Remember the Fiat X1/9? It was a lovely little go-kart by all accounts, but with its rust-prone steel and thin-on-the-ground Fiat dealer network (at least in the U.S.) it slowly faded from the scene. Believe it or not, there is a nice bright blue one still living around here. I’ve seen it in a driveway several times.
Sadly, not at car shows or on the street, so no pics yet. Anyway, Toyota took the Fiat’s general hard points and then produced a sporty two-seater of their own: the MR2, or “Mister Two,” as it was affectionately dubbed by its fans.
The MR2 was the result of a mid-’70s Toyota project to develop a fun, sporty car that would also give good fuel economy: the best of both worlds. It was not originally intended as a rip-rorting speed machine or “real” sports car, but as time passed, the MR2 turned into just that soon after its 1984 debut. It must have looked a bit jarring in the showroom sitting amongst the vanilla Corollas, Coronas and Cressidas. Like Opel GTs sitting in Buick showrooms in the ’60s and ’70s!
The MR2 wore its intentions on its sleeve, so to speak, as “MR2” stood for “mid-engine, rear-wheel drive and two-passenger.” It utilized MacPherson struts at both front and rear, unitized construction, and was initially powered by the 4A-GE 1.6-liter DOHC four-cylinder with DENSO fuel injection. This tiny but sturdy mill produced 112 horsepower in U.S.-bound cars.
That might not sound like much, but keep in mind that the MR2 had just 2,350-lb. of curb weight, was 155.5″ long, and had a 91.3-inch wheelbase. Even with the sub-2.0 engine, zero-to-sixty came in a bit under nine seconds–pretty good for a mid-’80s sporty car saddled with tons of emissions spaghetti under the hood. North American sales were decent, totaling 37,674 in 1985 (its first full year on the market), and 31,352 in 1986.
There was even a supercharged version available starting in 1988. These special MR2s got an 4A-GZE engine with a Roots supercharger, good for 145 hp and 140 lb-ft of torque. Zero-to-100 km/h (0-62 mph) knocked about a second off the normally-aspirated 1.6-liter’s time. Supercharged MR2s also got a fortified transmission, stiffer springs, special alloy wheels and several “Supercharged” logos throughout the vehicle.
Both standard and supercharged MR2s came with a five-speed manual transmission; a four-speed automatic was optional. Minor changes were the general rule during the first-gen’s run. A leather interior became available in 1986, and a T-top roof became an optional extra for 1987.
My only experience with one of these was in 1995, when my parents moved us all into a new house. Shortly after we got settled, someone abandoned one of these on the street, just beyond our patio. I was very curious about an abandoned car literally below our patio. It was black and silver two-tone and it had clearly seen better days. It was a definite beater. Before it finally got towed away, I must have walked around that car and peeked inside a dozen times.
The aforementioned supercharged model came out in ’88, and the swan-song ’89 saw the center rear brake light moved from the rear window to the trunk spoiler. By the late ’80s, the first-gen’s folded, origami styling was getting little stale. “Organic” (AKA jellybean or potato-shaped) styling was the new trend, and an all-new ’90 version would take over. But sales tanked quickly–only 933 were sold in the U.S. and Canada in 1995-its last year there, though it continued to be sold in other markets through 1999. Full production records of the non-Spyder MR2s can be found here.
One by one, Toyota’s cool cars–Celica, MR2, Supra–disappeared from the lineup. Toyota’s current lineup is composed of perfectly adequate if combover-heavy cars and a BMW in a “Supra” Halloween costume. Is the FR-S dead or not? Haven’t seen one in years. But at any rate, no rear- or mid-engined two seaters!
One final kind of amusing note. Ran by this on accident recently. Some tall elderly blogger re-ran it. Out of professional curiosity I scrolled down and it seems said elderly dude is re-running 2-3 of my old posts on a semi regular basis. Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, I presume. Bwa ha!
Second generation is nicer, looks-wise. First one is likely the more visceral of the two.
I think the -86 cars are around for at least one more generation.
Did the second generation have funky handling? I vaguely recall Robert Cumberford spinning one and writing about it in Road & Track.
