The Toyota MR2 is known for being a relatively simple, fun-to-drive sports car. Over the years, it has developed a reputation for being dangerous among people that don’t truly understand the car.
The biggest reason people believe the Toyota MR2 is dangerous is based on snap oversteer. Early 2nd gen models were known to spin out easily due to their mid-engine layout and short wheelbase. Inexperienced drivers found themselves in trouble when they treated the MR2 like other rear wheel drive cars.
Are the tales of MR2s randomly losing control and causing accidents true? Well, I’ve owned one for the last 17 years so I’ll share my experience with you.
Is the Toyota MR2 as dangerous as people think?
The short answer is that all generations of the MR2 are quite safe to drive – but they do require some respect and knowledge of how they work if you plan to push the limits in this car.
Back before Mustangs won the top slot for “most crashes shared on the internet”, we all watched an infamous video of a black MR2 sliding out of control and hitting a parked Volkswagen Jetta. I swear, I’ve been sent it hundreds of times over the years.
Yes, one reckless driver lost control of his MR2 and crashed. That is not the experience that the majority of us MR2 owners have had though. In fact, they’re no more dangerous than any other car when you drive them normally.
There’s something to be said for a turbocharged, mid engine, rear wheel drive, lightweight, short wheelbase sports car from the 90s. It’s obviously not going to be as safe to drive as a modern Volvo. It’s outdated in many ways compared to new cars that can practically drive themselves.
But does that make it dangerous to drive? Not at all. That just means it requires a bit of extra skill and care if you’re going to push it to its limits. The thing is, most of us aren’t driving at 11/10 on a race track every day, fighting for one more millisecond off of a lap time. We’re driving these cars on the street. The MR2 is actually incredibly tame to drive in those conditions.
I was curious about what my fellow MR2 owners thought about the subject so I decided to poll the MR2 Owner’s Club. I asked their private Facebook group (with over 20,000 members) if they thought the car was dangerous or not. Here are the results:
72% of these MR2 owners feel that the car isn’t dangerous at all. The comments below the poll continued to drive that point home as well. The general consensus is that the car is only as dangerous as the driver.
Snap oversteer and why it’s common in mid engine cars
Snap oversteer was not a term that was coined specifically for the SW20 MR2. It plagues many mid engine cars, yet for some reason, the MR2 became the most famous for it.
Snap oversteer is what happens when many mid engine cars lose traction in a corner. Initially, the rear end will step out in one direction. Unless the driver has quick hands, it then has a tendency to “snap” the other direction rapidly, causing an uncontrollable spin.
A common misconception is that snap oversteer is the same as “lift-off” oversteer. It’s not. Lift-off oversteer happens when you take your foot off the gas mid-corner and the rear end slides out.
Snap oversteer happens after the car is already sliding, regardless of whether you’re on or off the throttle at the time. If the driver over-corrects, there is a chance that the car will briefly regain traction and “snap” the other direction. This happens with no warning and gives the driver very little time to react.
The MR2 is not the only car that suffers from this characteristic. Most mid or rear engine cars will behave the same way. From Acura NSXs to Porsche 911s, it can happen to any of them. Even front-mid engine cars like the Honda S2000 can develop snap oversteer in some situations.
So how do you avoid snap oversteer? Well, it’s pretty simple, yet counter-intuitive. You just need to stay on the throttle if the car starts sliding. That brief moment of regaining traction is much less likely to happen if you keep the rear wheels spinning. It’s not until you let off the gas and allow them to find grip that snap oversteer will get you.
Most people are afraid to keep their foot on the gas when the car starts sliding. When in doubt, throttle out!
Other reasons people believe the MR2 can be dangerous
Snap oversteer isn’t the only reason some people believe the MR2 is dangerous though. There are numerous reasons why you might not want to choose one to bring your newborn baby home from the hospital in.
Cars weren’t as safe back in the ’90s
There’s something to be said about the safety of cars that were built in the ’90s. In fact, most of them can be considered “unsafe” by today’s standards.
Have you noticed how big and bulky modern cars like the Honda Civic have become in comparison to what they used to be like 30 years ago? Part of that is because people want more space these days, but it’s mainly about fitting in all of the safety features and crumple zones.
Airbags were a fairly new concept in the ’90s and even if your car had them, they weren’t great. There weren’t many of them either – you won’t find side curtain airbags in an MR2 (or in the case of the first gen, none at all).
There’s no denying that the MR2 is a small car. At 6’3”, I tend to wear mine like a t-shirt. When you take a closer look at one, you’ll see that they’re made of pretty thin metal too. That doesn’t exactly make you feel confident in the event of a collision.
