From the July/August 2022 issue of Car and driver.
If the Mazda MX-5 Miata and Toyota GR86 were on the Finding Your Roots show, both would trace their ancestry back to wispy mid-century European roadsters. Over the decades, many of those Old World sports cars died out or evolved into bigger and more complex things, leaving only Mazda and Toyota (and Subaru, maker of the GR86’s twin brother, the BRZ) simple, stripped-down, cheap built sports cars that provide old-fashioned fun.
If that’s what you’re looking for, your search starts and ends here. The GR86 – replace the BRZ if you prefer Subarus – and the Miata are the only remaining descendants on the affordable branch of the rear-wheel drive sports car family tree. Each is a hoot to drive, but which one is the better sports car for beginners?
To find out, we rounded up the most aggressive and exciting versions of those two models: the GR86 Premium and an MX-5 Miata Club convertible. Their standard equipment is similar: small, high-revving, naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine; six-speed manual transmission; summer tires. Both are rear-wheel drive, like the sports cars of yesteryear. Looking for purity, we chose the Miata soft top over the RF model with retractable hard top for this comparison test.
The base prices of these sportsters are about as close as their spec sheets: $31,325 for the GR86 Premium and $32,165 for the Miata Club. The price of our Mazda rose to $37,260 thanks to Machine Gray paint and the $4500 BBS Recaro package, which includes Brembo front brakes, Recaro buckets and BBS forged wheels. The GR86 had special Track bRed paint ($425) and a few accessories that brought it to $32,432, a significant $4828 less than the Mazda.
Highlights: Enthusiastic engine, playful chassis, often requires SPF 30.
lows: Wobbly in hard corners, pricey BBS Recaro package, who has hidden the glove compartment?
Highlights: Easy to exploit handling, lots of zipper, surprising usability.
lows: That grinding noise is the engine, the clunky-looking dashboard, the only thing noisier is a Miata.
Traditionally, beginner sports cars are more about playfulness than total performance. This pair updates that idea with solid test numbers. Both reached 60 mph in 5.4 seconds. The Miata completed the quarter-mile sprint in 14.2 seconds at 97 mph; the GR86 did it in 14.0 seconds at 101 mph. Their cornering grip is close too, with the Miata circulating the skid pad at 0.95g and the GR86 sticking to it at 0.97g. Their braking distances of 70 miles per hour are within five feet of each other.
In addition to our instrumented testing, we put these two nimble runabouts on an autocross course because we expect some owners will too. The track, on the beautiful M1 Concourse campus in Pontiac, Michigan, was soaked with rain, allowing our rear-wheel drive loads to slide their tails as if they were being powered by NASCAR V-8s. The GR86 was easier and more fun to slide through the cones, although the best run of 26.7 seconds was only slightly faster than the Miata’s 27.1 seconds.
In everyday use, both cars fulfill their mission of joyful driver involvement. They are exceptionally agile, with crisp, well-weighted steering that cuts accurately and provides reassuring effort build-up. Changing gears only requires fingertip movements of their shifters. Their engines are eager to tour. Their claws are light and their brakes bite with authority. Both ride briskly, cushioning the curbs tight and clamping over the seams. If only they sounded sexier – the Miata emits an unobtrusive hum; the GR86 howls at high rpm like a blender on puree.
Press them hard, though, like we did on our squirrelly 10Best evaluation loop, and the GR86 shines as the Miata fades. With excellent chassis tuning, the Toyota feels planted and safe, like it will never get rid of you. In hard corners, the Mazda frames like a drunk with an elbow on the bar and leans on its rear tires in an antsy two-step, threatening to break sideways. Rough pavement creates shivers through the open structure. Push hard and the GR86 proves it’s the more gifted athlete.
Neither car is a great long-haul companion due to the roar of the wind at highway speeds. At 70kph, the GR86 whizzes along with a noisy 74 decibels inside, and Mazda’s 79-decibel cacophony sounds like you’re standing next to an idling 737. At 80 km/h turning on the audio system of both cars is not worth it.
Comfort, of course, has never been a priority for entry-level sports cars. And yet these vehicles are far from bare, with heated seats and decent infotainment as standard. But their everyday usefulness and convenience varied enough to affect the outcome of this comparison.
The Miata’s cabin is so small that storing sunglasses is a hassle; the only available spot is a shoulder-height storage box between the seats that requires contortionist skills to access while driving. The cup holders are anything but useless. There are no card pockets. The GR86, meanwhile, offers a glove compartment, multiple storage compartments, and that rudimentary rear seat, a handy landing zone for gym bags or groceries. The Toyota feels like a real car rather than a weekend toy for limited use.
Both cars continue the driving pleasure tradition of their ancestors. But one offers better performance, more balance under pressure, a more accessible price and much superior usability. While the GR86 means giving up on open-air riding, it delivers more and asks you to sacrifice less. It is the entry-level sports car to have.
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