Two seats, rear-wheel drive, a manual transmission, some sticky tires, and enough power to light em up when the urge strikes. The basic ingredients of a sports car haven’t changed much over the years, and if you’re lucky enough to have a large pile of cash, there are quite a few brilliant examples available today. Unfortunately, for most of us, these pinnacles of automotive performance are all but out of reach.
Sure, we have plenty of sports sedans, hot hatches, muscle cars, and even SUVs that claim to be sporty—all of which are also available for less than a fortune. But a true sports car for the masses is sadly becoming rarer.
Luckily, Mazda continues to build the torchbearer for affordable performance. Now in its fourth and arguably best generation, the MX-5 Miata is pretty much the go-to answer for driving enjoyment on a budget.
Not to be outdone by their Japanese neighbor, Toyota and Subaru entered into a partnership over a decade ago to develop their own small, affordable sports car. Sold as the Subaru BRZ, Scion FR-S, and now Toyota 86, the Toybaru has gained a loyal following of enthusiasts, many of whom take advantage of a thriving aftermarket to mod their cars.
The recent introduction of a TRD Special Edition model to the 86, as well as an updated engine for the MX-5 Miata, provided an excellent rationale to test these two cars and see which is best.
Mazda MX-5 Miata RF: Classic roadster gets fancy (and pricey)
Let’s get this out of the way first: At $38,955, our fully-loaded test car is not exactly cheap. In fact, there are much faster cars available for not much more money. But most of this price inflation is due to a nifty but unnecessary folding hard-top, and some expensive, but also less than vital options. The base Miata still starts at $26,000 and the racier Club model with a cloth top is less than $30,000.
Speaking of the retractable roof, it works beautifully and gives the car a tidy fastback profile when buttoned up. Whether it’s worth almost $3,000 that Mazda charges is a personal decision, and also probably depends on where one lives.
Changes for 2019
There are new packages for the 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata:
- New Club i-ACTIVSENSE Package includes Smart City Brake Support and Lane-Departure Warning (MX-5 RF Club)
- New GT-S Package includes a limited-slip rear differential, Bilstein dampers, shock tower brace and a black roof (6MT only, MX-5 RF Grand Touring)
The big news for 2019 is that the Miata finally gets more power in the form of a reworked engine. When the ND made its debut in 2015, it was offered with essentially the same 2.0L engine as you’d find in a Mazda3. A perfectly decent motor, but it produced a modest 155 horsepower and didn’t like to rev much past 6,000 rpm. After massaging the internals, the new engine has a 7,500 rpm redline and 181 ponies. Torque remains modest at 151 lb-ft, but luckily the car still weighs next to nothing.
Although an increase of 26 horsepower might not sound like much, the new engine dramatically transforms the car into quite the little spitfire. Sure, it’s still not going to win many drag races against anything with a turbocharger, but the engine loves to sing at high revs. On a twisty backroad, you can leave it in second gear and take advantage of the lofty redline to keep the motor in the meaty part of its powerband.
On the right road, the Miata can still make a case for being one of the most fun cars to drive, regardless of price. The steering is near-telepathic, allowing you to place the car exactly where you want to. Grip from the narrow 17-inch Bridgestones isn’t spectacular, but the chassis is so neutral it’s always easy to reign things back in. Our test car featured optional Brembo brakes that allow you to stand the car on its nose and suitable for plenty of hot laps on the track.
The Miata’s greatest weakness
If we’re looking for something to critique, the sport-tuned Bilstein shocks that come on the Club models are quite stiff, making for more of a bouncy ride than was expected. The firm setup does help reduce the body roll that Miata’s have often been criticized for, but the cost is a smooth and planted ride—especially over rough pavement.
Like all new Mazdas, the MX-5 features an almost luxury car level of interior quality, and for $38,000 it darn well better. The cloth seats and lack of automatic climate control will undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows, but overall the Miata is very much a premium vehicle—particularly when compared to the Toyota 86. And buyers can always opt for the Grand Touring model to gain extra creature comforts. This is the sensible choice for anyone who isn’t planning on taking their car to the track, as the Club model’s stiffer shocks and stronger brakes are unnecessary on public roads.
Toyota 86 TRD Special Edition: Best handling yet, but it needs a better engine
Rumors have persistently swirled around the question whether Toyota and Subaru are going to pull the plug on the 86/BRZ, as sales have steadily declined over the years. To help generate some extra interest, Toyota has finally developed a TRD model that features a bunch of high-performance goodies, including 18-inch wheels with summer tires, a performance exhaust, Brembo brakes, Sachs dampers, and front, rear and side underbody spoilers. Altogether, the package bumps up the price to a bit over $33,000.
Let’s get the pros out of the way first. The 86 is a spectacular, well-balanced sports car that can help almost anyone become a better driver, and the TRD edition only improves how it handles. The Sachs dampers are exceptionally well-tuned, providing lots of control without a harsh ride. For a small car with a short wheelbase, the TRD feels highly stable and planted. In comparison, the Bilstein shocks in the Miata are bouncy and make for a more nervous handling experience.
TRD specific 18-inch wheels shod with sticky Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires give the car an extra dose of grip, especially compared to the 17-inch all-season tires that normally come on the 86. Although this takes away some of the fun-factor, in that it’s much harder to get the rear end to step out, the level of handling precision goes up noticeably.
Needs more …
Unfortunately, all of this handling excellence is undermined by a mediocre engine and lackluster interior. Although more powerful on paper, the 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder under the hood is just underwhelming, especially compared to the Miata’s revised motor.
Rated at 205 horsepower and 150 lb-ft torque, most of that power is unavailable until the last few hundred revs before redline. Trying to accelerate with the engine at anything under 5,000 rpm is a truly frustrating experience.
Some good news
Luckily the six-speed manual transmission is well executed and fun to shift, as you’ll be shifting a lot trying to keep any momentum going. Where the Miata’s new motor makes a case for sticking with a naturally aspirated engine, the 86 is an ideal candidate for turbocharging.
The Toyota 86 TRD Special Edition also provides a good argument for saving some development money to create a modern, high-quality interior. Sitting inside the car is almost like time travel, especially when you reach to change the radio station and realize that the Pioneer head unit looks the same as the one you bought at Best Buy for your Honda Civic 15 years ago. The quality of materials and fit and finish is sub-par for a car that costs over $30,000, especially compared to the Miata and its premium interior.
Photo credit: Derek Mau
Verdict: The answer is still Miata
The fact that there are still several genuine rear-wheel-drive sports cars with manual transmissions available for the same price as a family sedan or compact crossover is in itself somewhat of a miracle. Based on sales numbers, both of these cars might sadly soon face the chopping block, even given the almost cult-like following each has developed.
Although the Toyota 86 TRD Special Edition is brilliant in what it does well, the lack of an inspiring engine and a cheap interior hold it back from being truly competitive with the Miata. While not perfect, the MX-5 Miata is still the small, affordable sports car to beat, especially now that it has the engine to match the athleticism of the rest of the vehicle. We’d probably skip the retractable hard-top and maybe even opt for the softer Grand Touring trim, but regardless of which one you buy, a Miata is good for miles of smiles, and grins, and even outright laughter.
The Mazda MX-5 and the Scion FR-S compete head to head for your sports car dollars. But which one of the two is faster from 0-60 mph?
|2019 Mazda MX-5 RF||2019 Toyota 86 TRD|
|Price as tested||$38,955||$33,425|
|Engine||2.0L 4-cylinder SKYACTIV-G||2.0L 4-cylinder boxer|
|Power (hp)||181 @ 7,000 rpm||205 @ 7,000 rpm|
|Torque (lb-ft)||151 @ 4,000 rpm||156 @ 6,400 rpm|
|Transmission||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|Drivetrain layout||rear-wheel-drive||rear-wheel drive|
|Curb weight||2,453 lbs.||2,837 lbs.|
|EPA-estimated fuel economy||29 mpg (combined)||24 mpg (combined)|
|Wheelbase||90.9 inches||101.2 inches|
|Length x width x height||154.1 x68.3 x 49.0 inches||168.8 x 69.9 x 50.6 inches|
|Ground clearance||5.3 inches||4.9 inches.|
|Cargo volume||4.5 cu. ft.||10.5 cu. ft.|