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Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

Toyota MR2: Retro Road Test summer special

Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road TestSummer has finally arrived and now is a good time to treat yourself to a set of weekend wheels. If your budget is limited to around £5,000, you could do much worse than looking at Toyota’s ‘midship runabout 2-seater’. In a Motoring Research Retro Road Test special, we’ve driven a first- and third-generation MR2 from Toyota UK’s heritage fleet to find out which one you should spend your money on.

Mk1: What are its rivals?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

Launched in 1984, the original MR2 was intended as a fun-to-drive car that was cheap to run. It was unusual in its mid-engined layout, but its compact dimensions complied with strict Japanese regulations. It arrived around the same time as the Fiat X1/9, Volkswagen Scirocco and Honda CR-X.

Mk3: What are its rivals?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

The third-generation MR2, launched in 1999, was a bit different to its predecessors. While it stuck to the mid-engined layout, it was a proper convertible and closer to the Mazda MX-5 and (also mid-engined) MG F.

Mk1: Which engines does it use?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

The original MR2 shared a naturally-aspirated, 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with the more mainstream Corolla. It produced 128hp in the UK and could hit 62mph in less than 9.0 seconds – quick for its time, and faster than its peers.

Mk3: Which engines does it use?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

By the third-generation model, the MR2 used a 1.8-litre four-cylinder naturally-aspirated engine. Like its predecessors, it used dual overhead camshafts and 16 valves – while the camshaft timing was adjustable using Toyota’s VVT-i system. The car’s low kerb weight meant it could hit 62mph in between 6.8 seconds and 8.7 seconds, depending on transmission (five- and six-speed manuals were available, as was a five-speed sequential ’box).

Mk1: What’s it like to drive?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

The 1987 example we’re testing here still feels incredibly sprightly, even though it’s probably lost a few horses over the years – and isn’t, by Toyota’s admission, the best example just yet. With the engine’s weight sitting close to the rear wheels, it’s clear from the start that the original MR2 offers extraordinary levels of grip. Give it the beans from a standstill, for example, and you have to be very clumsy with the clutch for the wheels to (briefly) spin up.

Despite a shortage of power assistance, the steering is light (perhaps overly so) when you increase the speed – something that’ll happen soon as you work the twin-cam engine up through the gears, changing close to the 8,000rpm redline. It has an appetite for being driven hard and encourages you to do so.

While the old Toyota won’t see which way a modern hot hatch went, it still provides one of the most enjoyable driving experiences you’ll get for the money. The sound, steering feel and unusual driving position combine to make it feel like a wonderfully analogue experience.

Mk3: What’s it like to drive?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

After driving the first-generation MR2, the Mk3 feels a little bland on first impressions. The interior is very dull in comparison – while the Mk1 is wonderfully 80s, the recent model is as we’ve become used to from Toyota. Lots of black plastics, and nothing particularly exciting.

But spend some time getting to know the third-gen MR2, and it’s equally likeable in a different way. Just like its predecessors, its mid-engined handling provides oodles of grip, while its diminutive dimensions give you lots of confidence for threading it down rural roads. While it’s not as playful as an MX-5 (if you get the rear out, you’ll probably need more than a dab of oppo to get it back in), it feels more agile. Turn into a bend and it’ll shrug off any thoughts of understeer.

Mk1: Could I drive it every day?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

We quite often say this in Retro Road Tests: you could drive the Mk1 MR2 every day, but it’d be a bit of a shame to. Its lack of storage space, general shortage of refinement and the potential to break down (yes, it’s a Toyota – but a very old one now) means you’d probably start to hate it fairly quickly. Save it for the weekend and you’ll relish every mile behind the wheel.

Mk3: Could I drive it every day?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

If you’re looking for a daily drive, the Mk3 MR2 is much more realistic. It feels like a modern car inside, but don’t be fooled into thinking its practical. The boot space is… lacking, even for a couple of weekend bags. You have to take it very easy in inclement weather, too.

Mk1: How much should I pay?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

Prices for the Mk1 MR2 are strengthening, and it’s definitely one of those cars where it pays to spend more money on a cherished example than be tempted by one at the cheaper end of the market. You can pick one up for less than £2,000, but it’ll probably need some bodywork in the near future and there’s no shortage of parts that could need replacing to make it drive as well as it did when it was new: bushes, droplinks, shocks and springs all wear with age.