I think there was even a journo that got killed during the press intro from what I recall…..
The cover of England’s CAR magazine was “HOW TOYOTA SPOILT THE NEW MR2”.
I like the 2nd gen ones, the MRS Spyder that looks like Porsche Boxster with an extra chromosome its where they lost me completely……its just awful.
It’s like a Boxter from Ikea…
Its like when mom says “We have Boxster at home…..”
I am glad you included the picture of the X-1/9 in this write up of the MR2. Remembering that it came out 11 years before and built to be sold in an America that had thrown every safety standard including rollover that the car haters could think of. Look how much better it was in styling and engineering than the MR2. Bigger trunks, design house assembled and standard targa, Notice even saddled with earlier less top end engines, how the X1/9 used its lower weight to match the much later MR2 experience.
It is the difference between leaving people who know what they are doing to design via autistics with an export checklist to mark off. The sad thing is that enough of these early MR2s were bought by Corolla women so in the fullness of time, it is all we know.
Can these even be discussed without mentioning the Fiero? I had always thought of the MR2 as Toyota’s response to that. Of course the MR2 was a better car, but the Fiero more intriguing because it was a great concept diminished by whatever magic-sucking forces prevailed at GM. (Somehow their reverse Midas touch didn’t affect Corvettes too badly)
Haven’t seen an MR2 in ages but the kid who works the gas station in my town has a pretty sweet later Fiero which I always enjoy admiring.
Oh definitely. I have several pics of nice Fieros, should do a post on those one of these days…
I remember being in downtown Chicago with my back to traffic, thought I heard a Chevy Citation going by, but when I turned around it was a Fiero!
It was the sound of the infamous Iron Duke 2.5 liter 4 cylinder. What was GM thinking using that engine in the Fiero?
Remember that the Fiero was to cause zero lost Corvette sales. Thus it was a stylish commuter car. Often with a HO V6 and Bose stereo speakers in the headrests. Yet the long hairs lust for the Oriental man with his no power below 5000 rpm MR2. Because???
It was pitched, designed and released initially as a high MPG commuter car that looked good, you see early Fiero ads where they boast some insane an probably slightly fudged MPG numbers, I’m not sure why people expected to be a Countach for Cavalier money though……
I have a hankering for a Fiero, even an early 2M4 with the Pontiac 2.5, to keep it “all Pontiac” though the 1985 and up GT with the X11’s 2.8 V6 probably the better car. I have front engine rear drive, front engine front drive, rear engine rear drive, but I have no mid-engine in my fleet…..
Full disclosure – I’ve owned three Fieros and two NA Miatas. I drove an MR2 once but never owned one.
The Fiero is very American, like a 3rd-gen Trans Am or a C4 Corvette, which is both a feature and a bug. Slow-revving engines that are long on torque and short on horsepower. The ’84-’87 steering and brakes require a lot of muscle on the driver’s part, and the 4-sp Muncie (all ’84s, ’85 V6s, and early ’86 V6s) had the clumsiest shift linkage. And Fieros weighed 2500-2800 lbs at a time when all their competitors were 2200-2500 lbs.
BUT – Fieros were roomy and fairly quiet. The seats are comfortable, even on long trips. The trunk was just big enough to be useful, unlike the MR2, and there’s additional storage space in the frunk. It takes two decades of salty winters before a Fiero starts to rust (first the battery tray, then the trunk floors, then the engine/trans cradle). The HVAC worked well. The suspension could take a pothole strike without bending out of alignment (designed by Michiganders, for Michiganders?). The Iron Duke cars were easy to wrench on (the V6, less so). But not too often: my Fieros were surprisingly reliable.
A Fiero can’t keep up with a well-driven 1st-gen MR2 or a Miata on an autocross course (I’ve tried). But it’s a better daily driver and still a lot of fun. Pontiac promised a sporty commuter and that’s what they delivered.
Good summary on the Fiero, a mid engine car from the people that brought you the Caprice Classic. Out of the 3, X1/9, Fiero and MR2., I think the Fiero was the only one that was designed from the get go with a trunk that could hold a golf bag…..that should tell you enough.
