Despite being a somewhat well-known car years ago, I’ve always been rather tight-lipped about my MR2 on the interwebs. I’ve kept a lot of the details to myself because honestly, it’s built for me. Showing off to people isn’t my thing and it’s certainly not the reason this car exists. I’ve always thought that cool cars need to be shared with the world though. For some reason, I exempted myself from this in the past.
In the 13 years I’ve owned it, my MR2 has won car shows, and beat muscle cars at the drag strip. It’s held its own against sport bikes in “Mexico”. People have used photos of it to sell their knock-off products on Ebay, and at one point someone was even selling photoshopped images of it as flip-phone wallpapers (yes, that was a while ago!). The stereo has been stolen from it, a garage door broke and fell on it, and it’s been rear-ended twice.
It’s taught me a lot when it comes to performance modifications and caring for delicate older cars. One thing it’s never done, however, is have every aspect of it shared in a magazine or online article.
There has never been a better time to open up about this car than here and now. I’d like to welcome you to my complete MR2 feature. Feel free to grab yourself a coffee (or energy drink for you Americans!) and enjoy. This is going to be a long one.
My vision for the MR2 was for it to be a one of a kind vehicle. It already shares the mid-engine, rear wheel drive layout that makes high priced exotic cars so special. Now, after many modifications, it has similar performance figures too.
I sometimes refer to it as a “ghetto Ferrari F40”. It has the looks of a supermodel and the soul of a street fighter. You can stare and admire it all you want, but make no mistake – if you get behind the wheel it WILL try to kill you. So really, it’s more of a crack-addicted, serial killing supermodel.
Don’t let its Ferrari-esque styling fool you though. This car is still 100% Japanese through and through. I’ve spent years chasing down rare Japanese (and some American) parts that add to its character. Many of these parts have long since been discontinued or were only offered in extremely small production runs. That makes this car impossible to duplicate, and I love that.
It all started when I was surfing the old ToyotaNation forums many moons ago. You see, my first car was an ’89 Corolla SR5. That car is what brought me to the Toyota brand in the first place. When the time came for me to purchase my first “nice” vehicle, I was actually shopping for a muscle car – a black Trans Am WS6 to be exact. But I couldn’t seem to shake the thought of a Japanese car offering similar performance, with better reliability and fuel economy.
As a Toyota fan, you probably already know where my focus quickly shifted to. Nearly every young import car lover’s dream – the MKIV Supra. This, of course, was during a time when clean Supras were actually attainable for the average Joe (my, how I miss those times!).
As I scrolled through the Toyota forums, I repeatedly saw a picture of a car in an active member’s signature. Every time he posted, there it was. His username was MRQturbo, and the car was a Crimson Red MR2. It was a shot from the rear showing off its Work Equip wheels and HKS dual exhaust.
I couldn’t get it out of my brain. It looked like a Japanese muscle car from the back. I had never seen a car with such a bold display of the exhaust (the HKS Dragger exhaust for the MR2 has 2 huge polished mufflers that hang below the car). I can still picture that image to this day.
I now had a choice to make between buying a clean, stock MKIV Supra and leaving it alone or buying an equally clean MR2 and modifying it. My estimates at the time told me both options would cost me about the same money. Black was my color of choice for both cars… but even back then there weren’t many examples of either model for sale so I couldn’t be too picky.
I ended up finding a red ’91 MR2 for sale in Guelph, Ontario. I was never really a fan of red cars but I thought I’d go check it out to see if I liked MR2s in person. I didn’t intend to buy this one.
As soon as I laid eyes on the car in the seller’s driveway, I fell in love. I no longer cared that it was red. It was a low mileage Canadian car with 2 owners and tons of documentation. The seller had owned 4 or 5 MR2s before this and told me this was the nicest one he’d had. I could tell he really didn’t want to sell it but with a baby on the way, his favorite MR2 had to go. We made a deal for near asking price and the car was mine.
It had already been lightly modified by both the original and second owners. Nothing major though, just bolt-on upgrades. It stayed that way for the first year as I got to know it and appreciate it as a simple, reliable sports car.
