Why you’d want one
It’s tempting: a great-handling, good-looking, sparkling sports car with contemporary Japanese reliability standards, from just £1000. But is it simply too good to be true?
The most common criticism of the Mk3 MR2 is the lack of luggage space: there’s room behind the seats for a weekend’s soft bags for two, but you’d struggle to pack for a week away – there’s far more space in an MX-5 or MGF.
Toyota worked hard to turn the MR2 into a nimble roadster: the W30 is lighter than the original W10, and less powerful than the W20, but combines a superbly flexible engine with sharp handling, excellent brakes, a good gearbox (better in six-speed form from late 2002) and a great soft-top to make a fun sports car.
Like most moderns, body rot is not a major concern, except rarely where past accident damage was poorly repaired: corrosion can still strike specific areas, but the major checkpoints are mechanical issues specific to contemporary engines, which can cause abrupt failure that is too costly to justify repair. It’s definitely worth investing in a good quality fault-code reader: failing lambda sensors may be an indication of pre-cat issues, the biggest worry.
The rare (in the UK) SMT semi-auto was basically a clutchless gearchange with a stick shift; although the ECU can give trouble, it can be fun to drive, especially the faster-changing six-speed unit from late 2002: prices are similar to manual cars.
The 2002 facelift brought improvements across the board, so later cars are justifiably more sought-after. A significant number of JDM ‘grey’ imports came into the UK from January 2000, before the UK model officially went on sale: badged MR-S, they may be lower-spec and more rust-prone than UK models. Later Japanese imports can be higher spec, but check thoroughly before buying.
Options on UK models were limited but significant, including air-con, a six-CD changer and a hardtop. If you want a hardtop, it’s best to buy a car with one, because sourcing a top and fitting kit afterwards gets expensive.
A Torsen limited-slip diff was said to be standard for the UK market, but optional elsewhere – in fact, as Toyota GB confirms, it was only fitted as standard on SMT-equipped UK cars. Modifications are popular today, from adjustable coilover suspension to 2ZZ engines, tuned exhausts and bodykits – but in time it will be the original-spec models that are more collectable.
See image above for trouble spots
The VVT 16-valve twin-cam engine is a classic modern all-aluminium unit: revvy, powerful and remarkably durable if well maintained (many have reached 150k+ miles without problems). Look for a full service history, no warning lights or fault codes, and ideally evidence that pre-cat issues have been addressed.
Check soft-top condition: the heated glass rear window is a bonus, if not damaged. The hardtop was a rare option; not essential but nice to have.
There’s little front luggage space on the Roadster: check the spacesaver spare and jack are present, and look for signs of crash damage at the edges.
Although the cabin plastics look a bit low-rent, you’ll probably be keeping your eyes on the road in the lively, fun MR2. The seat material varied from cloth to leather, with Alcantara inserts on special editions such as this late TF300. The manual gearchange (six-speed from late 2002) should be slick and precise
The pre-cat, linked to the EGR system in the exhaust manifold, can cause major engine damage when it breaks down: it’s best replaced or removed.
Check the rear subframe that carries the engine and suspension, because it rots. If in doubt, remove the undertray that hides it on all but the final cars.
On the road
Toyota’s twin-cam should fire the lightweight Roadster along with gratifying efficiency.
Precat failure can wreck the engine: the two ceramic pre-cats, designed to clean the exhaust at warmup, break up due to age and oil passing through a worn engine. Ceramic fragments enter the engine via the exhaust gas recirculation system, scoring the bores, causing loss of power, high oil consumption and exhaust smoke.
Pre-2003 cars are most susceptible, but later ones can also suffer. Walk away from a smoky engine: there are plenty more out there. Many owners remove the pre-cats from inside the manifold, or fit a new manifold without them: it will still pass the MoT.
Light weight and good balance make for superb handling – though some caution is advisable in inclement weather, when there’s more than enough power to lose the back end. Road tests also criticised nervous steering at speed, another inherent mid-engined characteristic. Notchy steering is a sign of column-joint wear.
The brakes should be excellent – any weakness means attention is needed. Little-used cars suffer from calipers seizing, especially at the rear – and the handbrake cables are also prone to seize, and are time-consuming to replace.
