The 1990s are considered to be a peak time for performance cars coming out of Japan. Every manufacturer had at least one sports car – Mitsubishi had their 3000GT and Eclipse, Mazda with their RX-7, Toyota with the MR2 and Supra, and Honda with the NSX and Acura Integra.
The second-generation SW20 MR2 and the Honda NSX (or Acura NSX, if you’re in North America) have long been compared to each other. Mid-engine design, exotic wedge-shaped styling with a two-seat layout makes them an obvious comparison. But as a self-declared MR2 fan, just how does the MR2 really stack up against the venerable NSX? Read on to find out.
A brief history of the MR2 and NSX
First unveiled in 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show, the NSX was first available in 1990 and featured an aluminum-intensive body along with an all-aluminum 3.0 liter V6 engine.
With exotic styling and legendary Honda reliability, the term “everyday supercar” became synonymous with the NSX. Its styling was reminiscent of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, but had the reliability, and the comfort, of an Accord. It was the first car that met this incredible combination of beauty and comfort.
The NSX was produced for a whopping 15 years, with mostly evolutionary, not revolutionary, changes. 1994 introduced an automatic transmission option (in addition to the standard 5-speed manual transmission); 1995 brought an open-air targa roof option; 1997 ushered in a new 3.2 liter V6 engine, and 2002 brought fixed-position headlights, eliminating the iconic pop-up headlights.
The second-generation MR2 (SW20 chassis code) was introduced to North America in 1990 as a 1991 model. Compared to the first-generation (AW11) MR2, the SW20 was bigger, more powerful, more comfortable, and featured similar Italian-inspired styling.
The SW20 MR2 also blended Japanese reliability and build quality with exotic good looks. Featuring the 3S-GTE 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder, the MR2 had the performance chops to back up its styling. A non-turbo 2.2 liter motor was also offered, but the 3S-GTE is generally the more sought-after motor. An automatic transmission was offered with the non-turbo motor as well.
The MR2 was only offered in North America from 1991-1995 (but continued to be produced for overseas markets until 1999), with a plethora of significant updates to the suspension, powertrain, and styling in the 1993 model year.
MR2 Vs. NSX: The performance figures
For the spec-sheet warriors out there, here’s a quick comparison of the SW20 MR2 versus the NSX:
|Curb Weight||HP||Torque||0-60mph||¼ mile|
|Toyota MR2||2,915||200||200||6.3||14.8 @ 91mph|
|Honda NSX||3,030||270||210||5.2||13.7 @ 104mph|
Comparing the MR2 to the NSX reveals that the NSX is quicker than a comparable MR2 Turbo. The MR2’s steel body and iron motor block bring it within 150 pounds of the NSX, with significantly less power than the NSX.
That’s not to say the MR2 is by any means a slow or underperforming car. In fact, the MR2 clung to a 300-foot diameter skidpad at 0.88g with the NSX edging out at 0.93g in Car and Driver’s testing. The MR2 also handily beat the NSX in their 70mph to 0mph braking test (MR2 157 feet compared to 170 feet for the NSX).
One must also factor in that the MSRP for these cars was extremely different. The MR2 Turbo had a price of around $25,500 ($61,453 in 2023), while the NSX had a whopping $77,335 price tag ($162,406 in 2023 money)!
Is the Acura NSX more reliable than the Toyota MR2?
This is a challenging question, as the oldest examples of both the SW20 MR2 and the NSX are now more than 30 years old. With older vehicles, the maintenance and care each vehicle has received through the years has a higher impact on reliability than the vehicles themselves.
That said, both of these cars were built with the iconic reliability and build quality that Toyota and Honda are famous for. Neither have widespread defects or issues to report.
According to Hemmings.com, there have been reports of weak transmission snap-rings in some 1991-1992 NSX models, “which can shatter due to a groove that was cut too wide inside the transmission case”. If you test drive an NSX and notice the gearshift is a bit loose or wobbly, this is something that should be investigated.
Similarly, the transmission synchros in the manual transmission MR2 can go bad with excessive force and abuse.