Mk3: How much should I pay?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

Prices for the Mk3 are pretty similar to the Mk1. You can buy one for less than £2,000 now, but they tend to be for leggy examples that have been owned by an unenthusiastic owner who may have skimped on maintenance. Ideally, we’d be looking to spend at least £3,000 on a 2003 or later model.

Mk1: What should I look out for?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

Rust is the big issue with Mk1s. They rot everywhere: the wheel arches, wings, B-pillars, A-pillars, sills. Fibreglass skirts make it easy for rust to be hidden, so make sure you get underneath the car and have a poke in every nook and cranny. Other than that, the engine is fairly robust – but you’ll want proof of regular servicing. Listen out for a tappety engine, not a huge concern, but a sign that it might not having maintained as well as you’d like. And watch out for smoke coming out of the exhaust.

Mk3: What should I look out for?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

In the first instance, look out for signs of how well the car’s been treated. Has it got many marks on the body, are all the tyres a good brand with plenty of tread, and does the owner have a folder full of paperwork? Earlier models can often face excessive oil consumption, while abused examples that have been thrashed from cold can suffer from the pre-cat breaking up and being sucked into the engine. Costly.

Although the third-generation model doesn’t suffer from rust as much as older examples, the rear crossmember is known to corrode – and it’s usually disguised by an undertray, meaning it won’t be picked up by the MOT.

Which one should I buy?Toyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

In reality, whether you should buy a Mk1 or Mk3 depends largely on what you want from a car. If you want a project that will attract admiring glances and attract comments at a classic car show, but will need regular maintenance to keep it on the road, you should definitely invest in a Mk1 while you still can.

The Mk3, despite its limitations in a practical sense, is a much more usable buy. If you pack light and want to take it on a European road trip, you can feel pretty reassured it’ll get you there – and in more comfort than the Mk1. A tidy one is probably a good investment and you’ll love every minute behind the wheel.

If you gave this reviewer £5,000 and told him to buy a Mk1 or Mk3 Toyota MR2? I’ll take the original, thanks.

Pub factToyota, MR2, review, Mk1, Mk3, Series 1, Series 3, buying guide, Retro Road Test

The third-generation model we tested here was actually one of the last off the production line. One of 300 special editions, it’s badged ‘TF300’ and would have cost £18,015 when new in 2006. Each model came with custom leather and Alcantara upholstery, a twin sports exhaust and a dedicated vehicle number stitched into the seats.

Ford Focus RS

Ford Focus RS Mk1: Retro Road Test

Ford Focus RSEven today, few family cars drive better than the original 1998 Ford Focus. With its clever Control Blade rear suspension, this humble hatchback out-handled some sports cars.

Opinions of the first Focus RS, however, are more mixed. Launched in 2002, some rate it as one of the greatest hot hatches ever. Others, meanwhile, dismiss it as a torque-steering tearaway.

We borrowed Focus RS number 0001 of 4,501 cars made fresh from Ford’s heritage fleet to discover who is right about this controversial fast Ford.

Mitsubishi EvoWhat are its rivals?

The Focus is a front-wheel-drive hatchback, yet its two most obvious rivals the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo (pictured) and Subaru Impreza WRX – were four-wheel-drive saloons. Both offer more power and are cheaper to buy second-hand. However, neither will appreciate in value like the limited-edition Ford.

Fancy something more civilised? Consider the Audi S3 or Volkswagen Golf R32. These four-wheel-drive Germans outgun the Focus in terms of horsepower, but not driving excitement.

Ford Focus RSWhat engine does it use?

The Ford’s 2.0-litre turbocharged engine drives through a five-speed manual gearbox Peak power of 212hp arrives at 5,500rpm, with torque of 229lb ft from a useful 3,500rpm. The 0-60mph dash takes 5.9sec and top speed is 143mph.

To tame those rampant horses, Ford used a Quaife torque-biasing differential. It works by diverting twist-action to the opposite front wheel if wheelspin is detected, improving traction and agility – at the expense of some refinement. And on that topic…

Ford Focus RSWhat’s it like to drive?

That mechanical front diff is essentially a sticking plaster – a solution to the absence of four-wheel drive. But it defines the character of the RS more than any other component, giving it an appetite for corners that’s positively ravenous.

