(first posted 8/22/2014) Toyota knocked one out of the park with the introduction of the MR2 in 1984 (February, 1985 in the US)–the first mass-produced mid-engine car to come from a Japanese automaker. As one of the best contenders in an era where affordable sports cars were in abundant supply, it offered sharp handling, unbeatable quality and one of the best four-cylinders then on the market. As a package, it was hard to resist, but the company turned the dial up to “eleven” in 1988 with the US-market introduction of the MR2 Supercharged.
Powered by a Roots-blown and intercooled 4A-GZE engine that made ~30% more HP than the normally-aspirated car, the supercharged MR2 solved one of the few complaints which could’ve been leveled at the car as more powerful competition began to materialize. I was visiting my dad in Central Georgia earlier this summer when we caught this supercharged model and its owner, both of whom were eager to get off the hot asphalt parking lot. The owner confirmed this to be a 1989 model, to which he’s done some tweaking. He and his son are both MR2 enthusiasts, and his son drives a highly-modified MR2 that makes about 265hp (yikes!). If you zoom in on the photo, you can make out the “Supercharger” light on the tachometer gauge. The blower incorporated an electromagnetic clutch so it would only be active when needed (that would be all the time, right?) in order to preserve some modicum of fuel economy.
I was in the Industrial Design program at Georgia Tech when the MR2 was introduced, and it caused quite a buzz among my classmates (as well as the folks at Motor Trend, who awarded it “Import Car of the Year”). We were positive the angular styling was due to the car having been designed using CAD (easier to draw straight lines than curved, after all). As if to prove us wrong, the 1991 MkII (there was no 1990 model) went almost to the other extreme with its swoopy Ferrari-esque styling. Were I to choose a favorite MR2 model, it would be this one right here. The angular styling still looks good to my eye, and the throaty growl (and whine) of that supercharged engine would be too much to pass up.
What’s especially interesting about Toyota’s decision to supercharge the 4A-GE is that the company, along with most others, had been doing a lot with turbocharging during that period. By the tail end of the ’80s, however, forced induction was viewed more critically because of such obvious issues as lag, etcetera. Fitting a larger engine would’ve likely required an illogical degree of re-engineering of the MR2’s Corolla-based powertrain, however. Maintaining the linear power curve and instantaneous throttle response that were key parts of the MR2 experience, on the other hand, made supercharging a more obvious solution.
These days, turbocharging is back with a vengeance, with high compression ratios made possible by the cooling effect of direct injection’s spray of fuel directly into combustion chambers helping mitigate the effects of lag, along with a host of other improvements. But the ’90s and early ’00s seemed to represent a brief fling with the supercharger as an ideal path to extra power. At Toyota, they made an appearance in the 94-96 Previa, of course, and were more famously installed in a host Mercedes and Jaguar cars, in addition to the R53 Mini where, strapped to a 1.6-liter four, they sparkled. More obscure implementations include Mazda’s Miller-Cycle Millenia S and VW’s Corrado G60 and (Canada-only) Passat Synchro, along with the Thunderbird Supercoupe. And certainly, no one here at CC will forget GM’s excellent supercharged 3800-series. Overall, however, the list of factory supercharged cars is a short one. For the mid ’80s (it was introduced in Japan for 1986), the 4A-GZE was a very bold and clever solution. One could say it was slightly ahead of its time, despite being a low-volume curiosity, with no more than 2,000 likely sold on these shores over two years.
In Toyota speak, A refers to the engine family, 4 denoting the 1.6 liter displacement, with G referring to the wide valve angle head (the alternative, F, means narrow valve angle with the intake cam slaved to the exhaust cam, in some cases) and E, fuel-injection. Z, as we can guess, refers to supercharging; on other models, T is used to denote turbocharging. As seen in the MR2, 4A-GE the engine was boosted by 8 PSI, with compression lowered from 9.4:1 to 8.0:1, for a healthy 145 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque (at a lowish 4400 rpm, indicating a usefully broad powerband). Between the torque peak, the 6400 rpm power peak and 7500 rpm redline, the engine had a big enough sweet spot to move the now 2,600 pound MR2 with zest; no peaky delivery, no waiting. Mister Two now got to sixty in the high six-second range, with the quarter mile dispatched in 15.5 seconds, at about 90 mph.
