Toyota’s Overshadowed Sports Car
In The Shadows

Do you ever feel that the Toyota AE86 hogs a little too much of the limelight?

I mean, they’re truly great drivers’ cars, and if you’ve ever experienced one then it’s easy to see the appeal: they’re lightweight, high-revving, rear-wheel drive and pack bags of character. But around the same time that Toyota unleashed the legendary Hachiroku on the world, they were also making plenty of other great drivers’ cars too.

Take for example the KP61 Starlet – it has the same basic ingredients as the AE86, but in a smaller body and with less power from the factory. But we all know the latter is easily fixed, right?


And then there’s the MR2, which was launched in 1984 just a year after the AE86’s JDM debut. In modern times though, Toyota’s mid-engine, rear-wheel drive sports car has taken somewhat of a back seat to the Corolla in the aftermarket world. I’ve never really understood why.


A transverse-mounted inline four, MacPherson struts front and rear, sporty styling and fantastic fun to drive hard. With slightly more daring styling than the Corolla, I may be as bold as to say that the AW11 hasn’t aged as well. However, as proven by Luke Habermehl’s 1988 example, with a few choice modifications and a trick or two up its sleeve, the first gen MR-2 offers far more bang for your buck than an AE86 does in today’s climate.


This is Luke’s second MR2. His first was powered by the very same engine as the AE86, the high-revving, naturally aspirated 4A-GE, however a quest for more power saw him seeking out the car you see here.


This particular model came with the supercharged 4A-GZE from the factory, but Luke wanted more, so promptly swapped in the slightly evolved 4A-GZE from the AE101 GT-Z. The difference was a jump from around 145hp to 170-180hp for a relatively simple swap, and Luke got around two years of motoring out of the engine before it decided it’d had enough.


A rebuild followed, but it wasn’t happy ever after; “It never ran perfect from this point on,” Luke explains. “It wouldn’t idle correctly, it would overheat, and issue after issue kept coming up. This is what led me to seek out help from Prime Performance.”


New Jersey-based Prime are a bit handy with Toyotas in general, but the MR2 is a speciality of theirs. Specifically, 3S-GTE swaps. Can you see where this is going?


Interestingly, Toyota originally engineered the AW11 to play host to a 2.0-litre powerplant, so it seems fitting that that’s what Luke’s MR2 ended up with. Originally found in the Gen 4 SW20 MR2, the turbocharged engine was paired with an E153 manual transmission.

Luke’s initial plan was to run the engine in bone stock form with the factory air-to-air intercooler setup, however approaching the end of the swap, the guys at Prime rather cruelly sent him a photo of a water-to-air intercooler fitted to the engine.


This was all the persuasion Luke needed to opt for the upgraded cooling setup. The rather cramped space in the AW11’s bay with the larger motor in place meant that this was a far more efficient way of cooling the intake temperatures. Plus it allowed a bigger safety net for Luke to up boost levels in the future, should he wish.


Since the engine went in, Luke has added a Prime downpipe, custom exhaust and boost controller. The result is around 290whp and 265wtq. I’m guessing the kerb weight to be around 1,150kg (approx. 2,535lb) with the newer motor, which makes for some healthy numbers.


“I have driven some very fun and fast cars over the years, but nothing makes me feel like I do when I drive this car,” Luke tells me. “There’s something about the directness of the steering with it not having PAS, and the fact everything is manual. Taking the T-tops off on a beautiful summer’s day and just being exposed to all the noises the car makes is amazing.”


A few tweaks to the ageing interior were all that was needed to make the AW11 a nicer place to be. Seat choice is critical, both ergonomically and aesthetically, but you can’t go far wrong with a pair of Corbeau GTS IIs. Couple them with a Momo Apache wheel and you’re all set. Luke tells me that this was the wheel that was in his original MR2 too. “It’s been with me from the start; I’ve been interacting with that steering wheel since I first got my license.”


Luke’s also taken care of the aesthetics since acquiring the MR2. For most of his ownership the car had a rather loud and contrasting yellow stripe painted down the centre of it, but along with some basic bodywork upkeep and maintenance, Luke finally got it repainted this year.


While the bodywork was being done, some subtle body changes were also made, namely a Woodsport front lip, Techno Toy Tuning side skirts extensions and T3 Bomber Bar.


The rear wing is a later ‘89 item, which Luke actually salvaged from his first MR2. I say ‘salvaged’, as it wasn’t until Luke’s friend, who he sold the car to, totalled the car later on that Luke managed to reclaim possession of the spoiler and it found a new home on his current AW11.


