In response to the threads that tend to pop up every so often with 16/17/18 years olds asking if it is a good idea to get an MR2 as a first car, I would like to offer the following.
Short Answer: No
The MR2 is a special and unique car. That is what so many of us spend so much time fixated on this message board, mailing lists, club events, etc. The reason you are here reading about the MR2, researching it, considering it is very likely that you have recognized the MR2 provides some features that set it apart from your run-of-the-mill VW/Honda/Acura/BMW/Toyota. Aside from its striking looks, you’ve probably observed that the MR2 has:
1) Mid Engine
2) Rear Wheel Drive
3) Short Wheelbase
4) McPherson Struts
5) On some models, Turbo
All of these attributes make the MR2 a tuner’s delight. While the car has tremendous bang for the buck right out of the box, with a little tuning and tweaking, all of the fundamentals are there for it to compete with true super cars like the 911, NSX, Lotus Esprit/Elise etc. That’s why we are all here, after all.
Invariably, posts come up with someone asking whether an MR2 would make a good first car. They can be bought fairly cheap these days, there’s a decent supply of aftermarket cosmetic and performance upgrades, and the idea of driving one around when all of your friends have Civics/Integras/GTIs/Celicas has a certain appeal. Thing is, you are far more likely to keep yourself and a Civic/Integra/GTI/Celica in one piece than an MR2. This should be a critical factor in selecting one’s first car. The fact that the MR2 is a highly impractical car (limited storage space, little to no wet weather and winter usability, higher servicing costs) don’t require any input from me or any of the other board/list members. This is a judgment call each of us is capable of making regardless of age/experience level.
However, the other more performance-oriented factors are worth some input from the older crowd. I’ll preface what I’m about to say by pointing out that these threads almost always follow the same pattern. 16/17/18 year old asks about MR2 as first car, older owner cautions that it might not be a great idea, other MR2 owners both old and young jump in and contradict this advice saying they got their MR2s at 16/17/18 and never wrecked it (despite having spun it 8 times in the first month they owned it). Original poster walks away with lots of contradictory feedback.
Without getting too philosophical, we all need to take responsibility for the choices we make in life. Buying an MR2 at 16/17/18 is one of them. Lots of people do it, love it, and have no regrets. That said, the MR2 is one of the most challenging cars to drive on the market, at any price. Seriously. It has enormous potential, but this is only true in very experienced hands. If you are not driving this car to its potential, you’d be just as happy in a Civic/Integra/GTI/Celica. If you are driving this car to the point where it is out performing your buddy’s Civic/Integra/GTI/Celica, you better have a whole lot of experience and/or natural talent.
Let’s look at the list of MR2 attributes above and why the car’s designers made a point of including them:
1) Mid Engine: Knife like precision handling. Transitions faster and sharper than a front or rear engined car. (Drag racing: launches hard)
2) Rear Wheel Drive: Ability to modulate the car’s cornering attitude with the throttle (Drag racing: Hooks up)
3) Short Wheel Base: Nimble
4) McPherson Struts: Lightweight.
5) Turbo: Power/Engine tuning potential
So, you have all the makings of a super car at a fraction of the price, with greater tunability, riding on the wheelbase of a VW GTI. Sounds like fun — and it is!
However, let’s look at the list again:
1) Mid Engine: When it starts to spin, exceptionally tricky to recover. When it lets go, it gets ugly really fast.
2) Rear Wheel Drive: Go into a corner too fast and you can’t brake or lift off the throttle to save it. In fact, you have to either keep a steady foot on the gas, or even give it more throttle to keep the car from spinning This means you actually have to try to go faster when you are about to lose it from going too fast in order to keep the car from spinning.
3) Short Wheel Base: Little to no warning when you have exceeded the car’s limits.
4) McPherson struts: Car does not like bumps or surface irregularities mid corner. Hit a pothole or uneven surface and watch the tail step out of line.
5) Turbo: Lag/Boost is very tricky to modulate – especially on a modified car. If you need extra power to exit a corner and the turbo is not spooled because you let the revs drop or are in the wrong gear = you’re screwed. Hit boost early to mid corner when you’re close to the tire’s limits of adhesion = bye-bye.
So why did Toyota release this car on the market if it is so dangerous? Well, remember, when the MKII (’91-95) MR2 was released, you were not the target demographic. Toyota was selling this car as to 30-40 year olds with a large discretionary income looking to buy a 2nd or 3rd car for weekend drives. The MR2 was not a cheap car when new, and Toyota may not have anticipated the import tuner boom so popular with teenagers some 10 years after the MKII was launched. Also, look at what the Toyota designers changed with the MKIII MR2: no rear trunk (so owners wouldn’t screw up the handling balance by adding weight behind the engine), no turbo, stretched wheelbase relative to size/weight of the car.
Also, while the above list is true for MR2s generally, certain MR2s have a reputation for being more dangerous than others. Driving a ’91-92 turbo model (pre ’93 suspension tuning revisions) tops the list of car’s requiring vast amounts of experience to drive at the limit. Professional drivers have walked away from lapping sessions with red faces from having spun these cars. An ’85 MKI model is less likely than a MKII turbo to allow an inexperienced driver to get in over his/her head, but also lacks the safety equipment (airbags, ABS, etc.) and sheer mass of later cars. The MKIII is probably the safest of the bunch, but most 16/17/18 year olds are looking at hopping up the older cars, not buying a new MKIII. Also, without installing an aftermarket roll bar, the MKIII is likely the least safe in a rollover.
None of this means a 16/17/18 year old should never get an MR2 as a first car. I’m sure there were 16/17/18 year olds who had a Corvair or Porsche 930 turbo as a first car and lived to tell about it. Those guys and gals are probably truly kick-ass drivers by now. However, unless you have the wisdom of Yoda, the patience of Gandhi and have been kart racing competitively since you were in diapers, the MR2 is probably not a responsible choice as a first car. There are always exceptions to the rule, but they are few and far between.
Anyway, as your parents will/have already told you, at 16/17/18 there are other things to focus on besides fixing up an MR2 (dating/school/etc.) Likewise, despite what your friends may have told you, fixing up an MR2 is nowhere near as inexpensive as a Honda/Acura/VW etc. While there is a healthy tuning market for these cars, most 16/17/18 year olds are not going to be able to recreate the fantasy MR2s they see or hear about without a large amount of discretionary income greatly exceeding the value of the car as well as a lot of time and dedication (neither of which is conducive to a balanced social/professional life — at any age!). There is a pervasive myth of the 400rwhp with simple bolt-ons MR2, and the board and list members are in part to blame for perpetuating this myth since we all think so highly of the MR2. That said, the percentage of 300rwhp cars, let alone 400 is very, very small – even among the rabid enthusiasts who post on this board.
Bottom line: If the only way you will be happy with is if you have an MR2 as your first car, then nothing I or anyone else will say is likely to discourage you. However, keep in mind that many of us have owned and wrecked GTIs, Integras and (gasp) Civics before graduating to an MR2 later in life. If you are going to buy one, at 16/17/18 — or any age — make sure that the car is in a decent state of tune, with a proper alignment, good performance tires (in particular, never let the rear tires go bald), and brakes and spend some time learning how to drive the car. This does not mean going out by yourself in an empty parking lot (although this can be helpful for fine tuning technique and learning the car’s reactions at the limit). Instead, sign up for a performance driving school at your local road course and make a point of going back at least once a year to freshen and improve on your skills. Sign up for a weekend autocross and ask the fastest drivers for ride-alongs to compare what they do differently out there than you. In particular, try to ride along in several different types of cars on the same course (front engine, mid engine, rear engine, FWD, RWD, AWD, turbo, NA, etc). Compare notes.
Above all, stay safe! As enthusiasts, we would all like to see MR2s stay on the road and our insurance premiums remain affordable.