I’ve got an ’89 supercharged one downstairs in my garage right now. Original owner. 90k miles. It’s a screaming go cart, or was…Needs a new distributor which I can’t find as the supercharged model is different than normally aspirated one. Anyone know where I might find this part or get a rebuild done? Would hate to let it go.
The X1/9 was an amazing alternative to a Triumph Spitfire and a great leap relative to the 850 Spider it superseded. The MR2 was a real car. The MR2s that weren’t wrecked by young enthusiasts left the road when they had hundreds of thousands of miles of use and abuse. FIAT X1/9s rusted in garages and wore out in substantially less than 100,000 miles when they didn’t have the time to dissolve. I’ve driven considerably more X1/9s than I have MR2s, but suggesting that the X1/9 did what the MR2 did first is ignoring a chasm in competence similar to that between an early Lotus Elite and a McLaren MP4/1.
No MR2’s styling ever appealed the way an X1/9’s did, but you could drive an MR2 like you stole it without forever changing it. A sports car you have to treat like a crystal ornament is of no interest to me at all.
Ah yea, the Oriental man!, If only we could put aside his intent. we could realize that the Corolla girls had it right, That to suck the small dick of the yellow man, we would discover our destiny. It does not matter how well our Italian friends did a decade before, it is vital that we honor the yellow man!
How/s the Geely holding up? I’m half Italian and owned a FIAT 124 Sport Spider. Toyota makes better cars. I don’t make any cars, so it doesn’t hurt my feelings.
Geely, as operated by Goldman Sachs, or is it Lehmann, is wonderful! Meanwhile Fiat, offers starting in 1973, a better car for enthusiasts, yet a conservative can not admit it because of his Love! for 10 year later, yellow small dick Jap man, SAD
John, do you really think being uncouth makes you look intelligent?
Do you really think, in the fullness of time, that letting the hippy narrative hold, works for you?
If you think I’m a hippy anything, lay off huffing the spray paint for a while.
Tom, I think to be fair to John you have to admit that someone who drives a Lincoln and is partial to brougham era luxury sedans, has short hair, dresses like someone working in the financial services industry, enjoys visiting car shows and supper clubs, gets high on the occasional gin and tonic, and lives in the politically radical Quad cities area definitely gives off a summer of love Haight-Ashbury hippy vibe.
How right you are! 😉
Guys, after a pleasant evening imbibing the fruits of a glen at the Speyside, I in-artfully suggested that Tom push back more to the established narrative.
I did not suggest a set of Midwest Salem style trials aimed at undercover hippys.
We know you’re thinking about installing a paisley vinyl top on your Town Car…..you campus radical….
Getting wild…tripping on that LTD……
Mmm…LTD…with a gin chaser. The colors, man…
TRIPPING ON THAT LTD
We can’t stop here. This is LTD country…
Ah, the object of desire of my learner’s permit wielding self, but sadly too dear for a part time minimum wage fast food monger: two-tone with the pop up glass sunroof but sans wing FTW.
Ouch, but that’s a rough specimen. Decent ones have asking prices over original MSRP.
A bit of trivia: HKS had a twin-charger add-on turbo kit for the SC versions.
John must be off his lithium this morning…..of huffing paint…or both.
I like the X1/9 but it does have the durability of a Vienetta in the trunk of car, in the middle of summer….in Miami.
Someone described the X1/9 as the poor mans 308….I had to correct them, its the poor crazy mans 308.
The X1/9 was junk, attractive and fun to drive junk, but still, junk, though its always been one of those cars I’d admired at a distance in a “that looks like it would be fun” like one of those carnival slingshot rides put together by toothless meth smokers….you’d probably be ok, or you’d probably be a pile of bloody mush out in the parking lot.
The X1/9 did set that template for an affordable mass market mid engine car that both GM and Toyota followed, using the FWD bits from a compact moved to the other end of the car. The shame is that we didn’t get the X1/9 until 1974, we really only had it for one year before the crash bumpers had to be added, spoiling the looks. Though it was introduced in 1972, it took the “people who knew what they were doing” 2 years to get it to the US market.
I am the pretty picture of sobriety having sweated off my hangover this morning.
My brother had an X1/9. In the south no rust troubles. The 77 model’s 128 1.3 engine was done about 68k miles. Given that is over 100k kilometers, not bad for an overstressed tiny engine 70s Euro.
The MR2 had 10 percent more weight than the X1/9. More like a Lancia Scorpion. Yet Toyota forgot the bigger engine of the Lancia. That is because they didn’t know what they were doing. Toyota admitted as much when they supercharged it in 87. A supercharger being the lazy bandaid to an overweight car. How badly the supercharged one put the power down, contrast the Fiero GT here, also shows they did not know what they were doing
68K – wow that is double the expected lifetime mileage of an 850 spider.
Didn’t one of the R/T writers take an 850 Spyder to 200k+ miles? I think the engine was rebuilt along the way a time or two though.
By the way, an engine rebuild is what happened to my brother’s X1/9 right after he sold it. It got it’s 68k in five years so was still worth enough to justify. When he was trying to sell it, all the tire kickers wanted to know about the rust., which was good because he sure didn’t want to talk of the engine.
My dad bought an X1/9 new in 1974 and we were pretty sure that if you listened closely you could hear it rust.
I was going to note that the picture Tom includes of that X1/9 next to a body of water must have used a high speed lens to capture the pristine look before the steel absorbed the water and dissolved into a pile of iron oxide.
I liked the X1/9 and 124 Spiders, I liked Spitfires and TRs, I liked Alfa Spyders, I liked MGs and 240Zs, I loved and owned a Healey 3000 and CRXSi, and I like MR2s and wish I could fit better in a Miata. Think of all the choices someone had in the 1950s to early 90s to buy a reasonably priced sports car. Sure most of them leaked, rusted, and required constant maintenance and repair, but they were cool and even a young man could buy one. Of course the CUVs and Pickups that have replaced them in the marketplace are faster and better handling than most of them, and safer in a crash and much more reliable, but the fact that so many young people would rather ride in Mom’s CRV while staring at their iPhone screen instead of buying a cheap sports car and taking the top off/down is perhaps the sadder marketplace development.
That adds to the disappointment. The small cheap sports cars like the Mister 2, CRX and Miata made perfect daily drivers for the young and single. If you wear the pants, you can even do it while married with children. They were dead reliable, easy on gas, tires and maintenance, and reasonable to insure. You could drive them like you stole them all the time and not end up in the back of a squad car, hospital, or poorhouse. Perhaps we’d be better off with more slower cars with cheaper, pedestrian powertrains like those, piled high and deep. Beating mom in the minivan is just an ego thing. These kids are missing out.
Now get off my lawn.
Though the 124 Sport Spiders must be fairly robust, I still see them pretty regularly at shows. Either that or they have deeply committed owners.
Completely anectodal, but I see more 124s than Graduates, which probably survive in quantity solely because of that movie.
I don’t have personal experience, but I’d guess the Fiats weren’t as dead nuts reliable as the Japanese stuff, or had as reliable heat/defrosters/AC/etc. Fine for sunny weekends, but not to daily.
The 124 Spider is a relative of what became the Lada, so its got some tough guts in its family tree, its more robust early 60’s design introduced in 1966, the 124 Spiders also got the Lampredi twin cam engine.
I seem to remember that the reason 1970s era Fiats rusted so badly was their use of poor quality Russian steel that Fiat received as part of a barter arrangement with the USSR in exchange for giving Lada rights to make the 124, because the Ruble wasn’t convertible to Western currency in those days, which we might be returning to.
From what I remember it wasn’t just Fiat that got the USSR steel, it was the entire Italian auto industry that got the poor quality metal and Fiat didn’t just give them the rights, Fiat actually set up the entire factory for them from the foundry to the final assembly line.
Including Ferrari. I heard this in reference to the Daytona.
I had an Alfa Spyder from age 20-23. It rusted, of course, but there was no better car to have at that age. Top down, with a beautiful girl’s long black hair streaming in the wind next to me-