Other touches include the custom carbon engine cover which not only looks great, but helps to release heat from the engine bay. Having owned a 3S-GTE-powered SW20 MR2 myself in the past, I know that every little bit helps when it comes to keeping these things cool.

While the car was in the bodyshop, Luke also had the rear fenders worked over. They were cut out, re-welded and modified to allow extra room for the wheels and tyres, namely Work Meister CR01s in 15×7.5-inch +26 (front) and 15×8-inch +20 (rear), wrapped in Toyo Proxes R1Rs


The car is lowered on BC Racing coilovers, and has been treated to Prothane polyurethane bushes and a Suspension Techniques rear sway bar. MR2s can have a habit of swapping ends with little warning in the wrong hands, so this little lot should help keep Luke pointing in the right direction.


With StopTech rotors at all four corners, Porterfield pads and Goodridge hoses, the little MR2 can down anchor pretty well too. “At this point most of my future plans involve fixing items that are broken, and cleaning up the engine bay,” Luke says. “The handling, brakes and power are perfect for what I want out of the car as a fun street car.”


When you can make an early MR2 look, sound and drive like this, remind me – why is everyone clambering over each other for AE86s again?

Jordan Butters
Instagram: jordanbutters

Photos by Larry Chen
Instagram: larry_chen_foto

Cutting Room Floor


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Finally! I've been a daily reader for the past three years eagerly looking for this post and it's finally here! These cars are so under-represented and can look incredible with just a few touches!

The one attached is mine! Absolutely over the moon to see this!


I don't see anything attached


What's crazy is , I was just considering on selling my S13 Silvia for a MR2.I am not too far from Prime Performance either. The engine bay on a MR2 is not for the weak of heart but,well worth the effort for the performance.I guess the MR2 will be that car in the "I would own but" list.Next to the NSX.


Were all USDM MR2s targe tops?


They came Hard-Top. Very rare though.


Also had a sunroof options. Only 88 and 89 had targa as an option.


Sweeeeeet. More MR content! I was waiting for something like this to pop up here.


Was this car reviewed my Mr. Regular or have I finally lost my mind.......


Your correct. This was on regular car reviews before the bodywork was done.


Awesome car and great guys that did this swap (story here)...Sent my car from Portland to new jersey for prime to do a 4gen swap on my 2nd gen MR2. In transit from Portland to new jersey my car was stolen by a ex employee from the transit company via someone who was working their, 4 years later were still in the process of suing them.

Good side to the story is PRIME went out of their way to find me a car and build it to the specs I was initially going to do before my car was stolen. They went through 5 different candidates before finding one that they felt comfortable in doing for me. After being in the car business for over 15 years I've never had any shop go out of they to this extent like how PRIME has and I'm glad to see that they did such a amazing job on this 1st gen, most of the spot light is on the 2nd gens and even that is few and far between.


Was the one they found you white? I kinda remember this story I feel like.


no is was plastidipped smp (smurf penis blue) but had a white supercharged V6


Wow I bet that's a crazy story lol. Pretty cool that they accommodated you like that though.


Its posts like this and many others that make me want to build my 01 fozzy but parts are a pain to find, not to mention expensive #subielifeyo


Well, for one, Dogmeat did not drive an MR2...


I've been considering an SW20 MR2 for a first car. How hard is it to find a bone-stock example?


Finding a stock one should be a big hassle. It’ll certainly teach you a lot being a first car too - they’re tricky to work on because of how cramped they are - I remember having to take the seats out to do pretty much every job on mine. Wiring? Seats come out. Change head unit? Best take the seats out. Air filter? Well that’s no where near the seats but take them out just to be safe.

They’re also not the most forgiving to drive - if you don’t understand weight transfer you can quite easily find yourself in a hedge or ditch. Useless in winter weather too - I remember mine crabbing down the road in ice with any slightly camber to the surface.

Sounds terrible BUT once I’d learnt to drive it and in the dry with good rubber on it had bonkers amounts of grip.


Good to know. Just wondering: Of the three MR2 generations (AW11, SW20, SW30) which one is easiest to find stock?


The spyders are the easiest to find stock. There are stock example of the AW11 and SW20 out there but they are starting to fetch rather high prices.


awesome ! KP61 , 964 , MR2 , so what's next ?!!!


The only car I have EVER regretted selling was my SW20. I've been looking for inspiration for a project...... and I think I may have found it. Love the old school Toyotas. The question I used to get is "Do you ever use the T Tops?" and the answer is "HELL YEA!"


