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Autoblog Project Garage: Say 'Hello' to Project MR2

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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