Replacement or repair of a rusty rear subframe is costly due to the amount of major components that have to be transferred. Lift the carpets to check for damp/rusty floors (caused by blocked hood drains) and take a good look around the sills: few have started to rot here yet, thankfully.
What to pay
- Show/low miles: £3000
- Average: £1500
- High miles: £1000
- Show/low miles: £4000
- Average: £2250
- High miles: £1500
- Show/low miles: £6000
- Average: £3500
- High miles: £2500
1999 Oct MR-S introduced on Japanese Domestic Market, in three trim levels
2000 Mar World launch, 5-speed manual or SMT gearbox, electric windows/locking/mirrors, 15in alloys; 127mph
2001 Japan-only VM180 Zagato special
2002 Nov Facelift: built-in spotlights, smiley grille, front/rear stiffening, 16in rear wheels, revised spring/damper rates, 6-speed gearbox (manual or SMT); cruise control, stability control and brake assist on SMT cars; 131mph
2006 V-Edition UK/Japan, 1000 built, titanium accents, LSD; final 300 UK cars sold as TF300, leather/Alcantara trim, twin exhausts, car number stitched into the seatback. Rare dealerinstalled TTE Turbo pack offered
2007 Jul Production ends
The owner’s view
Pete Kyte has owned MR2s since 2003: Mk1, supercharged Mk1, Mk2 and Mk2 turbo. Now it’s a Mk3.
“I found a one-owner 75k 2005 car with FSH and the rare heated leather seats,” he says. “On the test drive it felt like the old Mk1, though power steering is a lovely improvement. Forget practicality, you wear it – you’re part of the car. It’s perfectly balanced, you are connected: it’s such a great drive and feels so responsive.
“I’ve fallen more and more in love with it. It’s not fast, but when you’re driving roof-down in the sun at 8am on a Sunday, you want to take your time. They are cheap to run: in two years I’ve only replaced the battery and water pump. In April I was offered a Chilli Red ’06 car with FTSH and 23,000 miles: I had to have it. It finished second in its first MR2DC concours.”
MAZDA MX-5 (NB)
Front-engine/rear-drive classic, but check carefully for rot. Reliable if cared for. MR2 and MG had the edge on pace, but the MX-5 is more practical.
1998-2005 • 299,228 built • price now £500-5000
Great handling and lively performance in VVC form: the TF160 hit 60mph in 6.9 secs. Early cars’ head gaskets were weak; look for a late TF with FSH.
1995-2005 • 116,518 built • price now £500-5000
Toyota MR2 Roadster Mk3: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
Prices are at rock bottom for the MR2 Roadster now, and there’s a huge choice of cars on the market.
It’s well worth shopping around because some vendors are already trying to hype values, while dealers are offloading some great examples at bargain prices as unwanted trade-ins.
Tackle the known problem areas and you can have a brilliantly reliable, fun sports car for peanuts.
- A fab roadster that’s economical and reliable
- great club/forum support and parts supply
- Insufficient luggage space for two-up touring
- Specific fault areas must be addressed to avoid the risk of catastrophic engine failure
Sold/number built 1999-’07/c13,500 UK; 27,941 USA; RoW n/a
Construction steel monocoque
Engine transverse, mid-mounted, all-alloy, dohc, 16-valve 1794cc ‘four’, with variable valve timing and electronic fuel injection
Max power 138bhp @ 6400rpm
Max torque 125lb ft @ 4400rpm
Transmission five-/six-speed manual or SMT semi-auto, RWD; Torsen limited-slip diff optional
Suspension: front MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear dual-link struts, anti-roll bar
Steering electric power-assisted rack and pinion, 2.7 turns lock-lock
Brakes 254mm ventilated discs, with servo and anti-lock
Length 12ft 9in (3885-3895mm)
Width 5ft 7in (1695mm)
Height 4ft 1in (1240mm)
Wheelbase 8ft (2450mm)
Weight 2372lb (1076kg)
0-60mph 7.5 secs
Top speed 126-131mph
Price new £17,980 (2001)
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