Back in 2012 everyone’s collective jaws dropped when the Toyota 86 launched locally from $29,990 plus on-road costs. Last year, mouths again gaped when the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 lobbed for $31,990 plus orc.
After years of plucky front-wheel-drive hot-hatchbacks hogging the limelight in affordable driver’s car circles, we finally have a duo of rear-wheel-drive two-doors to choose from.
The question now is, which is the one to pick? For some the verdict may write itself based on bodystyle bias alone: the Mazda is a soft-top roadster and the Toyota is a hard-top coupe.
However (spoiler alert), one of these Japanese sports cars wins this test without even needing to factor in through-the-roof values.
We’re here testing the 2.0-litre manual MX-5 because ‘two litres’ is the only engine size available in the 86 – a perfect match, then. With the Mazda, choosing the ‘big block’ four-cylinder over the standard 1.5-litre adds $2500 to the price, making for a $34,490 (plus orc) proposition.
That meant selecting the top-spec $35,990 (plus orc) 86 GTS specification, seen here in limited-edition Blackline guise that adds a bodykit and $2000 to the price.
Toyota took a less-is-more approach with the 86, however its efforts pale alongside those Mazda made with its ‘ND’ generation MX-5.
In terms of body length, the MX-5 takes away the equivalent of a ruler compared with the 86 (-325mm), while it is also shorter in terms of height (-50mm) and is narrower (-45mm) too.
It seats two less people (-2 rear seats) and has less equipment – minus dual-zone climate control, minus leather and Alcantara sports buckets, minus seat heating, minus auto on/off headlights and minus a digital speedometer.
Mazda of course charges less for its offering (-$1500), which also weighs less (-189kg) and has less power (-29kW) and torque (-5Nm). It claims to use less fuel (-0.9 litres per 100 kilometres) and even has 10mm less tread width (205mm) on same-sized 17-inch wheels.
Placing aside what is (or isn’t) above your head, the Mazda’s narrower and flatter driver’s seat can’t match the lovely, firmly-bolstered buckets in the Toyota. The MX-5’s steering wheel adjusts for height, but not reach, unlike the 86 that offers both reach and rake adjustability and affords a superior driving position.
The roadster has the more ‘intimate’ cabin. You sit closer to the windscreen, and the plain dashboard is minimalist in design but beautifully made. The gearshift falls perfectly to hand and the pedals are ideally placed.
The coupe feels broader and offers nicer soft-touch plastics along with more storage spots – such as door pockets and a glovebox absent from its fellow Japanese foe. It also offers two ‘sometimes seats’ behind the front seats, and a larger boot with split-fold practicality, compared with its rival’s tiny boot ‘pocket’.
One competitor pulls a huge trump card when it comes to infotainment systems, however.
In short, the MX-5’s is superb and the 86’s is poor. We’d trade all of the Toyota’s, extra equipment for the Mazda’s bright 7.0-inch colour touchscreen that is intuitive to use, with intelligent sat-nav and impressive technology such as apps connectivity (including Aha and Pandora internet music streaming).
The aftermarket-looking 6.1-inch screen in the 86 gets downmarket sat-nav graphics and is flanked by cheap buttons. It is fiddly to operate, and rather than providing intuitive operation, its solution to avoid driver distraction is simply to ‘blank out’ functions at speed.
Then there is the roof function in the Mazda, which is excellent.
One button on the header rail uncouples the roof, which is so light you can then flick it back with one hand as it clicks into place behind. Despite being so weight-less, it feels like a high-quality item.
A single complaint comes in the form of windows that automatically dip when the roof goes up or down, but don’t automatically power-up. If the ignition is off, the power windows don’t allow powering-up either, and nor does the keyless entry fob allow you to hold the ‘lock’ button to seal things snugly.’
ON THE ROAD
The Toyota 86 is renowned for bringing motoring ‘purity’ back to the masses.
There is no turbocharger here, but rather a ‘boxer’ flat four-cylinder engine to deliver crisp throttle response, perched low in the engine bay to deliver ideal weight distribution. It has always felt very crafted, very deliberate – and very successful.
