Buying Guide Toyota MR2 Roadster W30

Buying Guide Toyota MR2 Roadster W30

Seven steps to buying a Toyota MR2 Roadster W30 Mk3. This minimal mid-engined roadster is getting more desirable. Time to buy… Words Richard Dredge. Photography John Colley.

Buying Guide

How to put a bargain Toyota MR2 Roadster W30 on your drive

The MkIII Roadster was a step back to basics for the MR2 after the Ferrari-aping MkII iteration of 1990-1999. Its origins were inspired by Celica GT-Four engineer Tadashi Nakagawa’s own Ferrari 328GTS; he began the design process on the back of a napkin, and took the idea to ItalDesign spinoff CECOMP in Italy to develop it.

‘Softer than an Elise, it’s also much easier to live with, and much closer in spirit to the Lotus than any of its rivals’

Buying Guide How to put a bargain Toyota MR2 Roadster W30 on your drive

The result is a mid-engined, high-revving sports car so pared-down it even lacks a conventional boot. While it’s softer than an Elise, the MR2 also a lot easier to live with, and much closer in spirit to the Lotus than any of its rivals. And you can buy one for as little as £1500.

To help guide us in how to seek out an excellent example, we spoke to Patrick Mortell of MR2 specialist and racer Rogue Motorsport, Tom Hudson of classic Toyota specialist FenSport, and Ben Beavan, better known as parts supplier MR2-Ben.

Which one to choose?

  • Only the basic Roadster with optional hardtop was offered in the UK on launch in 1999. Some Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) cars have made it to the UK since, their only major detail difference being a Torsen limited-slip differential and a change of name to MR-S.
  • With heavily-modified versions being used in Japanese GT racing, a run of 100 wide-bodied GT300s was released. Genuine ones were by race-preparation specialist Monocraft, though many replicas have been built with lookalike panel kits.
  • In 2001, Japanese buyers were offered two rebodied versions – the VM180 Zagato (100 built) and the Modellista Caserta (150 built) – both with 155bhp Toyota Racing Development (TRD)-tuned engines.
  • Heavy revisions were introduced in 2002: new head and tail-lights, stiffer bodyshell bracing, six-speed gearbox, and optional Sequential Manual Transmission (SMT). A weakness with the pre-catalyser system was corrected, and traction control added.
  • Production ended in 2006 with the TF300, a UK run of 300 customer-specified hand-finished specials.


Any MR2 that hasn’t been pranged should be rust-free, although the electrophoretically-coated rear subframe can corrode because of its proximity to the exhaust.

‘Nothing else for the money has engineering and handling quite like a Toyota MR2 MkIII’

This is hidden behind a plastic cover on UK cars, so it rots out of sight. It’s not possible to weld up the subframe once corrosion gets beyond a certain point, so it has to be replaced. The newer the car, the less likely it is to be rusty, but if you need a replacement subframe you’ll pay £100 for one. Rogue Motorsport charges £300 all-in to replace the subframe.

More likely than corrosion is crash damage; once an MR2 starts to lose grip, with an inexperienced driver it’ll soon disappear into the scenery. Any example that’s been crashed will probably have uneven panel gaps, so check the alignment front and rear. Outer panels unbolt, so replacing them is easy; there’s no shortage of good used parts which keeps prices low. Toyota was desperate to keep the MR2’s weight down so the outer panels are made of very thin steel. They therefore dent easily, although straightening things out shouldn’t be too hard or expensive for someone with the right skills.

If there is any damage to the heated rear window or the roof fabric, the whole roof has to be replaced. A new one is around £550 (£800 fitted) but there are second-hand roofs available, complete with frame, for around £250. If you fancy a hardtop, or need to replace the original, budget £450 and make sure it comes with its fitting kit, or you’ll be facing a further £100 outlay.


