Street-legal, mid-engine sports cars are usually supercars, starting with the Lamborghini Miura in 1966 and followed by the Ferrari Dino in 1969 and the 365 in 1972. Even Chevrolet toyed with a mid-engine Corvette in the late 1960s, but it came to nothing.
Prior to the 1984 Toyota MR2 launch in Japan, the only serious attempts at small mid-engine cars were the rust-prone and fragile Fiat X1/9, and the Pontiac Fiero, which was smuggled to market under the guise of a commuter car.
Toyota drivers who loved their bulletproof Corona and Corolla saloons, suspected that the MR2 would work well, and they were right. The first AW10 MR2s had a 1.5-litre engine, while the AW11 models were fitted with the 1,587cc Corolla Twin-cam four-cylinder. But the car was engineered for a 2-litre power plant, and Lotus engineer Roger Becker designed a very stiff structure with five bulkheads.
UK versions sported a four-valve, 122 bhp fuel-injected engine, with a standard five-speed gearbox and optional four-speed automatic, and managed 0-60 mph in 8 seconds.
Toyota stepped up its game in 1986 when it offered a supercharged MR2, with a small Roots blower and Denso intercooler. The variable intake geometry of the naturally aspirated model was dropped, but the blown car produced 145 bhp and could do 0-60 mph in 6.5 seconds, with a quarter mile in 15 seconds flat. The supercharger was belt-driven but activated by an electromagnetic clutch when needed, to help fuel economy. Sadly, the supercharged MR2 was not sold in Europe or Australia, though some have been imported privately.
The MR2 made 10 Best lists in all the major American car magazines and 166,104 were sold in five years. But by 1989, it was looking tall and boxy, and had always been rather cramped. Toyota’s next MR2 bore much resemblance to the Ferrari 348.
The W20 MR2 was launched in 1989 and was larger and 400lbs heavier, with a more comfortable cabin and more luggage space. The design was rounder, in common with most 1990s designs and the handling refined by Formula One drivers like Dan Gurney.
Engine size was increased to 2-litres, with up to 173 bhp available, and the transaxle was beefed up, along with the suspension. A five-speed manual gearbox and four-speed automatic transmission were offered, and T-bar roof option. Once again the high performance version – this time with a turbocharger – was not sold in Europe, though some Japanese cars have been imported. The turbocharger boosted power to 218 bhp, delivering 0-60 mph in six seconds and quarter mile just over 14 seconds, but tuners have found as much as 310 bhp.
The second generation MR2 was not as successful as the first. Only about 80,000 cars were sold worldwide in 10 years, and sales tapered off sharply in the late 1990s. The third generation MR2 Spyder was introduced in 2000, but was even smaller than the first version. Fewer than 50,000 found buyers in six years.
Toyota MR2s are affordable and reliable, though the engine is a tight fit and serious work requires that it be removed. They are enjoyable starter sports car - just look for rust and accident damage, ask for records and be aware that projects can be costly.
Alternative small performance cars include the Lotus Elise, the Mazda MX-5 and the Porsche Boxster.