TOYOTA MR2

QUICK, THIRD-GEN MR2 IS A SPORTS CAR BARGAIN Ė BUT IS IT THE SAFE BET THAT ITS TOYOTA BADGES MIGHT SUGGEST?

ON SALE IN Australia from 2000, the third-generation MR2 marked a major change of direction for Toyota. It was still mid-engined of course, and as well engineered as ever, but the MR2 was now a two-seater roadster rather than a coupe. For any who craved a credible alternative to the Mazda MX-5 of the time, this was excellent news.

The ZZW30 MR2 went on to enjoy years of sales success, with regular updates throughout that time. Fans adored the third-generation carís almost Boxster-like styling and revelled in its broad appeal, appreciating what was perhaps the most accessible MR2 of all. Boot space might have been tight, but when a car was that entertaining to drive... well, who cared?

Nowadays, the ZZW30 MR2 offers spectacular value for money on the modern-classic scene, making it even more tempting to those who find its rivals way too predictable. But what do you need to know before buying one?

TOYOTA MR2 VITAL CHECKS

ENGINE The MR2 is inherently reliable, but that doesnít mean itís guaranteed to be problem-free. Toyotaís use of a pre-cat (as well as the inevitable catalytic converter) to reduce emissions was a complication that was prone to failure on early cars. The pre-cat got a reputation for disintegrating and allowing fragments into the engine. Post-2002 models were factory-modified, and the vast majority of earlier cars will have been fixed by now. For extra safety some MR2 owners remove the pre-cat when installing a performance exhaust system.

While the 1.8-litre twin-cam fitted to the MR2 is a robust unit, itís not unusual for one of the oxygen sensors to fail. Genuine replacements can be expensive, but cheaper aftermarket items are available. This high-revving engine obviously benefits from regular servicing, so donít buy a car without a comprehensive history unless youíre happy to take a risk.

FANS ADORED THE ZZW30íS ALMOST BOXSTER-LIKE STYLING AND REVELLED IN ITS BROAD APPEAL

TRANSMISSION The ZZW30 MR2 was not sold with a manual gearbox from the factory in Australia. Many manual cars have been imported, most of them six-speed. Neither this, nor the earlier five-speed manual gearbox, should give trouble, but do check for crunching gears (signs of worn synchromesh) and clutch slip.

Getting a manual is much more preferable to getting the SMT (Sequential Manual Transmission) that was sold en-masse in Oz. You donít even get the benefit of steering wheel-mounted Ďpaddlesí as gear changes are still via a regular gearstick. Electronic reliability issues can make costeffective SMT repairs unviable.

SUSPENSION Luckily, the MR2ís suspension is entirely conventional. High-milers can feel Ďsaggyí in hard cornering, so check for damper wear and broken/rusty springs. Replacement front and rear dampers are around $190 each, with front and rear coil springs from around $50/$70 each. Lowering kits exist if youíre after a non-standard set-up. BODY & STRUCTURE Unlike some contemporaries like the second-gen MX-5, the ZZW30 MR2 isnít particularly rust-prone. Check all outer panels for bubbling. Mismatched paintwork and bad shut lines suggest poor accident repairs. Most panels bolt on, so replacement is fairly easy.

Have a good poke around underneath the car for any structural issues, particularly the rear of the sills (inner and outer). The rear subframe holding the engine in place can rust badly. Depending on the carís age, new ones cost up to $650, plus labour.

BRAKES & STEERING Rear brake calipers and cables have been known to seize on ZZW30s. Replacing cables is very laborious as the fuel tank has to come out. The front steering knuckle (where the column joins the rack) can wear, leading to notchy steering and poor self-centring. Any problems here should be obvious during a test drive. The MR2ís power steering brush pack can also fail, while the rear track adjusting bolts can seize and snap (taking the expensive adjusting arms with them).

INTERIOR & TRIM As with any soft-top sportster, the condition of the MR2ís hood is vital to its overall health, as any leaks will cause damage to upholstery and carpets Ė and might even lead to floorpan issues if neglected. If the area behind the seats seems particularly damp, this is almost certainly due to blocked drain holes at the rear of the hood.

The usual checks for wear and tear should include the carpets and the seat side bolsters. The overall condition of the interior should tally with the indicated mileage.

IMPROVING THE BREED

THEREíS a surprising amount of choice when it comes to off-the-shelf MR2 mods, with many owners opting for uprated suspension. However, itís more a matter of how much you want to spend as modifications can easily go from mild to wild.

If youíre looking for added track prowess, coilovers are a good choice along with a set of stickier rubber. A small increase in power can be found with a K&N air filter as well as a catback performance exhaust with quad tailpipes.

While the MR2 was largely lauded for its keen handling and dynamics, its lacklustre engine wasnít. You could search for a cheap, atmo 2ZZGE (found in the likes of the Corolla Sportivo with 141kW/180Nm) or the supercharged version used in the Lotus Elise (162kW/212Nm). However, if youíre going to go to lengths of the latter, you might as well just buy the real deal.

IN SPECS: ZZW30 MR2

BODY 2-door, 2-seat convertible

DRIVETRAIN mid-engine, rear-wheel drive

ENGINE 1794cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v

POWER 103kW @ 6400rpm

TORQUE 170Nm @ 4400rpm

TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual

WEIGHT 960kg

03 MODERN CLASSIC TEMPTERS

1. MG F

The MG F Trophy 160 (manual) is arguably the best of a questionable breed. Still, itís mid-mounted, rear-drive layout resembles the MR2 and its K16 Rover engine produces a respectable 118kW/174Nm. Kerb weight also hovers around the 1000kg mark.

2. MAZDA MX-5

The venerable drop-top is a fan favourite for a reason. The boosted 1.8-litre four (121kW/206Nm) in the NB SE offers a great balance between grunt and handling. Or you can aim for the rare (Mazda Australia made 100), Oz-only 150kW/280Nm SP.

3. PORSCHE 986 BOXSTER

Believe it or not, you can actually park a Porsche Boxster in your driveway for the price of a secondhand MR2. The original used a naturally aspirated 2.5-litre flat six (150kW/240Nm) with the choice of a five-speed manual or tiptronic automatic