For the third-generation W30, the MR2 morphed from coupé to desirable drop-top with a lively 1.8-litre twin-cam, and it’s now a bargain sports car. Words Malcolm Mckay. Photography Tony Baker.
It’s tempting: a great-handling, goodlooking, 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.
FRONT SUSPENSION If a prospective purchase has coilover upgrades, this may ndicate that the car has been abused
SEMI-AUTO TRANSMISSION Rare in the UK market; the ECU can be problematic
GEARCHANGE Can get notchy with age/wear
SILLS AND FLOORS Check for damp and rot
EXHAUST Pre-cats can disintegrate and wreck the engine
LAMBDA SENSORS Often fail and are costly, so invest in a fault-code reader
REAR BRAKES Both the calipers and the handbrake cables can seize
REAR SUBFRAME Prone to rot, which is concealed by the undertray
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 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 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 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 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.
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.
With a flexible 1.8 engine and an engaging chassis, the W30 MR2 Roadster is an attractive prospect; the final TF300 (pictured) was the ultimate variant.
The Mk3 Toyota MR2 is a light and sweet-handling drop-top, and the brakes should be excellent. If the steering is notchy, check for column-joint wear.
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.
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. On the test drive it felt like the old Mk1, though power steering is a lovely improvement. Forget practicality, youwear 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 ’2006 car with FTSH and 23,000 miles: I had to have it. It finished second in its first MR2DC concours.”
“Forget practicality, youwear it – you’re part of the car. It’s perfectly balanced, and feels so responsive”
MAZDA MX-5 (NB) 1998-2005, 299,228 built
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.
Price now £500-5000
MGF/TF 1995-2005, 116,518 built
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.
Price now £500-5000
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 dealer-installed TTE Turbo pack offered
2007 Jul Production ends
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)
MR2 Drivers’ Club
0844 335 0357; www.mr2dc.com
MR2 Owners’ Club
MR2 Roadster Owners’ Club www.mr2roc.org
Fensport Performance 01354 696968
MR2-BEN 07940 572209
MR2 Roadster Recycling 07779 148187
MR2 Spares 07500 035658
Rogue Motorsport 01926 810104
D1 Customs 07854 318153
WHAT TO PAY
Show/low miles £3000/4000/6000
High miles £1000/1500/2500
One you can buy
Asking price £3495
Year of manufacture 2000
Recorded mileage 28,627
Vendor Richard Harrington Cars, Silverstone, Northants; tel: 01908 267254/07960 745780
For Early car, low mileage, drives beautifully
Against Front repaint not the best
This early, low-miles W30 has a good service history and will have a pre-sale oil change. It has its original Toyota stickers on the front and rear screens, and the supplying dealer’s rear plate. The headlight lenses are clear; there’s no rust. However, the bumpers are dullish and slightly scratched, and the bonnet is microblistered. The wheels are almost unscuffed. The tyres are new (late ’17-dated) Toyo Proxes T1Rs, fitted by the vendor, who added new front discs and pads, too. It’s good inside, with only light wear to the driver’s seat and a small bare patch on the carpet, plus a couple of threads loose on the gearlever gaiter. The hood’s in great shape and easy to use. The engine bay is tidy, the motor a little corroded. There’s no word on whether the cats have been pulled, but the exhaust manifold and its cover look standard, and a bit rusty. Coolant is to the right level and orange, the oil darkish and mid-level. It starts instantly with no nasty noises and is sharp to drive. It’s rattle-free with firm brakes, good synchros and a willingness to rev. The air-con, windows and mirrors work. It’s sold with an MoT until March and two keys. It is priced slightly higher than most MR2s of its age, due to its low mileage and sharp condition.
Bumpers and bonnet have been refinished and aren’t great. There’s a little corrosion, but the ‘four’ is strong and willing. The cabin’s posh stacked Sony radio/CD player is original.
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.
FOR A fab roadster that’s economical and reliable; great club/forum support and parts supply
AGAINST Insufficient luggage space for two-up touring; specific fault areas must be addressed to avoid the risk of catastrophic engine failure