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Click the pic above for a high-res image.

Our newest addition to the Autoblog Project Garage was christened in oil when the engine unceremoniously grenaded itself on our daily slog to work. Riding shotgun in the tow truck, we knew it was a blessing in disguise – Project MR2 was officially underway.

Originally purchased as a daily driver and occasional track toy, the idea was to start slowly, focusing on firming up the suspension, adding some additional bracing and doing some mild bolt-ons. Obviously, our intentions were thrown out the window when the engine ate itself, apparently caused by a problem with the precats, something that's been well documented on sites like SpyderChat.

So with a spun bearing and four new quarts of oil, we attempted to nurse the MR2 to its new home up on a rack at Modacar in Livermore, California (that didn't go well, as you can imagine). We chose Modacar because of its familiarity with the 2ZZ motor, the mill some contend Toyota should have fitted originally. Modacar's sister shop, ForcedFed, has had extensive experience tuning the Lotus Elise/Exige, making it an easy choice to perform the swap.

Instead of jumping headlong into the motor replacement, we're going to begin with the installation of a set of coilovers, followed by some mild bracing, in an effort to get our feet wet. From there, we'll begin to document the entire heart transplant over the course of several posts.

In the meantime, it might be worth a few minutes to discuss why we picked the MR2, and what strengths and weaknesses we plan on addressing.

The 3rd generation MR2 was imbued with a purpose: schlepping driver and companion to and fro, with an emphasis on outright handling over downright speed. Looking over the abstract for the stock 1ZZ powerplant, it's obvious that Toyota put a premium on fuel economy and emissions over prodigious thrust and high-rev thrills. But as executive assistants and hairdressers moved on to more moribund means of transport, a number of MR2s hit the used market and into the waiting hands of enthusiasts. The aftermarket support may not be as expansive as the Mazda Miata/MX-5, but with an engine mounted amidships and a chassis that simply begs to be engaged, where there's a need, enterprising institutions and obsessive owners will fill it.

We fell in love with the ZZW30 MR2 after a couple of brief jaunts over the years. The handling capabilities far outweighed the fact that there is minimal (okay, almost no) storage. But what really sold us was the fact that outside of a handful of exotics, the Porsche Boxster/Cayman and a few fringe vehicles, the MR2 was the only way we could get a mid-engine vehicle on the cheap. The only rub: it's not as well supported as its predecessors.

Click the image above for a high-res pic.

Thankfully, over the course of the last few years, tuners, both here and abroad, have embraced the MR2 and found ways to exploit its virtues. With a competent chassis, many owners leave the suspension alone, what many regard as a big mistake. Although for the uninitiated, a stock MR2 is more direct and intuitive than most vehicles on the road, the "Midship Runabout" still suffers from a fair amount of body roll and a disturbing amount of understeer. Like the majority of mass-market manufacturers, Toyota was aiming to appeal to a large demographic of consumers, and as such, at-the-limit handling had to be kept in check to appease ToMoCo's legal boffins. It would be a waste of time to review the dynamics of a midship vehicle here, so we'll just say that its more "involved" than most and recognize that some drivers are ill-equipped to handle that much mass behind their backs.

So where do we go from here? We'll be posting the coilover install in the next week or so, and we're trying to make headway on getting a functional rollbar shipped to our door. We'll be getting our hands dirty with the engine swap soon, but in the meantime, if you want more on the ZZW30, check out Wikipedia's entry here, or head on over the SpyderChat to see the MR2 community in action. Stay tuned, the fun's about to begin.

Special thanks to Brad over at Shutterflick for snapping the lead photo.

All Photos ©2007 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 7 Years Ago
      Awesome!!! Can't wait to see how this turns out.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Storage smorage, I will be watching.

      Hit the MR2's 2zz in the sweet spot with a turbo conversion, they respond rather well, especially with proper intercooling.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Awesome guys! I'm looking for an MR2 Roadster (I live in Europe, hence) myself at the moment, so I'm hoping to gain some information on this car these days on AutoBlog. Keep up the good work!
      • 7 Years Ago
      I had an '01 MR2 and it was hands down the most fun I've had with a car. It's the only car I've regretted parting with. There had been several documented 2zz swaps the last time I was on spyderchat, but from what I recall they all ended badly due to the kick that the 2zz provides when it hits the second cam. But it's been several years since I visited the board and I'm sure much has changed since then. Do you have an 03+ with the limited slip rear? It may prove to be handy for that motor. I had the Autopower roll bar in mine and was told at an event that I could not compete in scca with it, so if scca is your thing, what Eric posted is your only way to go.
        • 7 Years Ago
        After the addition of the Power FC and a considerable amount of time tuning on the dyno, the crossover to lift is much smoother -- still a kick in the pants -- but much more progressive.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Wow, that is one amazing photo. Maybe you can post how it was taken as a tip for us aspiring photographers?
      • 7 Years Ago
      Excellent choice for a project car. I considered buying one before I got my SC 300. Just a glance through the MR-S HyperRev magazine is enough to inspire any car person to get one.
      • 7 Years Ago
      YES! I miss my '92 MR2 so badly when I moved up to my RSX Type-S. Although this is more of a 'chick' version of the MR, bring it on, and force some more ponies into that baby!
      • 7 Years Ago
      Glad you guys are doing the spyder, I own one myself. One thing about the spyder is that there is no "functional" bolt in rollbar available for it. Autopower makes one, but it is not scca legal etc etc. It also does not work with the hardtop. Despite this, some owners still have been able to participate in lapping days with this bar.

      Anybody who has made a legal bar (like myself) has removed the canvas and replaced it with the Toyota hardtop (must be imported). This creates the space needed for a legal roll bar.

      Pics of mine:


      It's good to see you guys are aware of spyderchat. Infinitely valuable resource. Please don't screw it up like sport compact magazine did. :)
        • 7 Years Ago
        +1 on the car choice its a great platform to be sure. if you look on spyderchat you will see many of the difficult things you will encounter have been covered. there are some real experts there. wiring harness conversions and bracing from Che and corky are a must!! Corkys breastplate will blow your mind and his new stuff must be tons better. 2zz lift should be very nice. there is a guy on SC with 2zz and turbo. Oh mama!
        • 7 Years Ago
        *looks at pictures*
        Storage Space!!

        Nifty Roll Bar, it tickles me that removal of the roof yimmies generates a few extra spots for luggage.
        • 7 Years Ago
        Yeah, we've looked into the AP rollbar and found exactly what you mentioned. Disappointing to say the least, as I don't want to drop the $2k for a hardtop now. However, when I was putting the top down on the MR2 yesterday, I noticed a small tear had formed in the softtop -- if there's an excuse for a hardtop, I just got it.

        Any plans on marketing your rollbar design? If so, you might have an interested buyer...
      • 7 Years Ago
      Still think about picking up another MR2 Spyder one of these days. One with a blown engine would be perfect. I bought mine the first week it came out and sold it 6 years later. Solid entry level sports car in search of more power. Ran the gamut of "mods" on my car (the PR Spyder!) but had to move on. I would seriously consider the Honda motor for your swap. There is a local (SF Bay Area) shop who did the first (and only?) K20 swap in the USA.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Damon, if you do decide to go with the hardtop check out the commercial section on SpyderChat... Japan parts has a pretty reasonable group buy going on and you can save a bit of money.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Toyota got burned on the MR2, as they learned the people who drive low-priced mid-engine cars are too stupid to competently drive them...so they dialed in the understeer on the MR-S.

      Great car, just needs more power..and you will have it soon.
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