Find a B-road and car turns in with eager immediacy, the wheel writhing between your palms. Then the diff starts to bite, hauling it around radii like an arm hooked around a lamp post. It’s pointy, purposeful and, yes, focused.

In line with its reputation, the RS also quite physical and more than a little unruly. There’s torque steer, some turbo lag and plenty of whooshy wastegate noise. But we’re inclined to see these traits as part of car’s character, rather than faults to be ironed-out  

A 212hp output is merely Fiesta ST territory now. But the 1,278kg RS is a fast car and, believe us, it still feels like one.

Ford Focus RSReliability and running costs

Fuel economy of 27.9mpg won’t impress your neighbours in their Focus 1.0 Ecoboost. But comments over the garden fence can be rebutted with a gentle reminder that, as your car increases in value, theirs is plummeting into a bottomless pit of depreciation.

Service and maintenance costs should be manageable (this is a Ford, after all), but custom RS-specific body panels mean accident or rust-related repairs can be expensive.

Reliability will largely depend on how the car has been driven. Sounds obvious, but some will have been pampered, while others will have been thrashed (and possibly crashed) by track-day enthusiasts or boy racers.

Ford Focus RSCould I drive it every day?

Wrestling the RS along a country road can be tiring. If you want to ‘make progress’, the car makes you work for it.  

At anything less than eight-tenths, though, it calms down and does a passable impression of an ordinary, vanilla-flavoured Focus. The ride on 18-inch OZ Racing alloys is firm, but not hyperactive like the current Fiesta ST.  And practicality is a match for any mid-size hatchback save for the three-door-only body (ironically, the new Focus RS only comes with five doors).

There are aren’t many classics you could comfortably commute in, but the Focus certainly ticks that box. Shame the number of Mk1 RS daily-drivers is dwindling fast, as owners eye-up the car’s investment potential.

Ford Focus RSHow much should I pay?

Just under half the Mk1s built came to the UK, so you may find cheaper left-hand-drive examples from Europe in the classifieds.

For a RHD UK car, prices currently start at around £7,500, although you should really budget five figures for a good one.

At the top end, the very best cars are nudging £20,000. For that price, you could also consider the Mk2 RS, which is faster and even better to drive. However, it’s also more common (with 11,500 made) and arguably less exciting.

Ford Focus RSWhat should I look out for?

If anything, the Mk1 RS is over-engineered. Mechanical components, including the engine and Quaife differential, are tough, but that shouldn’t stop you insisting on a fully-documented service history.

Ensure the cambelt has been changed at least once, preferably well in advance of the recommended 100,000-mile interval, and don’t dismiss cars with an additional non-standard intercooler – it can help prolong the life of the engine. Steer of any mods aiming at boosting power output, though. Winding up the turbo boost is a recipe for lots of lag and lots of trouble.

Check those unique RS body panels carefully, as some are becoming hard to source. Peer under the wheelarches for signs of rust where the bodykit meet the metal and look for uneven panel gaps due to crash-damage.

Don’t forget to check all the RS-specific interior bits, such as the two-tone steering wheel and Sparco gearknob, are present-and-correct, too. That garish blue trim might look a bit Halfords, but it’s an important part of the car’s identity. Remember, originality is key when it comes to value.

Ford Focus RSShould I buy one?

Speaking of value, fast Fords are always in demand and, in theory, this longer-term gain in the car’s worth can be offset against the cost of running one. Bear in mind, however, that nothing is guaranteed, so we’d buy a Focus RS to drive and enjoy – with any rise in value a welcome bonus.

Despite our initial misgivings, the Focus RS won us over with its old-school hot hatch charm. Handing back the keys, we ached for more time behind the wheel – a sure sign of a great driver’s car.

For our money, the Ford Racing Puma from the same era feels even more special. Look out for an MR Retro Road Test on that car soon. But the added performance and practicality of the Focus would swing it for many.

Ford Focus RSPub fact

The Mk1 RS was an effective halo car, but Ford lost money on every one sold. The exact amount is uncertain; internet chat forums (always, ahem, a reliable source) suggest anything between £4,000 and £6,000 per car.

This hole in the balance sheet is one reason the latest Mk3 Focus RS (seen here) doesn’t have custom body panels and shares a higher percentage of parts with the standard car. Ford execs insisted that even the RS must be profitable in its own right.