The MR2 uses a 1794cc overhead-cam engine with variable valve timing. Codenamed 1ZZ-FE, it’s smooth and frugal, and while it’s not especially torquey, it delivers ample performance. However, engine failures are the most likely reason for an MR2 to die, at least in cars built up to 2002. The piston design can cause the bores to wear oval. Oil then gets past the piston rings and contaminates the two pre-catalysers in the exhaust manifold, breaking them up, and debris then gets sucked back into the engine, destroying it.

Buying Guide Toyota MR2 Roadster W30

Later cars aren’t affected by this (they’ll notch up 150k miles or more), but any early MR2 that’s yet to breach the 40k-mile barrier is probably on borrowed time if the pre-cats haven’t been removed from the manifold; they can be knocked out or a replacement non-cat manifold can be fitted for around £200 all-in. Toyota has long known about the problem which is why it offers a brand new short block for £960 on an exchange basis – but most people just fit a decent used engine, which can be bought for £300. Early signs of trouble include increased oil consumption and the lambda sensor light coming on. Facelifted cars have revised piston rings to eliminate the problem, but debris can still get sucked into the engine and wreck it. To the right of the exhaust manifold is the timing chain tensioner which often leaks. Removing everything to install a new seal is simple but refitting is fiddly – £100 is enough for a specialist to sort it out.


The gearbox can handle up to 300bhp, so gearbox wear is found almost exclusively on cars modified for track use. The first sign is weak synchromesh, the lever jumping out of gear. A used manual gearbox is about £200 to buy. The SMT gearbox came in five- or six-speed forms; the latter is noticeably slicker in terms of shift times. However, in both transmissions the transmission ECU, hydraulic pump or the actuator can go wrong, each costing £1000 to replace. Converting auto to manual costs around £1500.

Clutches last 100k miles or more, with replacements available for £120; allow £300 for a specialist to do everything. Sticking with an original-equipment clutch isn’t essential, but using branded parts is.

Steering and suspension

All MR2s have electro-hydraulic power steering. After a while it gets notchy because of wear in the knuckle where the column attaches to the rack. You can buy a new Toyota part for £220 or a pattern part for about £80. Also check the power steering pipework because it’s exposed to the elements and corrodes.

Taut springs often disguise the fact that fresh dampers are needed. It’s worth getting them checked and fitting a fresh set to any car still sporting factory-fitted parts. Genuine Toyota ones cost £110 apiece.

If the car feels baggy in corners, the suspension bushes are likely to have seen better days, and a fresh set should bring a sharper drive. Most owners resort to polyurethane parts; budget £400 to do the whole car, a specialist taking around six hours to fit everything. The rear suspension geometry can be adjusted, but the bolts that allow this can seize and snap, damaging the track control arms. Only Toyota parts are available and it’s not a DIY fix because a press is needed. With all the right tools a specialist can do both sides in two hours; expect a £250 bill for both, parts included.

Brakes and wheels

All came with 14in ventilated discs front and rear, with anti-lock. It’s a reliable and effective system but the handbrake cables seize, and replacement takes three hours because the fuel tank has to come out. The rear callipers also seize, but can normally be freed off. Early cars had 15in rims all round; later ones got 16in rears. Check the tyres – their condition makes a big difference to handling. Correct pressures are vital, as is a premium brand such as Bridgestone or Yokohama. Also ensure they have good wet-weather grip; low rolling-resistance tyres may offer good fuel economy but can create dangerous handling issues on an MR2.

Trim and electrics

The electric aerial in the rear wheelarch is prone to water ingress and failure. The mast can be replaced but damaged wiring is awkward to fix, because the control wire is continuous and runs all the way to the dash. The instruments, switchgear and lighting are reliable but the lambda sensors often fail; new ones cost £50. If a hard top is fitted, the retaining clips must be correctly adjusted. They can lose their tension or can be over-tensioned, which can potentially lead to the roof detaching itself during driving.

Later engines are generally robust, but pre-2002 cars have a flaw that can see the powerplant grenade itself Handling is more junior supercar than poser’s roadster – and with that comes the threat of hidden accident damage. Gearbox choice can significantly affect a MkIII’s value, with six-speed manuals the most desirable and Sequential Manual Transmissions (SMTs) the least.

