"What might have been" is a fun fantasy familiar to almost any automotive enthusiast imagining the potential of a player that was retired from the scene well before its time. For some, however, it becomes less of an idle mind game and more of a challenge—a call to right the wrongs, or, at the very least explore the paths not taken for a particular automobile.
For Russell Turnbull, when it came time to pick up a project car, there was no doubt which vehicle he'd be targeting and what direction he'd be pushing the platform. Up to that point, he was a multiple first-gen MR2 owner, and this was his first second-generation example of Toyota's mid-engine sports car. It's one of the few out there to feature a 3.5L V-6 in place of the standard four-cylinder.
"It's a relatively simple swap," Russell explains. "People always worry about space, but there's really so much more room with the V-6 versus the turbo motor once you subtract all the brackets, piping, and vacuum stuff needed for the dated technology. There's only one motor mount you need to swap—the other three are on the transmission—and if you can turn a wrench, there's really not much more to it than that. The biggest hurdle is wiring, but there are companies out there that will splice the harness together for you."
We think Russell is being a little too modest in describing the build process for his '96 MR2, especially considering it's not just making use of a six-cylinder motor swapped out of a RAV4 SUV but it also features an ultra-rare, Lotus-sourced supercharger.
"I had always planned on the V-6 swap, but the supercharger came later by fortunate coincidence. It was originally offered on the TRD version of the Toyota Aurion, which is the Australian-market Camry, in a super-limited edition," he says. "Eventually, Lotus started adding the supercharger to the Evora, and then the S3 Exige. It was one of those parts I was always casually searching for, but since there were only a couple hundred ever produced, I never seriously expected to find one."
It was a late-night forum surfing session that yielded unexpected fruit: a Dutch S3 Exige owner selling his factory SC due to an upgrade. Russell pounced on it immediately. "It was just dumb luck," he says.
As might be expected, adding a blower to the MR2's V-6 was a formula for respectable power. The Toyota now puts out 328 horses and 270 lb-ft (a far cry from the naturally aspirated four-cylinder it originally came with from the factory), thanks in no small part to Gouky headers, a TCS Motorsports 3-inch exhaust, and a Link G4+ Fury standalone ECU.
"The wiring for the standalone was a bit of an adventure," Russell admits. "It was the most time-consuming aspect of the entire project for me. The only parts I farmed out were the exhaust—as I'm not a welder—and the dyno tuning for the engine."
A Quaife limited-slip differential and Chico Race Works axles handle the MR2's upgraded torque, which is sent to the rear wheels via a Fidanza lightweight flywheel and Southbend Stage 2 clutch. Keeping the car locked to the tarmac are a set of TRD springs, Koni shocks, a TRD front sway bar, and a factory power steering conversion. Wilwood calipers and pads and a Wilhelm Raceworks lightweight big brake kit help to haul down the Toyota, with staggered Nexen N'Fera rubber sealing the deal with the pavement.
Despite the brazen power boost, Russell's MR2 features a fairly modest exterior appearance, wearing a Shine Auto front lip and side skirts, a '98-spec rear wing, and a low-rise headlight kit. Russell says that before the stripes were added, most people would just walk right on by the car at shows. "Unless I had the hood popped," he says with a laugh. "Then there'd be double and triple takes—especially once they saw the 'Lotus' badge on the engine."
Russell loves the instant-on torque offered by the big-displacement engine, especially as compared to the old-tech turbo originally offered in the MR2.
"Theoretically, it's 100 pounds lighter, but the handling of the car hasn't really changed," he says. "From an acceleration standpoint, however, it's night and day. This is a car that gets driven, too. I take it to the track, I take it to autocross, and I've even driven it all the way down the West Coast from Vancouver to San Diego for the Toyotafest show almost every year I've owned it. It's just a great all-around performer. There's no question in my mind this is the car Toyota should have built when it redesigned the MR2 at the end of the '90s."