2 offers a purer driving experience as a result. It is, after all, a sports car and those looking for practicality should look elsewhere. Despite the lightness, Toyota specced the MR2 up to the hilt. Features like cruise control, air-conditioning CD player and radio were all available, making it a usable daily driver.
The MR2 is a modern car so rust isn’t a major issue on the whole, however the car’s rear-subframe has a propensity to rot. It's made worse because it’s hidden behind the undertray, so you can’t easily check it. However, don’t think that this is a 1970s-era rust problem - as long as you’re vigilant and the sub-frame is in good condition it should be fine. The exterior panels are fixed directly to the main body, making it relatively painless to fix or replace. Inspect the condition of the soft-top roof. Ensure there aren’t any rips or stains in the material and that the glass rear window is in good condition. A hard top was a rare option and cam with air-con as standard. These cars are highly sought-after and carry a premium on the used market. Have a look over the hood’s drain holes. They exit through the side vents and become clogged, resulting in damp seeping into the cabin. Make sure they have been cleared regularly. The wheels are aluminium and corrode easier than more conventional steel items. This can weaken the rims and leaves it vulnerable to cracking. Given that British roads have more craters than the Moon, its worth inspecting them closely.
The engine is exactly what you would expect from a Japanese performance car - rev-hungry, eager and largely bullet-proof. Mk3’s have been known to reach 150,000 miles without any major issues if they’re well looked after. Nevertheless there are some fundamental problems to be aware of. The MR2’s most infamous fault was its pre-cat failures. The catalytic converter in the exhaust manifold is almost certain to break at some point, spewing munched parts back into the engine and causing spectacular failures. Most prevalent on early cars (pre-2003), it is best to replace or remove the pre-cat system altogether. While later cars were fitted with redesigned piston rings and an improved catalyst matrix, it doesn’t guarantee reliability and failures still happen. It is crucial to ask the owner whether this has been done or you could have some serious bills on your hands. You can often spot an impending failure if the engine is overly thirsty and the lambda oxygen sensor warning light is on.
There are no significant faults with the MR2’s gearbox. Some owners fit the MR2 with the V6 Camry engine for increased performance. If you’re viewing such a car, ensure the owner has upgraded the gearbox to cope with the torque hike.
The front steering knuckle can wear, resulting in stiff, imprecise steering that fails to self-centre properly. You can have it replaced for little over £200. Rear track adjusting bolts have also been known to snap, sometimes destroying pricey adjusting arms with them. While dampers sometimes fail it isn’t always immediately obvious due to the car’s lightness.
Given that the MR2 is an early Noughties Toyota, there shouldn’t be any electrical issues to worry about. Make sure the electric windows, CD player, air-con and cruise-control are all functioning (if optioned).
The MR2 has the sort of no-frills cabin you’d expect of a lightweight sports car. The quality of trim isn’t especially high and it’s easy to see where the weight was saved. However it has typical Toyota build quality and there is little to be concerned about. If it is wet behind the seats it could be due to the drain hole issue mentioned above.
The MR2 is sharp, quick and agile. It should be up on its toes and easy to balance on the limit. There’s something impossibly exotic about a mid-engined sports car and it defines the driving experience. First-time drivers should be wary of the car breaking loose on damp surfaces but the handling is predictable and slides are easy to correct. While the engine lacks the character of some of its rivals there’s no doubting its ability, and, thanks to its extremely light weight, the MR2 feels quick across-country. The MR2 is unusually sensitive to unbalanced tyre pressures. Check that each tyre reads the same, otherwise it simply won’t handle anywhere close to how it should do. The brake callipers and cables can also seize. It takes up to five hours to replace the brake cables because you need to take the fuel tank out first.
The MR2 represents startling value for money and its bang-for-buck ratio is off the scale. You can easily find a working example for a grand or two. While cars at this price have often covered over 100,000 miles, as long as it comes with a full service history, an MOT and no major issues there’s no reason why you should be unhappy with a car at this price point. Like most used cars, values vary hugely depending on age and mileage. Facelifted cars with a fair amount of miles on the clock hover around the £3,000 mark, while low-mileage show examples can fetch up to £7,000.
You should budget around £500 for running costs, depending on age and mileage. As long as the pre-cat and rust issues has been sorted there’s nothing major to worry about.
With the market awash with increasingly expensive and numb sports cars, the mk3 MR2 is the antidote to everything wrong with more modern machinery. It is light, cheap to run, fizzing with feel and quick enough to show a hot hatch a clean pair of heels. However it's the value that is so persuasive. You can have one of the most enjoyable small sports cars of the past two decades on your drive for less than the price of a skiing holiday. For a petrolhead it's close to a no-brainer.
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