I had a lot of thoughts and plans for what it could eventually become. I even made a (very low-quality ha!) rendering in photoshop of what I had in my head. Looking back at this image is really cool because the car that I had dreamed about is currently sitting in my garage, waiting for the spring weather to arrive.
My MR2’s most well-known feature is without a doubt the wheel setup. This was the first thing I wanted to change on the car when I got it. I wanted lightweight Japanese wheels of some sort, and Volk Racing was on the top of my list of favorite companies. A set of TE37s would be the obvious choice, and one that I still think looks fantastic to this day. But they had already been done many times.
Keep in mind that in 2006, the MR2 community wasn’t experimenting with aggressive wheel fitment. Most owners didn’t know what terms like “offset” or “flush” even meant when it came to wheels. I took a lot of inspiration from the wheel setups that the Supra owners had been coming up with and wanted to create a similar look for the MR2.
It was at this point that I met John at Authority Motorsport in Waterloo, Ontario. After a less than stellar first impression with another performance shop, I decided to mosey on down to Authority to order my wheels and gauges. John’s response to my plans for the car was something along the lines of a “heck yeah!” and I could tell right away that we shared the same outlook on the car world. My MR2 hasn’t set foot in another shop ever since that day.
Tip: When it comes to a car build, once you find a knowledgeable and trustworthy shop – stick with them. Loyalty goes a long way for both sides. Build a relationship with them and maintain it.
My wheels of choice ended up being Volk SF Challenges. Their new lineup of SF models was marketed as a higher end luxury wheel as opposed to their other more basic race-spec designs. Despite their flashy looks, they still shared the same attributes as the rest of Volk’s wheels – being lightweight and strong.
Sizing was another thing I did differently. 16″ and 17″ wheels with high offsets were the norm on MR2s at the time. I chose to go with a much more out of the box setup: 18×7.5″ with +22 offset up front and 18×9 with +35 offset for the rear.
The rears were a common size on larger cars so Mackin Industries had them in stock, but the fronts needed to be custom made back in Japan. It took all of 7 months for them to show up here in Canada but I think they were well worth the wait. They’ve long since been discontinued.
Despite rolling the fenders, 215/35 and 245/35 tires were the largest I could fit. Luckily that’s enough rubber to put the power down to the ground in anything but 1st gear. The front size is proving to be a difficult one to find, now that the time to replace them has come.
The other items in my first round of modifications were an Aeroware front lip and a set of Defi BF gauges. From what I was told, this was one of the last ones sold before Aeroware shut down. Other companies have since replicated the design, but most of them are urethane while the original Aeroware lip is fiberglass.
Much like the wheels, the Defi gauges were also a bit ahead of their time. Autometer gauges were the most common back then, so these really stood out. They were boldly mounted on the dash so they’d be in my line of vision. I didn’t like the idea of looking down to see vital readings while traveling at speed. At first, I was a little unsure of the in-your-face look of this location, but it quickly became another one of this car’s well-known attributes.
This was where things were taken to the next level. Now that I’d had the car for a couple years and knew it wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon, I decided to finally give the car the performance to back up its looks. What started as plans for a larger turbo and retuned ECU quickly spiraled out of control.
Back to Authority it went, this time for a much more long term project. The original motor was pulled and rebuilt as a forged 2.0L with Arias pistons, Eagle connecting rods, and ARP hardware. The stock head was ported and polished, then HKS 264 camshafts and ATS adjustable cam gears were added. A TTE metal head gasket ensures this motor can handle plenty of boost.
Speaking of boost, the stock CT26 turbo obviously wasn’t going to cut it. A TD06 20g turbo takes its place along with a Tial 38mm external wastegate and HKS blowoff valve.
The charged air makes its way through custom built 3″ intercooler piping and into a huge 80mm throttle body and polished aluminum intake manifold from KU Engineering. These manifolds were part of a small group buy offered to MR2OC.com members. To be honest, I’m not sure if they’re still in business. I don’t know exactly how many were sold, but it wasn’t very many.
In order to handle the extra power, the car needed a lot more fuel. A polished top feed fuel rail from Wolfkatz houses large 880cc Delphi fuel injectors. Fuel pressure is controlled by an adjustable Aeromotive regulator.
I chose to use an OEM fuel pump from a MKIV Supra for one important reason – longevity. It flows the same as a similar Walbro pump but I have more confidence in its reliability due to it being a Toyota part. Anyone that has had to deal with replacing a fuel pump in an MR2 knows why this was important to me… in order to access it, the entire fuel tank needs to be dropped. And that’s no easy task on the Toyota MR2.
Exhaust is sent from a 3″ downpipe, through a high-flow catalytic converter (gotta keep it legal!) and into a stainless Blitz Nur Spec exhaust. This wasn’t my exhaust system of choice but one of the previous owners had sourced it before I bought the car. It has a very different look than the large dual exhausts that I love so much, but it’s grown on me over time.
I told myself I’d upgrade to an HKS or Phoenix Power dual exhaust later on but it just never happened. It turns out I like the Blitz more than I thought I would.
The original electronics were no longer up to the task of controlling the animal living under the engine lid. An AEM standalone ECU replaced it along with an MSD Digital 6 ignition. The new setup was dyno tuned by Marco at Magnus Motorsports in the Toronto area. The results are not exactly simple. The graph shows 360 wheel horsepower and 320 ft lbs of torque, but it was also evident that the Exedy clutch was slipping.
Since then, that clutch has been replaced with a twin plate clutch from Tilton. Rated at well over 700 ft lbs, this one has no problem handling the power. Some may say that it’s overkill for this setup and technically they’d be right. But in keeping with my views on adding character to cars, this clutch is perfect.
The entire assembly weighs less than the original flywheel alone. That allows the engine to free rev much quicker and makes rev matching a blast. The Tilton clutch has been one of the biggest attitude changes to this car’s personality. It’s also cool to note that there were only about 5 of them ever made for the MR2.
My car hasn’t been back to the dyno since the clutch was replaced. Considering how hard it pulls to redline now, I’d say power figures in the 400+whp range are more likely. As far as actual figures, I guess we’ll never know…
The drivetrain upgrades didn’t end there though. Since the original transmission had to be dropped to install the new clutch, I took the opportunity to swap it out with one from a 1996 JDM car. The newer transmissions had better synchros in them which helps with shifting quickly.
Also on the topic of smooth shifting, the TRD Quickshifter that was installed by a previous owner had to go. I replaced it with an OEM shifter from a ’93 and up MR2. This one has a similar short throw but is much less notchy because of where the shifter cable attaches to it. Brass bushings from Speedsource also help to keep the cables moving smoothly.
Arguably one of the coolest features of the drivetrain is the differential. I was able to find a Carbonetic 1.5 way limited slip differential. This carbon LSD is extremely rare. As far as I know, there were only 2 of them sold in North America. One of them is in this car and the other is in a race car out in California from what I remember.
Also worth noting are the Chico Race Works chromoly axle cages. The stock axles themselves are actually very strong. The weak link is the CV joint, so these were added just in case I decided to launch the car hard on a stickier tire.
One of the biggest issues I’ve run into with this car is heat. Adding this much power to an engine located in the back of a car is bound to cause trouble. A larger Greddy intercooler sits in the original side mounted location and an aluminum radiator from Mishimoto replaced the original one. I added a larger heat shield from ATS to the exhaust manifold in hopes of keeping heat away from the rest of the engine bay, but it still gets very, very hot.
A pair of 10″ fans from Spal pull the hot air out through the fins of the engine lid at lower speeds. Despite all of this, managing heat is still a constant battle. If I was spending more time at the track I’d need to upgrade to a water-to-air type intercooler.
Trunk mounted intercoolers are very popular among high powered MR2s but I could never convince myself to cut through the firewall of an otherwise clean car. The current setup is working fine for its intended use as a rowdy street car so it’ll likely stay this way.
The suspension setup on my MR2 is nothing crazy. I found a second hand set of Cusco Zero 2 coilovers at a Japanese importer in Montreal. I also stumbled across a rare version of Cusco’s front strut tower bar in the MR2OC classifieds.
A TRD sway bar and X brace were added to the rear. The matching front sway bar from TRD was back ordered at the time, and to this day has never shown up! It worked out well though. This car already has quite a bit of understeer so a stiffer front sway bar would have probably made it worse.