Featherweight bodyshell enables wonderful driving characteristics, but there are ownership implications to mind

What to pay

  • Decent if scruffy 1999-2002 runners start out at as little as £1300. Add £500 if a hardtop is fitted.
  • Post-facelift six-speed cars, much easier to live with, start at £2000, rising to £5000 for the very best hardtopped, sub-100,000-mile, dealer-warrantied cars. Subtract £500 for an SMT gearbox.
  • TF300s in mint condition can make as much as £7000.
  • Replicas are rife, but a genuine GT300 will fetch £11k-£15k.
  • A Zagato or Caserta imported from Japan will cost in excess of ¥4m (£26.5k), but they surface rarely.

Owning a Toyota MR2 MkIII

Simon McMurray

Simon McMurray bought the 2002 MR2 pictured eight years ago. He says, ‘I had to look at quite a few to find a good one because there are a lot of ropey cars out there. It was worth it though because the car is just so fabulous to drive. It’ll cruise on the motorway comfortably but it’s on more challenging roads that it really shines. Handling-wise, it’s the equal of some much more prestigious sports cars.

Despite what you might think given its age, it’s a very DIY-friendly car. I save a lot of money by doing virtually every routine servicing job on it myself. Parts availability is superb. Admittedly most new bits are costly, but everything for these cars is available second-hand. Obviously, that may not be the case forever though. ‘There are lots of tatty examples out there that just need some TLC. Even a knackered engine isn’t a death sentence because second-hand units are plentiful – the same engine went in the Yaris, Auris and Avensis. Although many owners take this opportunity to switch to a 2ZZGE engine, as used in the Lotus Elise. It’s stronger, more reliable, tuneable and more powerful, and slots straight in, although one of the four mountings needs to be adjusted.’

Sam Dawson, Cambridgeshire

Classic Cars’ News Editor Sam Dawson runs a MkIII MR2 as a second car. He’s well-versed in ownership because he’s had three MR2s, one from each generation. ‘I keep coming back to them,’ he says. ‘Nothing else for the money has engineering and handling quite like an MR2. They offer daily-driver reliability, and yet the MkIII in particular is like the product of a low-volume specialist sports car firm, designed more like a Lotus than, say, a Mazda MX-5.

‘Tyre choice is absolutely crucial – they get alarmingly unstable on the wrong rubber. Also beware aftermarket electronics. Mine had a faulty aftermarket alarm that kept draining the battery, and it cost in excess of £200 and several visits to garages to trace it.

‘Don’t be overly put off by superficially scruffy ones. The body panels simply bolt to a semi-spaceframe chassis and are easily replaced. Beware rot in the rear subframe though. The exhaust, which burns off the rustproofing, also does a good job of hiding rust. It was only when I replaced my exhaust to remove the pre-catalysers that I found a 50p-sized hole in the rear crossmember, and suddenly the job was £150 more expensive!’

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Peter McIlvenny of specialist classic car insurer Carole Nash says, ‘The MkIII MR2 should always have been considered a modern classic but they are now starting to be recognised as such – and with 6000 models still on the road there are plenty to choose from. Since prices and condition can vary wildly, I would strongly advise doing your homework and view any car in person before you part with any cash. And if you want some winter driving, try and find a car with a hardtop included – buying one separately could cost you a lot more. The values have only seen small gains in the last few years but this is starting to change. Has there been a better time to buy an MR2? I don’t think so.’

Classic car insurance quotes: 0333 005 7541 or

2002 MR2 Roadster – £1400

Silver. 143,779 miles. MoT until 23 June 2021. Recent new brake pads front and back, battery fairly new, and oil/filter. The soft top works but has been patched. I have owned the car since 2014 and have had very few problems. It has been my summer car and spent most of its time garaged or under cover. I have some history and the original handbook/radio instructions. Car is currently SORN.

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