Curbside Classic: 1991 Toyota MR2 – A Camry In Italian Drag

(first posted 2/13/2011): If a picture is really worth a thousand words, I might as well stop right now and just leave you with this one.  It says it all. But just in case its subtlety is lost on you, or need a way to spend the next ten minutes, I will provide a translation and commentary:

What you’re looking at is the stock plastic wheel cover that disguises a cheap black steel wheel on this MR2. In front of it are the extremely Ferrari-esque side air intakes for the mid engine, which was transplanted from a Camry. Like the Ferrari, that MR2 rear tire is bigger and wider than the front tire, to help put the Camry-engine’s 130 hp to the pavement and balance its handling: its size is  a 205-60 x 14; the front is 195-60 x 14. Is that helping? Here’s more:

Maybe seeing the real McCoy F355 with the MR2 will make the picture even clearer. Here’s another angle:

Maybe that’s a bigger helping of help than you actually wanted. But you’re getting the picture now: there’s just a wee bit of difference, especially in those poor little 14″ wheels. And steelies, no less. I never noticed that before.  But help is just a phone call (and $7,990 plus a bit of labor) away from rescuing this daily driver MR2 that probably has 300k trouble free miles on its odometer. Just head over to allkitcars, and they will ship a F355 body kit that will give it all of the visual impact of an F355 without losing any of those Camry trouble-free qualities. Here it is:

There, that’s better, if you’re into that sort of thing. Certainly infinitely more reliable than a Fiero-based F355 kit car anyway. Now that we’ve had our fun with the MR2, maybe we can say something positive about it? Undoubtedly, it had a hell of an act to follow. The original Mister 2 was one of the more brilliant cars thrown our way in the last…well, lifetime, for some of you younger readers. It took the world by storm, much like the Miata did, except Toyota didn’t stick with the formula: light, tight, a switch-blade carving knife, and yet utterly reliable. (Tom’s CC on it is here).

So why wait and do the gen2 first? It’s because I never really spent much time thinking about the gen 2 MR2; its predecessor totally crowds it out of the memory banks with the file name MR2. But then seeing the steel wheels on this one grabbed me, and hard. Better write it up quick before its files are purged again. I know that wont happen with the gen1 files; they’re etched in deep.

This car perfectly reinforces the Toyota stereotype as a split-personality company known for the most boring reliable transportation appliances as well as some of the more exciting and brilliant sports cars ever. And stumbling on this MR2 with its little steel wheels just crystallized that, with both qualities represented so equally in one vehicle, no less. Which is not necessarily a good thing.

Yes, the original MR2 was just as reliable and long-lived as its Corolla donor. But its forceful, edgy and fun-loving character always shone through, and still does after a quarter century. This gen2 MR2 doesn’t. That’s not to say it wasn’t a capable and decently handling car, and even plenty brisk in its 200hp turbo version. And it was/could be modded and prodded into acts of genuine athleticism. But that’s not what it spoke to me when I found it sitting there.

It said: someone fell for my Ferrari lines while I was sitting there at the Toyota dealer in 1991, and has enjoyed its Camry-level reliability as a daily driver for twenty years now. Maybe it’s not in the original owner’s hands anymore, but then I wouldn’t be surprised if it still is.

(I encountered this gen1 MR2 on a used car lot recently that was traded in by its original school-teacher owner with 260k original, and it was snapped up almost instantly. Impressive.)

Did the owner of this red car MR2 ever care about the little steel wheels? Hell no. They liked the fact that replacement Kumho tires go for $45. And that’s about the only thing that ever needed replacing. Here’s another thing to like:

That interior is as old-school Camry-esque as any I’ve ever seen, dripping with the “fat content” padded surfaces of that particular Toyota era, quite unlike its predecessor’s personality-appropriate hard-edged and angular interior. Perfect for that long commute on the freeway before they finally got sick of it and moved to Eugene; that sun-faded paint says California all over it. And now it will most likely spend the next twenty years aging gracefully here (update: it’s still on the same block, three years later).