All things considered, both the NSX and MR2 are known to be reliable if they are properly maintained. These were built by the same companies that build the Accord and Camry, so you can trust that reliability, durability, and long service intervals those vehicles from that same era are known for apply to the MR2 and NSX.
That said, keep in mind that working under the hood in a mid-engine car can be ergonomically challenging with both cars having sleek, rakish side pillars that can make accessing the engine bay a bit challenging.
With the age of these cars, it’s important to be comfortable turning wrenches yourself. Both of these cars are quite uncommon, and professional mechanics may be inclined to charge more money for work, as they’re more likely to be unfamiliar with them.
Which is a better platform to modify?
Generally speaking, the MR2 has always been considered more of a “tuner car”, whereas the NSX has typically been considered more of an “exotic car”. What does that mean for a car guy that wants to modify their car?
The MR2 has a larger aftermarket support base, with hundreds of vendors providing options for wheels, suspension, body, interior, and performance modifications. With a larger aftermarket base, finding an all-original or low-mileage MR2 is more challenging these days, if that is what you seek.
The NSX has a smaller aftermarket support base, but the vendors that do support this car are typically well-vetted and provide high-quality modifications (at a typically higher price point than the MR2 – remember the NSX was more than $100k more expensive in 2023 equivalent prices).
Examples of an all-original NSX are typically easier to find, with modified examples being less common than modified MR2s. Many NSXs have been driven rarely and pampered, thanks to their “exotic car” status.
Toyota MR2 and Acura NSX values in the used market
Reflective of its higher price new and exotic-car status, the NSX has consistently been the more expensive car to buy between the two. Data from Bring a Trailer shows that the majority of NSXs sold on its site have fallen between $50,000 and $150,000 in the last three years. Pre-2020, it was possible to score an NSX for under $40,000, but it appears those days are gone.
On the other hand, MR2 values have always been a fraction of the NSX, and Bring a Trailer results reflect that. Most auctions ended with winning bids between $10,000 and $30,000 in the last three years. It’s still possible to find an MR2 under $10,000, but expect a high-mileage car or one that needs some work to be in tip-top shape.
Final word: What’s the better buy?
Objectively, both the SW20 MR2 and the Acura NSX are great buys. Their combination of performance, Japanese reliability, and exotic styling have not been replicated in the same way since they were built, which is a big reason why they’re both now coveted sports cars from the 90s.
As far as which car is the better buy? Well, that depends on the person buying the car. The MR2 is the lower-priced, more attainable car for the majority of car enthusiasts. While their value has certainly risen in the past five years, it’s still quite easy to find an SW20 in good enough shape to modify and build to their owners’ satisfaction.
That said, MR2s have generally changed owners more often, which results in the likelihood of buying someone else’s project much higher. When shopping for an MR2, pay very close attention to any modifications that have been made, and seek out any maintenance records that are available.
If you’re looking to spend less money on the car and more on modifications, the MR2 is the better option. Values in general are increasing, but it’s unlikely the MR2 will ever reach NSX-like values. The MR2 is also a peach of a car to keep stock, and those examples are very rare. So, cherish it if you find an all-original example!
The NSX, on the other hand, is the higher-priced, more exotic choice. Finding an all-original NSX is significantly easier, as many owners recognized early on that they had something truly special and elected to preserve them the best they could.
If you’re looking to own a more pristine and coveted 90s sports car, you can’t go wrong with an NSX. Its elevated price is commensurate with its ownership and driving experience, and it will certainly hold its value over time.
With either car, you’re getting legendary 1990s Japanese reliability and simplicity with exotic good looks. Both are fantastic but consider your goals and priorities when choosing between these attainable mid-engine cars. They are more different after a first glance than you may expect.
Outside of Mitch’s day job as a marketing and PR professional, he enjoys all things related to cars, motorcycles, travel, and the outdoors. When he turned 16, the SW20 MR2 grabbed his heart and he bought the first 1993 that he could get his hands on. He has since become obsessive about paint and the differences between wax, sealants and ceramic coatings. Read more about Mitch: