Is the first-gen Toyota MR2 the most practical exotic of its time?

By J.G. Pasterjak
Jun 22, 2023 | Toyota, MR2, Toyota MR2, aw11 | Posted in Features | From the May 2023 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

We lived through the ’80s and ’90s and spent a lot of time with the era’s greatest hits–drove them, raced them, even knew them when they still had that new car smell. We fondly remember shopping for Kamei air dams, Hella lamps and 14-inch tires.

But were the cars of those times really that rad? 

We wondered that ourselves, so we ditched the rose-colored glasses for a few to take a look back. Were they all winners, or did a few duds get released? Let’s slip on some Vans, break out the vinyl and take a trip back in time.

This week, we're looking back at the first-generation, AW11 Toyota MR2.

A 1985 MR2 was my first “real” sports car and the first car I seriously autocrossed. I’ve owned an MR2 of one generation or another concurrently for over 30 years, so I’m probably a little biased here.

[Project Car: 1985 Toyota MR2]

But if I am, it’s with good reason, as these are terrific cars. The first-gen AW11 models are pretty overbuilt, which makes them several hundred pounds heavier than contemporary competitors like the CRX, but that also means they stay solid for decades. As with any Asian car of the era, rust can be an issue, so check those door bottoms, trunk and frunk corners, cowls and anyplace water can pool for rot before making a commitment.

The first generation of MR2 also had the distinction of being among the last era of cars with interiors somehow larger than their exteriors–before door bars and high sills closed up cabins. The interior is downright spacious, with some of the best ergonomics and seats out of a factory in my memory. The view out the windshield is huge and panoramic, and the driving experience is strikingly exotic while still being attainable.

On the downside, trim parts are getting rare, with some seemingly having disappeared altogether. A cottage industry has sprung up around these cars, with enthusiast-based businesses like Twos R Us and MR2Heaven having good supplies of NOS parts and even reproductions in some cases.

Verdict: A true classic that still seems shockingly underappreciated.

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maschinenbau GRM+ Memberand UberDork
6/22/23 8:27 a.m.

I would call it the most exotic practical of its time

Jerry PowerDork
6/22/23 8:37 a.m.

I've had two including a supercharged and would not turn down another nice example.  Right now.

Tom1200 UberDork
6/22/23 10:40 a.m.

I daily drove an MR2 for about a year circa 2002. It was a fun car but from a driving dynamic standpoint I liked my NA Miata better.

With that said I'd have one in a heart beat.

Streetwiseguy MegaDork
6/22/23 10:45 a.m.

Exotic?  That seems a strong word for a cheap Toyota.  Cool, Fun, Impractical, sure.

stan GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
6/22/23 11:39 a.m.

 DD'd a 914 for a few years, then later DD'd an '87 MR2. The MR2 felt heavier (it was -by 200#), but felt easier to drive. Maybe the 15 years and Toyota quality explained that. The MR2 was also easier to work on. I liked the MR2 better than my Miata, but I think I like a coupe more than a convertible, but loved the Miata seats.

Wouldn't mind having another MR2.

alfadriver MegaDork
6/22/23 11:44 a.m.

An MR2 was one of two cars that my dad bought in his life that he didn't even test drive.  He DD's it from when be bought it to when he retired.  And it was the first car I ever autocrossed.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ UltimaDork
6/22/23 11:53 a.m.

My non-salt season daily driver is an 85 MR2.  This particular example is loud, missing some of the interior in favor of a rollbar, weighs in at 2150 lbs, has no radio, not a ton of suspension travel, and is on some small Azenis that keep the cornering limits reasonable- it gets over 30mpg driving it the way I like, and most normal stuff fits in the trunk.  Honestly, I'd say the least practical aspect of it is that the roofline is below the windows of many modern vehicles, and I'm constantly getting cut off in traffic.  It has only stranded me once, when the ancient fuel pump finally gave up- I have an ongoing argument with myself over whether to prep one for stage rally.

calteg SuperDork
6/22/23 12:06 p.m.

Neither exotic nor practical. But mechanically reliable and fun

kanaric SuperDork
6/22/23 2:09 p.m.

In reply to Streetwiseguy :

It's exotic at this point in that companies don't make this kind of car anymore at all and I never see them. There used to be a time that cheaper companies like Lancia, Fiat, or Toyota were making cars like this but those years are long gone. 

If I saw an extremely clean one at this Gears and Grinds show I go to in Las Vegas here I would B-line right towards it walking past actual exotics that I see literally at every show here. 

I see at shows here imported Celica GT-Fours, JDM Land Cruisers, Bugattis, McLarens, GTRs, 911 GT2s and GT3s. Never see a single MR2 of this gen. The last time I saw one it was in this bright blue color and it was extremely mint, but this was YEARS ago now. 

The only rare exotic, that wasn't some collector's race car, I ever saw that I was actually excited about was a McLaren F1 at the Fountain Hills show in Arizona. At least 1000 cars there in total, tons of copy and paste exotics, not a single MR2 lol. 


Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
6/22/23 3:24 p.m.

The more I look at that lead picture, the more I want a first-gen MR2.

Not sure where I'd put it, though...

93gsxturbo UltraDork
6/22/23 3:37 p.m.

Someone near me has a daily driven 2nd gen one, 100% stock and rust free which is rare for Wisconsin.  Complete with stock wheels with brake dust on them.    Recently appeared, so I hope its someone who cares about it at least a little bit.


Matt B (fs)
Matt B (fs) UltraDork
6/22/23 4:16 p.m.

I've had my 86 for almost 17 years with no plans to let it go.  I own and have driven much much more capable cars, but none have made me as consistently happy to drive.  Is it exotic?  Ehhh, that's a stretch for how most define it.  There are things about the experience that make it feel very special  in a way that a NA Miata doesn't do for me despite similar in a lot of ways, but objectively better in almost every one of them.  I'd chalk that sentiment up to the combination of an extremely angular design, non-powered steering, fantastic visibility, and the very obvious rear weight bias.

While we're having this little a-dub love fest here's a shameless sharing of one of my favorite design detail shots.

Jim Pettengill
Jim Pettengill HalfDork
6/22/23 6:29 p.m.

I've had my 89 for 23 years and plan to never sell it.  It's not a concours car, but it's solid, everything works except the intermittent and self-parking wipers (you MR2 folks know all about that), it's been autocrossed, tracked, driven on trips (but never in snow during my ownership), and pretty much does everything well.  Pretty much stock except for 15x7 wheels Toyo R1Rs, Koni yellow shocks, rear swaybar, low restriction cat and poly bushings.  I love it.  This one is gray and invisible; my first one back in the 90s was Super Red, and the cops followed me everywhere, the stories about cops and red cars are absolutely true.

parker HalfDork
6/22/23 6:32 p.m.

My 85 was my all time favorite car until the FR-S dethroned it.  Had an 89 Supercharged also but enjoyed driving the 85 more.

singleslammer GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
6/22/23 7:24 p.m.

My SC is going to be one that never leaves. These cars are becoming more and more scarce every day and that may add the mystique. I do wonder if this is something that has a generational difference. If you saw these all the time when you were around in the 80s and 90s then they may not seem all that special. For us sub 40s, these things have never been common and basically no one south of Lotus makes an approachable mid engine car. To wrap the ramble. I like MR2s. They are neat and feel exotic compared to other normal cars.

SKJSS (formerly Klayfish)
SKJSS (formerly Klayfish) PowerDork
6/22/23 8:10 p.m.

I was 13 when they debuted for 1985.  To me, they were totally exotic.  I've owned 3 and am in the process of building an endurance racing AW11.

ShawnG MegaDork
6/22/23 8:49 p.m.

I've driven one.

I've owned many fun Toyotas but never managed to buy a mr2.

Maybe it's time to start looking.

irish44j (Forum Supporter)
irish44j (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
6/22/23 9:53 p.m.

I'd say the Porsche 944 was the most practical "exotic" made at the same time as the AW11. Fairly reliable, huge cargo capacity for a car its size (like 10x more than an MR2), and close to 30mpg. Granted, it cost roughly double what the MR2 cost in 1985. 

I love the MR2 (and I was an 80s kid), it was totally cool and I definitely wanted one (and, oddly , a Volvo 760 Turbo Wagon). But not sure MR2 qualifies as practical, really. Still rad though. 

irish44j (Forum Supporter)
irish44j (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
6/22/23 9:59 p.m.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ said:

 It has only stranded me once, when the ancient fuel pump finally gave up- I have an ongoing argument with myself over whether to prep one for stage rally.

That's less times than your prior MR2 stranded you ;)


jimbob_racing SuperDork
6/22/23 10:14 p.m.

Thanks for reminding me how much that I want one of these cars.  I saw many nice ones for sale on the web. Unfortunately they're too small to live in when my wife throws me out for buying one.

singleslammer GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
6/23/23 9:33 a.m.

In reply to irish44j (Forum Supporter) :

I have had a 944 as well. I agree that it is way more practical. However, it looks like a fancy Nissan to normies (front engine hatchback). I didn't love the handling as much though that isn't really important for this conversation. I kind of think that for 'exotic' you need something relatively wild happening from a visual standpoint. The engine behind the driver almost always accomplishes this. Except the OG beetle which is the least exotic, mass produced car of all time.

Mrfurzzy New Reader
6/23/23 9:36 a.m.

In reply to Jerry :

I currently have two and I still wouldn't turn down another!

wspohn SuperDork
6/23/23 10:38 a.m.

Think I prefer the similar  Italian one from the previous decade, the Fiat X 1/9. But then the reliability quotient is much higher (I would expect) with the Toyota.

j_tso Dork
6/23/23 4:53 p.m.

More practical than the later generations because it has a trunk.

84FSP UberDork
6/23/23 4:58 p.m.
Jerry said:

I've had two including a supercharged and would not turn down another nice example.  Right now.

Alex is still loving your last one sir.  It has received a ton of nice upgrades.

hybridmomentspass Dork
6/24/23 6:11 p.m.
j_tso said:

More practical than the later generations because it has a trunk.

Second gen/SW20 had a trunk too.

And looks way better.

j_tso Dork
6/24/23 7:38 p.m.


singleslammer GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
6/25/23 10:19 a.m.

In reply to hybridmomentspass :

That's like, just your opinion man - The Nukemblog

I think that the first gen is aging better. So there. cheeky

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