Originally conceived as a fun, economical two-seater, by the time the first (W10) MR2 was launched in 1984 it had evolved a much sportier persona.
The mid-engine layout and light body gave it sharp and responsive steering and good performance from its relatively modest engine.
This was a pretty conventional 1.6-litre in-line four, but with double overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and fuel injection. This gave it a healthy power output of 128hp (112hp in the US), a 0-60mph time between 8 and 9 seconds and a top speed of around 120mph.
This was an era when the average 1.6-litre family saloon would struggle to push 100mph.
But while the original MR2’s performance might not turn heads today, its flinty wedge-shaped body still does. Along with its arch-rival, the beautiful X1/9, it brought something new, dramatic and exciting to the affordable sports car market.
There was even a supercharged 145hp version with stiffer springs and uprated transmission and a sub-7 second 0-60mph time, though this never made it to Europe.
So the second-generation (W20) MR2, introduced in 1990, could be seen as a surprise. On paper, Toyota did everything right. The new car was larger, heavier, faster, more grown up and came with more rounded, streamlined styling.
But it felt like an overall ‘softening’ of the original concept – literally, in fact, in 1992 when Toyota modified the suspension to eliminate the snap-oversteer responses of the previous cars.
This is a general trait of mid-engined cars – having the weight in the middle produces low polar inertia, so it’s a lot easier to spin the car. The car was made safer, but keen drivers were less happy.
Nevertheless, the W20 went on to achieve great success, in various modified forms, on the track. The road cars were fast too, though Europe didn’t get the 218hp 2-litre turbo model.
With the third-generation (W30) MR2 launched in 2000, Toyota returned, at least partly to the MR2’s roots, with a light, sporty convertible with a fresh new design and fitted with a 1.8-litre 4-cylinder engine pushing out 138hp – less than the previous version, but producing plenty of performance in a light and simple body widely praised for its handling.
The W30 finally went out of production in 2007, 23 years after the first MR2 was launched.