Critical response to the turbocharged MR2 which followed was generally positive, but less enthusiastic. In addition to being a heavier car, the brawny new powerplant (more at home in the Celica AllTrac or GT4, for our overseas readers) did not have the same spunky and sharp characteristics as the wide valve angle A-block. The supercharged 1.6 went on to live in the Corolla and its derivatives until 1995 (if you’re a Japanese car buff, here’s yet another instance in which we’re denied the good stuff), where a smaller supercharger pulley and boosted compression netted a solid 160-ish horsepower (hard to exactly determine without SAE net measurements) and 150-ish lb-ft of torque.
Other variants of the 4A-GE with such unique details as individual throttle bodies and five-valves per cylinder would cement its legendary status, making the boosted 4A-GZE a footnote to history of one of Toyota’s most well-regarded engines. That the owner of this car managed to get his hands on one therefore makes him quite lucky, and we’re all fortunate that he gave me the opportunity to share it. Never a volume model, most of these cars are naturally aspirated models in red, white or black, making this more powerful yet subtle blue example one of my favorite recent finds.
Curbside Classic: 1986 Toyota MR2 – They Call Me MISTER Two!
Reading this just makes me long for the days when Toyota had a serious devotion to performance. Great find!
Many thanks for the assist in adding the detail on the engine, Perry – turned out great!
Born in 1981 and growing up in a toyota household, the MR2 has always been one of my favorites! I will eventually own one! Just b/c of the pricing, I may actually look to the 80s model rather than the 90s model that I prefer.
Also, as shown in the press photo, this car looks absolutely naked without that rear spoiler! I could never get on board with that
Sitting in one of these during the Summer of ’85 left a very positive impression on a young me. That the car was mid-engined only made it seem that much more exotic as I imagined myself blasting down the road in it.
It was quite a contrast to the ’39 Buick sitting next to it in the showroom, and I have been fond of these MR2’s ever since.
My dad bought a red one in ’84 to supplement mom’s black ’80 SR5 liftback.
It was my first experience with driving a twin cam mid-engine layout. Needless to say, the Merritt Parkway was a blast in that little ‘yoda. As long as traffic wasn’t too heavy.
“They call me Mister Two!”
remember when Toyota actually did innovative, exciting stuff?
Great write up. A car I overlooked in its time, but I’m sold now! Very good looking in blue!
I remember those. That MR2 with the supercharger was one of most bad ass cars to come out of the 1980’s. It was due to both the HP and the low weight.
That car featured has one of my favorite colors for the MR2 of that generation.
Speaking of the first generation MR2 I wonder how much the base model sold for? It seems there was more Fieros out there in those days then the MR2 and the 1980’s like now were Toyota everything.
The Fiat X/19 done right. Still skeptical of modern Fiats.
Skeptical of all Fiats……though if Fiat did do a modern-retro X1/9 with that Abarth engine, it would be tempting for a reasonable price.
I drove one once, briefly, but the impression will last a lifetime. It made its closest competitor the Honda CRX seem like a DIxie Cup. Compared to the Fiero, well let’s not go there.
So many breakthroughs in one car. Not just the affordable twin-cam engine and mid-engine layout but also the shifter which you shifted more or less with your wrist. The steering wheel had a small diameter and very thick rim, something quite new back them. The car was low but still very comfortable for a tall guy, like a Porsche 914. Unlike a 914, the air conditioning worked just fine.
The early cars were tail happy and you had to be careful not to spin out but what loads of fun. I’ve only driven one Ferrari in my life, a 328 back in the late 80s. Asked by a friend to describe it I said “great, felt like a big MR2.”
I know the styling wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I loved it. The replacement was more rounded and generic, typical 90s bullshit. Its saving grace was a turbo in place of the SC but that wasn’t enough to win my heart.
What a company, what a car, what a decade. Thanks for the excellent article Ed.
I had forgotten that these came supercharged. We in Indiana have a long history with the supercharger.
Coulda shoulda bought one new. Except when they were new I had to drive a truck and the (then) wife had to have her caddies and lincolns. Oh well.
Great article Ed
I remember this generation MR2. I had one like this blue one in the article. It wasn’t as nice as this one, and it had all sorts of problems, some of which I didn’t notice when I bought it. One of the biggest problems I had was that there was never enough headroom. With the sunroof, my head would always hit the inside of the sunroof edge. There was also a gap in the outer edge of the windscreen that would leak if it rained hard enough. I don’t know what caused it, and I didn’t have the money to have it fixed. Nevertheless, it’s a good first car, and a fun little runabout. Just remember, when you’re looking for one, that it fits you comfortably, and that everything on it works like it’s supposed to.
Back in 1986, most US rental car companies still had an occasional manual transmission car on the lot. The defense contractor I worked for had me on a temporary assignment in San Diego for over a year, so I knew the folks at the local Hertz and always asked for a MT car. For several months it was a (normally aspirated) MR2, which was a blast. (The manager of the Hertz office was annoyed though – he had been driving the car for quite a while before that.) After a few months someone hit it in a parking lot so I had to turn it in. The replacement was an Accord hatch with a 5-speed – not a bad car either, but not quite as fun. I’d still own either one.
That would be great…I worked as a transporter for Hertz back in the 70’s and don’t recall any of our cars having manual transmissions…which I guess was good for me because I wasn’t yet driving manual, having learned on an automatic. I’ve since reformed, as I haven’t owned an automatic car since 1981.
The locations can vary quite a bit in their fleet, but the last manual transmission car I rented (and the first…only the one in my memory) was in my now hometown of Austin, Tx in 1983. My Mother arranged for me to get a Toyota Starlet to drive to San Antonio for an interview (they’d just moved to Austin, and I was trying to go to an interview for a job so I could relocate). I eventually did get the job, but soon moved to Austin as the company I worked for was part of a hostile takeover and the company soon had substantial layoffs.
Wish there were more manual transmission rentals, I’ve driven them of course in Europe, but I guess they are concerned that people would burn out the clutch. I “retaught” my Mother to drive manual when she was going to Poland with my Uncle, she wanted to be able to back him up in case something happened to him (which seemed to be the case on many of his trips). Took her to a vacant Walmart parking lot in my prior car (GTi) but she really was never very comfortable with it, despite having learned to drive on a semiautomatic car 70 years ago
That is a very rare one-year only color; Ice Blue Pearl (8G2). To some, myself included, it’s unfortunate the US supercharged cars could only be had with the heavier T-bar roof, as the supercharger and all associated upgrades added 200 extra pounds to the car. It has been said the added weight disturbed the balance of the car somewhat, so for the final 1989 cars, Toyota fitted a rear anti-roll bar to combat the problem.
Yeah and after 25 years, they probably rattle and are prone to wind leak at high speeds. Very generous and diligent of Toyota to add a rear anti-roll bar to deal with the dulled handling; it’s a touch which would add oversteer, so it shows they clearly had their heart in it.
As such an obscure car even when new, most were probably sold to people who really knew a thing or two about what makes a good car (or at least, I’d like to think so).
Always wanted one….
I own a Spyder and my brother had a turbo 2nd gen. Personally the first gens looks never did much for me. I appreciate the idea but if my car is going to be completely impractical the top better drop.
Yeah, the looks of the first-gen didn’t date as well as one might’ve hoped. I actually think the more fluid, simple shape of the 91-94 has aged better.
Interesting that you own an MR-Spyder. So few were sold and they were quite underrated.
I love my Spyder, it’s neck and neck with my 1991 Miata as the most fun car I’ve ever owned. I bought it last year with 30,000 miles on it, just an awesome car IMO. I also have a 1990 Celica Alltrac that’s my DD so rarer Toyotas seem to be my thing I guess.
Gotta say, I like your style.
Saw one at a car dealer lot today… CC effect!
What a find. I love the rarer of the imported performance cars of that era. Unlike such cars as the turbocharged 626s or Legacies I’m eager to find, no matter how nice they are, the MR2 has performance and dynamics which can’t be argued with.
The 4A-GE is an interesting power plant given how much it changed over the years. It’s interesting that Toyota abandoned the Supercharging in favor of naturally aspirated versions with less torque but a wider power band (power peaks in the upper 7k rpm range). I think I’d prefer the supercharged versions, based on my experience with Mini Coopers; if astronomical redlines and high-rpm power peaks are you thing, it would seem Honda’s B-series did it better. Then again, in a car like the MR2 and Corolla, tons of torque might not be as beneficial as high-rpm performance that lasts for days. So who knows?
Now, excuse me while I daydream about the MR2’s engine ALSO being offered in cars like this Prizm/Sprinter:
I think the reason Toyota dropped the 4A-GZE (and the larger 2-liter 1G-GZE six) was that people weren’t really buying it. The supercharger provided more torque and instant response, but wasn’t a very efficient way to produce really impressive horsepower numbers. The supercharged Corolla and Sprinter were also a bunch more expensive than the 20-valve cars, weighed more (with most of that on the nose), and by the AE101 generation had only a nominal 10 PS advantage. I imagine the 4A-GZE would have worked better with automatic, but you couldn’t order it that way, although you could get the 20-valve screams with automatic. (I assume it was a torque capacity issue with the automatic transaxle.)
Given the price, it’s not really surprising that there wasn’t a supercharged Prizm. The Prizm GSi didn’t sell as it was, and the full GTZ spec would probably cost as much as an AWD Diamond Star. I’m sure there were people who would rather have had a supercharged Prizm than a 195-hp Eclipse GSX, but Toyota could have just sent all three of them a nice letter of apology.
(Screams = screamers.)
Oh I know why there was no 4AGZE Prizm, I just enjoy imagining there was one.
I was a big fan of these when I was a kid. They always seemed “right”, an affordable sports car. While I still think they’re good-looking, the shape of these first-gen cars is definitely of the 80’s with all those angles. The 2nd-gen, while some of the details are a little awkward, is more timeless overall to me.
Also, while widespread supercharging may have been a 90’s fad, it still finds its place. Notably the ZR1 versions of the C6 and C7 ‘Vette…
For the record, the last supercharged JDM 4A-GZE was rated at 170 PS @ 6,400 rpm and 21 kg-m (about 153 lb-ft) of torque @ 4,400 rpm, both JIS net. By comparison, the normally aspirated 4A-GE 20-valve was rated at 160 PS @ 7,400 rpm and 16.5 kg-m (about 120 lb-ft) @ 5,200 rpm. The supercharged engine was heavier, so it would make for an interesting race.
I was trying to translate that figure as SAE net; should’ve just quoted JIS figures. I think the supercharged engines might be marginally quicker, but maybe not; I’d be inclined to think they do well because of their linear power curve and 7500 red line. What are the redlines on the 20-valve black top and silver top?
My recollection is that it was 8,000 rpm for both.
I gave up a while ago trying to translate PS ratings into anything other than kilowatts. I am perpetually exasperated with the erratic and inconsistent way the British press tries to convert PS to mechanical horsepower. They do it sometimes but not always; they occasionally make the conversion in the wrong direction or do it twice (converting a number that’s already a mechanical horsepower rating); they use “bhp” for both; and they rarely bother to indicate what they’ve done.
Comparing SAE, JIS, and DIN ratings is tricky anyway. Sometimes, Japanese manufacturers will give their European or American exports ratings that are numerically identical to the Japanese ratings even when that doesn’t account for the difference in units.
Sadly, I’ve just relocated, and my collection of Sprinter/Trueno brochures are still back home, but I feel like I remember the 4A-GZE cars ran standard with a helical LSD, whereas only on certain 4A-GE trims one could option a viscous LSD. I don’t recall the availability of TEMS on the GZE either.
The helical limited-slip was only on the AE111 and only with Super Strut and manual transmission. The AE101 GT-Z had a viscous-coupling limited-slip, but other AE101s didn’t offer a limited-slip differential and limited-slip wasn’t offered at all on the AE92. The supercharged engine wasn’t available with TEMS or Super Strut (which couldn’t be ordered together even on normally aspirated cars — I assume Toyota didn’t adapt the electronic damping controls for the Super Strut dampers).
Thanks for clearing that up; after the AE86’s, the selection of sporty models and choices really did increase dramatically.
Its just sad whats happened to Toyota. Does anyone else see a parallel to Buick here? These cars were actually very cool….and Im not a fan of Japanese tin by and large. Mister Two took everything that was cool about the Fiero and made it better.
And btw, whats up with that Sprinter Trueno? True, the front clip looks like a love child between a geo storm and a Pokémon critter (no worse than many ’90s blobs) but overall its a slick little coupe. I can see it as a theoretical 90s version of the Scion tC.
The Corolla Levin was better looking IMO (This is the supercharged GT-Z) … Instead of this we got the Paseo, likely due to cost. Part of me thinks it could have been an Integra GSR fighter if it were a Lexus at the same price point in this, or the 20 valve form.
One of the fun things about these cars is how the model name is pronounced in French.
It’s why in France and Belgium they were marketed only as the MR, sans model badges, lol.
I’m pretty sure it was the “MR2” in Canada, though…!