The Toyota MR2 comes from the factory with pretty adequate brakes. I recall an old magazine story (Car and Driver?) revealing that the 1993 MR2 out stopped the Ferrari they had been testing. I’ve never felt the need to upgrade to a big brake kit despite their awesome appearance. Although they look tiny, the stock brakes do the job. I added cross drilled rotors, EBC Red pads, and stainless brake lines to give them a bit of a boost. And yes, those are actually TRD lug nuts!
The original leather interior hasn’t been modified very much. Aside from the Defi Gauges, the most noticeable change is the Personal Grinta alcantara steering wheel. A red stitched, weighted leather shift knob was sourced from a 1998 JDM MR2.
A pair of leather shift boots for the shifter and e-brake handle carry on the red stitching theme. A good eye will catch a few subtle changes like the metal trim rings, digital oil pressure gauge, and LED conversion all in the stock gauge cluster as well as a set of pedals from a newer Celica GTS.
What you don’t see is the line lock wired into the factory cruise control lever. Cruise control and A/C have been deleted on this car so this was the perfect location for the original version of “launch control”. With the 2step and line lock engaged, this car will bolt from a dead stop. Once again, more than just a pretty face!
The audio system is fairly outdated now. An older Kenwood double din head unit sits in the dash while a Rockford Fosgate amp under the hood powers the Blaupunkt speakers and 12″ subwoofer. The sub box was custom made to fit behind the passenger seat by XLTronics in Kitchener.
I never wanted to enter SPL competitions or have a perfect sounding stereo. My only concern was having something to drown out the noise and vibrations on long trips from the exhaust and poly motor mounts.
Now, on to the exterior. The Greddy side skirts, JDM solid side moldings, JDM clear turn signals, and JDM 94+ tail lights were added by the previous owner. I finished off this clean look with the Aeroware front lip and matching Greddy rear bumper spats. I also converted the headlights to some more modern HID projectors.
My MR2 has one more thing in common with the Ferrari F40 – very thin paint. This car has been through a lot and as a result, the soft, original Crimson red paint has been polished quite a few times. The paint is so thin that I can see blend marks and spray patterns in some areas. It’s no longer safe for me to remove every scratch so I’ve had to learn to live with them.
Luckily none of this is noticeable to the average person. Eventually, I’ll have to bite the bullet and have the car repainted. For now, I think it’s just another thing that adds to its character.
This car is wearing a couple layers of Wolfgang Deep Gloss 3.0 paint sealant. Sometimes I’ll add a coat of carnauba wax on top, but lately, I’m trying not to touch the paint any more than I have to. You can read more on my reasoning behind not ceramic coating it in this post.
The interior is protected with specific coatings from Gtechniq. L1 Leather Guard on the seats, C6 Matte Dash on the plastic and vinyl, and I1 Smart Fabric on the carpet and mats. I will be ceramic coating the wheels sometime soon, so stay tuned for a post or video on that.
The end result of this build is a lightweight, 400 horsepower, short wheelbase car with no traction control, no stability control, no airbags, no cruise, and no air conditioning. You can feel every bump in the road through the suspension. This car is downright terrifying if you’re brave enough to approach its limits. I wouldn’t have it any other way. While it may seem polished and perfected at a distance, the exact opposite is true.
Yes, it’s very well cared for. But it also has its fair share of squeaks and rattles. The overall character or personality of a car is really important to me and it’s something I think many people underestimate. My advice: don’t make your car perfect!
My MR2 has plenty of scars and bruises and so do I. Each one tells a story. Like the chunks of fiberglass scraped off the front lip from trailering it to its home for the winter after a year-long battle for car insurance. Or the loud squawk sound the super rare, lightweight clutch makes when backing into a parking spot. There’s also the fact that I have to treat it like an old carburated car to get it cold started thanks to the lack of an idle control motor on the huge throttle body.
These things probably seem like quirks or even problems that need fixing to most people. To me, they add to the personification of this car. The driving experience is like nothing else. If I wanted comfort and a smooth ride, I’d buy a Camry.
