Junkyard Gem: 1991 Toyota MR2

Murilee Martin


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During the middle to late 1980s, American car shoppers looking for an economical-yet-sporty two-seater for non-oligarch money had plenty of interesting choices. From Detroit, they could choose a Ford EXP/Mercury LN7 or a Pontiac Fiero. From Europe, Malcolm Bricklin made the Pininfarina-badged Fiat 124 Sport Spider and Bertone-badged Fiat X-1/9 available over here (the Alfa Romeo Spider sold for Corvette money, so we're not including it here), while ships crossed the Pacific carrying Honda CRXs and Toyota MR2s. The latter car, with its light weight and mid-engined design, developed a cult following during its first generation (1985 through 1990 model years in North America) but didn't seem to make as vivid an impression after the second generation debuted for 1991. I've documented first- and third-generation MR2s for this series, and now I've found a good second-gen example in Denver.

The 1991-1999 MR2 looked lower and less angular than its predecessor, with a very 1990s-style engine-lid spoiler that looked borrowed from something like the Geo Storm GSi.

The first-generation MR2s had 4A-G engines, just like the legendary AE86 Corollas, while the second-generation cars moved over to the S engine family. This car has the 5S-FE, shared with the Corolla GT-S that year, rated at 130 horsepower.

A disturbingly high proportion of U.S.-market MR2s came with four-speed automatic transmissions (why would you put up with the inconvenience of a jouncy, low two-seater but balk at the inconvenience of shifting in traffic jams?), but this one has the correct five-speed manual.

Someone bought the instrument cluster before I found this car, so I can't share the final mileage figure here. The interior looks nice, so it could be a well-cared-for car that toiled on a 75-mile commute each day or a low-miler that just sat in the garage for weeks on end. We'll never know.

Americans who wanted something sporty were well into the process of shifting their allegiance to trucks and truck-influenced cars by the early 1990s, so these MR2s didn't move off the showrooms quite as readily as the '85s and '86s had. The price for the non-turbo 1991 MR2 started at $14,898, or about $28,380 in 2020 clams, or bones. The turbocharged version, with its maniacal 200 horsepower, went for $18,228. That was a lot of fun for the money.

By 1991, however, the MR2 had to compete against Mazda's MX-5 Miata, the cheap and reliable sports car that made generations of MGB and Fiat Spider owners stuff their cars into the nearest crusher. The Honda CRX — which stole away plenty of potential MR2 sales during the 1980s — would be gone after 1991, but Mercury dealers began offering cheap and quick (though front-wheel-drive) Mazda-based Mercury Capri two-seaters starting that year, including a version with a turbocharged version of the Miata's engine.

Midship express! All new cars should be delivered out the side of a moving 18-wheeler.

As always, the U.S.-market ads weren't as good. Something something passion, Italian opera, you know the drill.

Let's watch the far superior American first-gen MR2 TV commercial, featuring a chlamydic dude with cocaine-saturated pornstache literally driving the car on a pinball machine playfield. Watch out for those pop bumpers!


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