I've owned a lot of cars, but my Mk1 Mr2 is by far my favorite. I'll never sell it despite the fact that it feels like I am fixing a new issue every month or two, which is probably normal considering it's age. They are definitely the type of car that is best owned by someone who is willing to get their hands dirty and do the majority of the work themselves.
Awesome car! Nice to see one done up properly without excessively stanced wheels, gaudy body kit, or a big wing. IMO this is how these cars should be done.


I had a red '89 for over 10 years. Had 270K miles on it when I decided to sell it. It had finally reached the point that things were starting to show their age. After rebuilding the suspension and a couple of other major things, I figured it was just going to be a continuous string of issues after that. 26 years is a long time for a car, especially one that actually gets driven. LOVE everything that was done to this MR2, though. I can't imagine throwing this thing around corners with that kind of power. Beautiful, tasteful aesthetic mods, too!


Thanks man, it’s how I’ve always felt to. Wings and body kits can look good in the right place but I always wanted to be more subtle with my car.


Awesome! Love AW11's & keep thinking of getting another. Baby nsx's or poor mans elises haha
They do have potential to lose some serious weight with the steel panels and interior but not a lot on the market with carbon panels / doors ect it seems :( Even the rusty worn old car i had turned in beautifully to corners. Must be the lotus magic shining through!


Mr2 are totally over looked in this era. As a SW20 owner I would love to see more content here on SH


"MR2s can have a habit of swapping ends with little warning in the wrong hands"

Wonderful understatement


Can confirm. Crashed mine into a bush on an airfield trying to drift.

Who puts a bush on an airfield?!


It's almost like you guys new Donut Media were going to release the MR2 video. #illumanticonfirmed


And I just crashed mine -__- broke the passenger side rear spindle.


I have been searching nonstop for an aw11 for two days now. Thanks alot.


Awesome to see your car on SpeedHunters, Luke!


Mister Two.


Heh, this was in Atlantic City. I know Bader Field as soon as I see it. You should check out the autocross scene there as well as the rallycross events. Also there's a great car community here in southern NJ.


Great to see the MR2 get some light on Speed Hunters. One slight error however. The GEN4 (Rev4) SW20 did not come with this particular version of the 3SGTE, this is the GEN4 3SGTE from a JDM Toyota Caldina GTT ST215.

GEN2 3SGTE in the 89-93 JDM SW20 (Rev1-2) and the 91-95 USDM SW20 (Rev1-3)
GEN3 3SGTE in the 93-99 JDM SW20 (Rev3-5). USDM never got this version.
GEN4 3SGTE in the 98-02 JDM Caldina ST215.

Some say there is a GEN5 3SGTE from the ST246 Caldina but it's just got some minor tweaks to small parts and is like the updated GEN2 in the 92-93 JDM vs the 93-95 USDM.

Great story, I like your work.


I overlooked that some how on my first read through of this. I believe i read it as the gen 4 of the SW20 engine.


Amazing car you have there. Thanks for sharing it us. I bet that goes well with the extra 100% power.

I'm sure you know what car the engine came from, just thought I'd clarify as the MR2, both AW11 and SW20 are not the most popular cars. Share the knowledge.


Ive owned a shit load of cars, but I have to say my 4agze AW11 Was probably the funnest (Until it died in a fire :()! Awesome car Luke.


They were cut out, re-welded and modified to allow extra room for the wheels and tyres,

Is that because of the diameter or width?


The main reason was rust repair, This car lived its whole life on the east coast, but since it was happening anyways I figured make the most out of it. I use to have to run slightly more camber than I wanted but once I got the rears trimmed I could get back to the 1-2 degrees of negative range. Which i didn't adjust until after this shoot anyways.


Great article!!! I love seeing clean old school Toyotas being covered on SH....


This is an absolute kick in the knackers. I was a hair's width away from owning one of these earlier in the year. I had just moved 3,000 kms away and was in need of a new vehicle, though I still had to recoup from my moving losses. I had set up a meet with the guy about the car and was blown away by the depth of vision the cockpit gave, the familiar driving sensation similar to my brother's Miata, and the fluidity of the mechanics as a whole. The day I had cobbled the money together and rang up the guy, he had just sold it a few hours earlier in the morning. Sure, I nabbed a unicorn of a 89 Isuzu I-Mark RS shortly after, but I'm still sore this slipped through my fingers. One day soon again.


tasty, wonderful, i love it.


Still waiting for a ae111 bzr feature. Come do mine :P


Finally! There is too little love for the MR2s in general. Great to finally see such a Nice article and such a fine example of the car.
Will you follow up with a few SW20 and ZZW30 goodies?
The ZZW30-communities online is pretty good, and produce loads of Nicely modified cars. Turbos, engine swaps both 4 and 6-cylinders, and much more. :D
(Spyderchat and MR2ROC for starters....)