Think of it as a budget Boxster or Corvette.
So, you'd like to drive a mid-engine sports car, huh? Well, the latest C8 Chevrolet Corvette is making mid-engine performance affordable with a starting price of under $60,000. Or, if you can live with less power, the base Porsche 718 Boxster and Cayman are similarly-priced. But even with sub-$60,000 starting prices, both of these cars can become incredibly expensive once you start adding options.
If you are on a much tighter budget, there are plenty of used alternatives from Lotus and Porsche among others, but even those can be rather expensive and require more intensive upkeep than a normal car. For budget-conscious buyers who must have a mid-engine layout, we recommend the Toyota MR2.
The Toyota MR2 is among the cheapest entry points into the mid-engine sports car experience. Toyota offered the car for three model generations spanning from 1984 to 1989, 1989 to 1999, and 1999 to 2007 (2005 in the US). Though not our favorite of the three generations, we'll focus here on the third-generation model because it is newer (and likely more reliable) and easier to find on the used market. It is also cheaper than most second-generation examples (especially the turbo ones) because it has not yet reached collector car status.
Unlike used Lotus and Porsche cars that litter used car lots, the MR2 is built from humble origins, meaning it operates like a Toyota. The MR2 competed with the Mazda Miata of its day but offered improved handling due to its mid-engine layout. While nowhere near as fast as the Porsches of the world, it handles just as well and looks exotic in the process.
Since the third-generation is basically the unloved and forgotten MR2 generation, you can now find them at reasonable prices. Even the lowest mileage examples we could find (with less than 30,000 miles on the odometer) are being sold for under $15,000 with the cheapest examples starting at around $5,000. You can probably find a first-generation Porsche Boxster at a similar price but the maintenance costs and parts will be much more expensive.
As we mentioned, the Toyota MR2 isn't rapid by modern standards and even back in the early 2000s, it wasn't considered quick. The only available engine was a 1.8-liter 1ZZ-FED four-cylinder engine, which is basically a more powerful version of the engine used in the Corolla at the time. It produces 138 horsepower and 126 lb-ft of torque, yielding a 0-60 mph time between 6.8 and 8.7 seconds. Unlike the first two generations, there was no option for a turbocharged or supercharged engine. 0-60 mph times dramatically differ depending on which transmission the car is equipped with.
Toyota offered a traditional five-speed manual (the quicker of the two) or a five-speed (or six-speed after 2003) sequential manual transmission. Europe also received a traditional six-speed manual on later cars. We recommend opting for the manual because it is quicker, more fun to drive, and less complex. The sequential manual was interesting at the time because it offered automatic clutch engagement but the transmission is easily outclassed by modern automatics and dual-clutch systems.
Compared to almost any modern car, the MR2's cabin feels spartan. It features a basic radio, air conditioning, and three simple gauges. Many of the buttons and switches were taken from other Toyota models to save on development costs, so you won't be wowing your passengers with the MR2's interior. The higher trims did get leather seats and a six-disc in-dash CD player but for all intents and purposes, the MR2's cabin is focused on driving enjoyment.
Despite being the most modern MR2, the third-generation model is not very practical. Toyota didn't even offer the car with a dedicated trunk. There is a small storage area upfront for the spare tire, but it was not specifically designed to carry any items and isn't weather-proof. The best option owners have is to install a luggage rack over the engine cover to give the car some ability to carry baggage. On the plus side, the Corolla-derived engine is pretty efficient and can achieve 26-mpg in the city and 33-mpg on the highway.
Mid-engine cars are expensive to build, which is why most of them are also expensive to purchase. For a brief time, Toyota offered an affordable entry into the mid-engine experience and the company is even rumored to be considering reviving the nameplate with help from Subaru. If the MR2 does return, it will only help spur the collectibility of the used examples, even the unloved third-generation. We recommend buying one now while they are still cheap before demand kicks in.