Did I make the right choice by choosing the MR2 over the Supra? Financially, the answer is a clear “no”. The MR2 build cost me more than double what I expected. While the market on them has since bottomed out and started to rise, their values are nowhere near as astronomical as the Supras and NSXs.
The Supra would have been the clear choice in terms of return on investment, but then there’s the whole “1 of 1” thing that my MR2 has going on. I’m more than happy with this car, but there’s still a void that only a Supra can fill. The only way to fix that would be to one day have a Supra keeping the MR2 company in the garage.
I chose not to follow current trends at any point in this build. Clean looks and driving characteristics were always the focus. I could have added neon lights back in the mid 2000’s, stretched tires a few years later, or widebody fender flares currently – but I didn’t.
I want this car to withstand the test of time. I like to call it trend-proof. A fun-to-drive car with classy looks is always going to be in style. Not much has changed on this car since it was initially completed. I can’t imagine myself making any significant changes in the future either.
My only goal from this point on is to preserve what I already have. They don’t make cars like this anymore. It’s up to us enthusiasts to preserve and protect these vehicles for as long as we can. Someday, these Japanese sports cars will be as well loved as the muscle cars of the late sixties.
Maybe it’s a part of growing up, but I don’t want to take risks anymore with this one. I don’t want to take it to the track. I don’t want it to be impounded after getting caught street racing a teenager. I just want to take it out in the middle of the night and meet up with my buddies. I want to enjoy the car on a Sunday afternoon whether that means driving it or tinkering with it.
One thing is for sure though. This is a long term relationship. Nobody is taking my MR2 away until they’re done shoveling dirt on me. When that day comes, I hope it goes to someone that can pick up where I left off.
Complete mod list:
Arias forged 87mm pistons
Eagle connecting rods
TTE metal head gasket
Ported and polished head by Authority Motorsport
HKS 264 camshafts
ATS adjustable cam gears
KU Engineering intake manifold
X02 Racing 80mm throttle body
TRD 170 degree thermostat
TD06 20g turbo
Tial 38mm wastegate
ATS exhaust manifold heat shield
HKS Super Sequential Blow off valve
Greddy side mount intercooler
Greddy oil cap
Custom fabbed 3″ stainless intercooler piping
3″ Intake pipe with MAP sensor conversion
Powder coated heat shields, valve cover, and piping
Supra twin turbo fuel pump
Delphi 880cc injectors
Wolfkatz top feed fuel rail
Aeromotive fuel pressure regulator and gauge
ATS 3″ downpipe
Blitz Nur Spec 3″ stainless exhaust
KO Racing polished engine lid with 10″ Spal fans
Speedsource polyurethane engine mounts
’96 gen3 transmission
Tilton twin disc cerametallic clutch
Tilton 6lb flywheel
Tilton master cylinder
Carbonetic carbon 1.5 way LSD
Speedsource brass shifter cable bushings
Chico Race Works chromoly axle cages
AEM standalone EMS
Defi BF gauges (Boost, EGT, Water temp)
Defi control unit
EMS Powered digital oil pressure gauge
AEM boost control solenoid
Blitz turbo timer
MSD digital 6 ignition box, coil, and wires
Aeroware fiberglass front lip
Greddy side skirts
Greddy rear bumper add-ons
JDM solid side moldings
JDM clear turn signals
JDM 94+ tail lights and center panel
Pegasus 6500K HID projector headlights
Color matched side moldings
TRD gas cap
Volk Racing SF Challenge wheels (18×7.5+22, 18×9+35)
BFG KDW tires (215/35/18, 245/35/18)
TRD lug nuts
Cusco Zero 2 adjustable coilovers with pillow ball mounts
TRD rear X brace
TRD rear sway bar
Msport cross drilled rotors
EBC Red brake pads
Stainless brake lines
Allstar Line lock
Personal Grinta alcantara steering wheel
NRG 3.0 quick release
LED cluster lights
JDM ’98 weighted shift knob
Celica GTS pedals
Redline red stitched leather shift/ebrake boots
Kenwood double din head unit
Blaupunkt Overdrive speakers/tweeters
Blaupunkt 12″ subwoofer in custom box
Rockford Fosgate amplifier custom mounted under hood
Optima redtop battery
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: