The Mazda MX-5, now in its fourth iteration, remains one of the most popular sports cars ever. Its closest competitor comes in the form of the Toyota GT86, which is also available as the near-identical Subaru BRZ.
These compact, sporty cars focus on driving enjoyment and light weight above all else. To see how much carwow could help you save, put either the Mazda MX-5, the Toyota GT86 or the Subaru BRZ in our car configurator.
For the fourth generation MX-5, Mazda ditched the slightly soft styling of the previous model, and replaced it with a more angular look. The latest version appears to ride much lower than its predecessor lending it a more purposeful stance. It’s smaller, too. In fact, at 3,915mm long, it’s shorter than the orignal model from 1989.
The GT86 isn’t the most dramatic-looking, but thanks to the low coupe profile and sharp details, it still has plenty of presence on the road. At the rear, a small spoiler and twin exhausts offer a subtle hint that it’s something sporty. Standard models are equipped with modest 16-inch alloy wheels, while top-spec models gain ten spoke items measuring an extra inch in diameter.
With only two seats, the MX-5’s cabin focusses on the driver with a minimum amount of compromise. Mazda has succeeded in designing an uncluttered dashboard that’s easy to navigate. Some testers note that some of the plastics feel a little cheap compared to more expensive rivals such as the BMW Z4, but the style itself is very pleasing to look at.
Thanks to an extra pair of seats, the GT86 is marginally the more practical car. We say ‘marginally’ because the two in the rear are only really suitable for children or as a little extra space for luggage. The Toyota’s boot is bigger too – with 243 litres, it just adds that little extra usability over the Mazda’s 180-litre space.
While the Toyota’s interior style and materials may leave those used to a BMW or Audi cabin a little cold, the GT86 gets all of the important stuff right. It boasts one of the finest driving positions of any current road car – you sit very low, the pedals are perfectly placed and the steering sits almost vertically ahead of you.
The way cars like these make you feel when winding along a B-road is perhaps their most important talent, and both the Mazda and the Toyota hit the mark. Both send their power to the rear wheels – like the very best sports cars – and both place an emphasis on handling feel and balance rather than outright grip.
The Mazda weighs barely over one tonne, and most of that mass is centered between the front and rear axles. This means it dives into corners with giddy enthusiasm, yet remains wonderfully composed – a feeling helped by accurate steering and well weighted controls. It even rides pretty well, too.
At 1,240kg, The Toyota weighs a little more than the Mazda, and that marginally gives the MX-5 an edge through the turns. The GT86’s steering, whose power assistance is hydraulic unlike the Mazda’s electric system, offers fantastic feedback, and the six-speed manual gearbox is precise and positive to use.
Against the latest crop of hot hatchbacks, neither the MX-5 nor the GT86 can compete in terms of straight line speed. Instead, the pair aim to deliver their fun at more sensible driving licence-friendly speeds.
Entry-level MX-5s are fitted with a 130hp 1.5-litre petrol – a slightly tweaked version of the unit you’ll find in a Mazda 3 family hatchback. In this light car, it’s still good enough for a 0-62mph time of 8.3 seconds, yet can return a claimed 53.3mpg. The 2.0-litre unit ups the power to 160hp and knocks a second off the 0-62mph time.
The Subaru-developed engine in the GT86 sounds just a little flat in comparison, and doesn’t quite make the thrilling noise you’d hope for in a performance car. The 200hp four-cylinder needs to be revved hard to get the best out of it and, in real world performance, it feels closely matched with the larger of the MX-5’s units. With a claimed fuel economy of 36.2mpg, though, it’s less frugal than the 40.9mpg the 2.0-litre MX-5 can achieve.
Value for money
In terms of smiles per pound, there are very few cars on sale that can compete with this pair. At around £18,500 for the entry level 1.5, the MX-5 is cheaper to buy than the £22,700-plus GT86. The Toyota, however, boasts two more seats, a slightly more generous standard equipment list and an impressive five year/100,000-mile warranty.
As mentioned earlier, the lighter Mazda is more fuel efficient and falls into lower insurance groups so, in day-to-day driving, the MX-5 is the cheaper car to run.
In truth, it’s hard to go wrong with either of these cars. Both have been developed to prioritise one defining quality – driving enjoyment – over any other, and it shows. As bargain sports cars go, both are brilliant.
As our wowscore of 8.5 confirms, the Toyota GT86 is held in extremely high regard by the motoring press, and many buyers will be drawn to it thanks to its extra practicality and the security of the hard-top roof.
To everyone else, the Mazda MX-5’s more eye catching interior, open-top character, and – crucially – the extra fraction of fun behind the wheel, makes it the one to have. It provides everything you could ever want from a sports car, especially at such an affordable price – as its 9.3 wowscore testifies.
Put either the Mazda MX-5, the Toyota GT86 or the Subaru BRZ in our car configurator to see how much carwow could help you save. For more options, head over to our deals page or, if you’re still struggling to pick your next car, check out our car chooser.