With those memories in mind, we start with the less familiar Mazda MX-5 instead.
Its 2.0-litre engine may only have 200Nm of torque, which is the same as a base $20k Mazda3. However, because the MX-5 weighs only 1033kg, the four-cylinder will pull from 1000rpm and strongly from 2000rpm. To paraphrase an old dog-food commercial, its mid-range is so chunky you could carve it.
With 118kW of power made at 6000rpm, the quick-revving engine just wants to keep powering past its 6800rpm cut-out. After a while you get used to not slamming into the rev limiter, because the MX-5 feels quick without burrowing further into the tachometer; as you do (but need to) with the 1.5-litre that revs to 7800rpm.
The Mazda six-speed manual is also perfect – one word required, full stop. Its snickety-snick short-throw action is the stuff of dreams
For the 86, compounding the issue that it’s 189kg heavier than the MX-5 is the fact that its 2.0-litre doesn’t make peak torque until an astonishingly high 6400rpm. Maximum power isn’t produced until 7000rpm, 200rpm following the MX-5 shutting up shop.
The Toyota feels hollow through the lower and middle part of the tachometer, and that can be frustrating around town or if you get caught in a higher gear. It feels slower than the Mazda, even though it isn’t.
The 86 comes alive beyond 5000rpm in a way the linear MX-5 doesn’t, ripping its way towards 8000rpm with an effervescent single-pitch scream its rival lacks.
We soon started dreaming of what it would be like to have the Toyota’s engine in the lighter Mazda, though the MX-5’s manual makes the 86’s feel slightly long in thow. It’s equally slick, but not as perfect.
Waters then become muddy. Where previous generations of MX-5 are renowned for their superb steering, the 86 trumps the latest roadster when it comes to turning.
The Mazda’s steering is good – quick and accurate, with a gentle increase in weighting when the front tyres are loaded up – however it suffers from a vagueness on the centre position followed by a notchy reaction to further input.
By contrast the Toyota’s steering is tight everywhere, which doubles as a description for how the 86 feels overall.
The 86 GTS has firmer suspension than its rival, which is immediately apparent in its bumpier ride, but also with its heightened discipline and less bodyroll.
The MX-5 feels lighter on its feet, gliding over any surface with insouciance and adopting a dainty disposition in bends. Yet for all its extra softness – and here comes the surprise – it is dynamically superior.
Its Bridgestone Potenza tyres cling on for dear life and if the little roadster doesn’t chat as clearly through the steering. It has its competitor covered for ‘seat of the pants’ communication, then.
You can drive the pants off the Mazda all day, sliding it and poking it in the face, and it just keeps on giving.
The Michelin Primacy HP rubber in the Toyota is inferior. Potentially it’s the reason the transition between front-end grip and rear-end slip is more aggressive than with its rival. Where the MX-5 is as malleable as throwing play-dough at a wall, the 86 is more like hitting a ruler against the edge of a door.
Get the coupe revving and, on smooth roads, it’s sharp and balanced. However the Sport mode of stability control is more abrupt than the roadster’s single-setting stability control, and that says it all. The Toyota also gets tripped up over bumps in corners that the Mazda ignored.
By the day’s end, there is a clear winner…
TMR VERDICT | WINNER: MAZDA MX-5
In the right setting the Toyota 86 can feel more like a serious sports car than its rival. That feeling comes through in the lower driving position, the steering communication and lack of bodyroll.
Now, however, for the first time in four years, the coupe benchmark has a serious roadster rival to contend with. It’s one that calls out the 86 for feeling flat at anything below 5000rpm, for struggling to cohesively manage tyre grip and then intruding with an overzealous stability control.
The MX-5’s inferior seats and steering, and soft redline, simply don’t impinge on driver enjoyment to the same extent. Soft suspension and stacks of grip proves a masterful combination when backed by an agile chassis.
Best forget whether your rear-drive two-door affordable sports car needs a roof or not, then – in this case the one without it goes one better regardless.