Low visibility from other drivers
Speaking of collisions, the MR2’s safety (or lack thereof) doesn’t only come down to the driver. Other drivers on the road are also a big threat to you. In the case of the MR2, many of them simply can’t see you.
The car is small and wedge shaped. Most modern cars and trucks dwarf it and it can easily get lost in traffic. I get uncomfortable when I’m driving mine beside a tractor-trailer on the highway but that feeling is pretty common in regular cars.
Being in a similar position and looking up at the rocker panels of an average pickup truck makes you realize how small the car really is though. Other cars can’t avoid you if they can’t see you and unfortunately, the MR2 can be difficult to spot in a rear or side view mirror.
To give you an idea of the size comparison, here’s a photo of the front end of my MR2 next to the 33” tires of my 4runner:
MR2s don’t have many electronic “nannies” to save you
Traction control, stability control, lane keep assist, blind spot monitors, parking sensors, and reverse cameras are all helpful systems that help to keep you safe, even if you’re a bad driver.
In a Toyota MR2, you’ll get Anti Lock Brakes – and that’s about it. Despite their engine bays being filled with what seems like endless wiring harnesses and vacuum lines, MR2s are actually rather primitive cars. They don’t have many electronic gizmos at all.
The Dodge Viper has always been notorious for having no electronic nannies to help you (aside from the more recent models). Everyone knows you have to respect the Viper if you’re going to drive it hard. You also have to be prepared that it might bite you at any moment.
Well in comparison, the Viper doesn’t have any ABS, unlike the MR2. But apart from that, they’re on the same page in regards to electronic systems. The MR2 doesn’t have anywhere near the low-end torque of the Viper’s 8.0L V10 though, so breaking traction is much more common in the American beast.
Driving an MR2 hard does require some skill. If you don’t have it, you’ll get bit. It might not be quite as venomous as a Viper bite – perhaps more like your neighbor’s annoying lap dog that thinks he’s tough. But even that can hurt if he gets you at the right angle!
Front end stability at high speed
I will admit that the MR2 doesn’t exactly inspire confidence at high speeds. Having a lightweight front end can be a great thing when you’re driving an older model that doesn’t have power steering. It’s a lot easier on the arms.
But when you’re doing, let’s call it “Above Highway Speed”, that same lightweight front end can be worrisome. It tends to wander a little bit and the steering gets very light. The same car that feels so nimble at lower speed ends up feeling pretty on-edge at high speed with most of its weight behind you.
The MR2 thrives at moderate speed, in street driving situations, track days, and AutoX events. But if you’re an Autobahn enthusiast, it might not be the car for you.
They were pretty cheap for a while
You wouldn’t guess this after seeing what MR2s are selling for these days but it wasn’t very long ago that you could buy one for very little. As a matter of fact, this car was known for offering great bang-for-your-buck in terms of performance and reliability.
Cheap prices on the used car market tend to attract less than ideal buyers. You didn’t have to be a long term enthusiast that saved up their pennies for years to get one. So there were plenty of MR2 owners that weren’t very familiar with the car and quite frankly, didn’t respect it.
To make another comparison to an American car, there is a similar situation going on with late-model Mustangs. They’ve gained the reputation of being “Crowd Plows” when meatheads try to impress people with a burnout.
It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with the Mustang itself. The reality is that it’s a relatively high powered car that anyone can walk into a dealership and purchase for an affordable price.
I believe the MR2 suffered from the same issue. Inexperienced drivers were able to get their hands on them and wound up crashing. That might make it seem like there’s something dangerous about the car but the reputation is more about the irresponsible people that bought them.
MR2s are old and not always well maintained
Unfortunately, our beloved MR2s are getting old. While I’m an avid Toyota fanboy, even the best built cars will have components that wear out and break over time. The MR2 is no exception. Pair that with the fact that OEM replacement parts aren’t as easy to come by as they once were, and it’s fair to say that some MR2 owners might be neglecting some required maintenance.
Sure, you’ll hear stories of MR2 owners doing complete overhauls of their suspension by replacing every joint and bearing. But let’s be honest – not everyone is doing that. Some of these cars are “survivors” and while they might be kept in good visual condition, there could be some underlying issues growing that no one knows about.
The Toyota MR2 isn’t a dangerous car. It’s also not a forgiving car, though. If you’re inexperienced or overly bold, there is a good chance that the car will make a fool out of you. Many of us MR2 owners really like that about the car. It needs to be respected and you won’t be able to fully enjoy driving it until you do.
It’s worth noting that there are MR2 owners out there who daily drive their cars – even in the wintertime. How dangerous could a car be if people are confidently driving them to work in snow storms?
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: