Review: 1990 Toyota MR2 SW20 – The reasonably priced mid-engine sports car

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  • Review: 1990 Toyota MR2 SW20 – The reasonably priced mid-engine sports car

Review: 1990 Toyota MR2 SW20 - The Reasonably Priced Mid-Engine Sports Car

Toyota MR2. The Mid-ship Runabout 2. The poor man’s NSX. The engine is in the middle and it is rear wheel drive. It has a 5-speed manual gearbox and it has pop-up headlights. Sounds like fun. What engine does it have? A turbocharged 2 litre in-line 4. How many seats does it have? 2. Does the roof come off? Yes (Well, partially). Sounds like even more fun. Unless you’re buying a supercar, nothing else seems to be mid-engine these days (with a few exceptions).
Special thanks to KT Pillai for providing the SW20 for a review. KT Pillai also owns the W108 restoration project we featured some time ago.
After having driven two MR2s, I could say I almost want one for myself. I like it. You already know my verdict. But I’ll go into detail as usual. And before we go on, here’s a little overview of this compact mid-engine car.
Somewhat related: The Memory Mobile – K.T. Pillai’s Mercedes Benz W108 280S Restoration
A brief look at the specs:
Engine: 2.0L 3S-GTE I4 Turbocharged
Transmission: 5-Speed Manual
Drivetrain layout: Mid-engine, RWD
Year: 1990
Price: Approx. RM50,000 in 2018
Let’s get straight to the point…

What Is It Like To Drive?

The MR2 is small, has decent visibility, and has considerably ergonomic and easy controls that make it easy to drive. For a car from 1990, I was expecting a rattling dashboard, loud cabin noise, an uncomfortable ride, and an interior that was falling apart.
Things didn’t turn out the way I expected them to be. They were much better. I’ve tried two MR2s (one in June thanks to Mr. KT Pillai, and one in September thanks to Kazuto Soon). The visibility is almost like that of a standard compact, it is easy to park, and it can be fun to drive when you want it to be.
The gear throws are light and very friendly to new drivers. The centre console does take up a lot of space and provides a good armrest for your shifting arm. It helps you sit comfortably as you cruise through scenic roads.
The MR2 SW20 does come with an automatic option and I believe you’d still be able to enjoy it even without the third pedal. There’s a turbo flutter for every gear shift and you can hear it very clearly since the power-plant is right behind your head.
The MR2 came with several engine options when introduced to the market. The most expensive one being the turbocharged 2 litre 3S-GTE. There are 4 generations of the 3S-GTE, and I believe the first generation MR2 utilises the 2nd generation 3S-GTE – Double overhead cams, T-VIS (Toyota Variable Induction System) (we’ve talked about this in the AE86 article ), and a twin-entry turbocharger.
The 3S-GTE has a common configuration (in-line 4) and is also used in the ST185 Celica. Succeeding generations of the 3S-GTE can also be found in the ST205 Celica and the Caldina GT Four (the odd-looking compact station wagon).
The seats are comfortable and the large armrest keeps you snug in the driver’s seat. You can rest your arm while shifting and hear the sound of the blow of-valve while you’re at it. Being a rear-wheel-drive car, it isn’t hard to kick the tail out a little bit with some pedal to the metal action. Accelerate with the slightest of aggression and the rear end digs deep, providing cheap thrills.
I am told by the internet world to be cautious of the snap oversteer but I wasn’t driving fast enough to risk that happening. Our more experienced friend, Kazuto, assured me that snap oversteer wasn’t a big deal if you knew how to handle the mid-engine MR2. Any MR2 owners out there who want to comment on this? Is snap oversteer real or is it just something inexperienced drivers like to exaggerate?
All I can testify is that the MR2 is a comfortable sports car with a lot of tolerance for inexperienced drivers (provided you’re not going stupid fast). The SW20 isn’t very light (approximately 1,300kg) and although some power-to-weight-ratio is compromised, the weight does it make it a little more comfortable for long distance journeys.

Aftermarket Options

There’s no engine here
If you’re shopping for an MR2, my assumption is you want simple fun with a reasonable price. The MR2 SW20 does not cost as much as an NSX and the parts are rather universal. It is built for an in-line 4 so you already have a wide range of options in front of you. You could always upgrade to the 4th generation 3S-GTE which can be found in the ST246 Caldina Gt-Four. You could put in a V6 (NA) if you want. Options for a V6 include the 2GR-FE (Toyota Rav4), 1MZ-FE (Toyota Camry), a 3VZ-FE (Toyota Camry), or anything else you can think of.
The SW20 does come with a 5×114.3 PCD which means you have the option of going for bigger wheels usually found on bigger cars like the R32 Skyline and Supra. The rear tyres of the MR2 are meant to be wider than the ones in front. I think the MR2 looks fine as it is and it is up to your own taste and creativity to create your own unique MR2 SW20. I prefer to keep things stock on the outside.

SW20 Revisions

If you haven’t noticed yet, the ‘Turbo’ badge is from a Volvo
If you got yourself a Revision 1 or Revision 2 SW20, do note that the rear spoiler extends all the way onto the rear quarter panel. Removing the spoiler will leave holes on both the trunk and the rear quarter panels. Just a precaution in case you plan on changing the rear spoiler on your Rev 1 or Rev 2 SW20. The design was changed when the facelifted SW20 was introduced. The Rev 3 onward have a different spoiler design.
Talking about the Revisions of SW20, the SW20 did go through several revisions during its production (4), with each revision introducing improvements to the performance (eg. Revised suspension, better brakes, bigger wheels), safety (eg. Airbags), and even complying to new automotive regulations (eg. Catalytic converter). You can check the entire list of changes throughout the 4 revisions of the SW20 on this Wikipedia page or you can refer to forums on the SW20. Very helpful if if you’re shopping for an SW20.

Check for Rust

here are some areas you might want to check out as pointed out by Amber Corners (Ben) in his Youtube video…

Mid-engine alternatives

Toyota MR2 AW11 (Approx. RM40,000)
Extremely hard to find. Boxy 80s styling on a reverse Corolla.
Toyota MR-S (Approx. RM60,000)
No more Ferrari-ish looks. Still mid-engine. No Turbocharger. Slightly feminine styling.
Honda NSX (Approx. RM260,000)
The NSX is a lot more expensive but chances are you could resell it at a higher price. The downside is you’re not going to be taking any risks in an NSX.
Honda S660 (Approx. RM120,000)
This one steps into kei car territory with only 660cc and a really hefty price tag for the size of the car you’re getting. But hey, it’s a mid-engine.


Supercar-ish styling and mid-engine handling on a budget. If you plan on keeping it stock and want to enjoy driving it, a more satisfying purchase would be a Rev 2 or newer model (better brakes, better suspension). If you’re going to significantly modify it, I don’t think the difference will be significant. You can always put in a normally aspirated V6 if NA response is what you’re looking for.

Arif Chan
With a deep interest and relevant experiences in the automotive industry, Arif writes about everything automotive. His employment history includes being an automotive engineer, a highway engineer, an alternative-fuel researcher, and a motoring journalist.