Does more power make the Mazda MX-5 a genuine GT86 killer?
Mazda has facelifted its popular roadster for 2018, and the headline upgrade is a more powerful engine
The Mazda MX-5 (or Miata) is the internet’s favourite car. If you’re looking for something that’s affordable and fun to drive, “Miata is always the answer”. It’s easy to see why – showroom-fresh convertibles that won’t break the bank are few and far between.
Unless you look at the MX-5-based Fiat 124 Spider, which is similarly priced to its Japanese brother, your next options are the BMW 2-Series Convertible or the Audi TT Roadster, which will both cost a decent chunk more. If you don’t care about performance, you could get an entry-level, 1.5-litre-engined MX-5 for less than £20,000. Those Germans start around the £30k mark.
So with Mazda giving its fan favourite a mid-life update to make it meet strict new emissions regulations, it’s no surprise that not much has changed. However, for car enthusiasts, there is one important upgrade: more power.
The 2.0-litre engine has been given a thorough going over, with proper mechanical upgrades promising more performance, better economy and a fruitier tune. The result is that power is up from 160hp to 184hp.
It’s at this point the Toyota GT86 stands up at the back of the room and reminds everyone it exists. You see, if you just want a Sunday afternoon cruise testing the adhesive proficiency of your toupe then the MX-5 is a peach, but if you’re looking for something that’ll make your eyes stand on stalks as you attack a B-road then Toyota’s offering is a worthy alternative.
Even after the Mazda’s upgrades the GT86 has more power at 200hp, while its set-up is much stiffer and racier – great if you’re looking for a blatmobile, not so much if you’re just pootling back and forth to Waitrose. It’s also more expensive; prices for a soft-top 2.0-litre MX-5 start at £22,295, while the hard-top RF is another £2k on top. The Toyota starts at £28,080.
So, if you aren’t a car enthusiast and just want a cheap, pretty roadster, then the Mazda should get your money all day every day. But what if you’re an enthusiast who’s heard the MX-5 is like motoring nirvana?
That’s where, in my opinion, it gets a little more complicated. Between the Mazda and the Toyota my money would always be tucked in the GT86’s knickers [are you sure about this? -ed]. I don’t care about having a convertible, and I get my kicks from a stiffer, sportier set-up, which is worth saving the extra cash.
Now, stiffer doesn’t necessarily mean better, at least not in a motoring sense, but the GT86 never feels like it’s stiff for stiffness’s sake. You sit low in the car, and the small steering wheel is super responsive to inputs, so turn-in is sharp. The whole package feels much racier than the Mazda.
First impressions of the Mazda are good – the extra power has given the roadster a punchier character. It still doesn’t feel fast in a straight line, but then neither does the Toyota, with the engine being the real weak link in that package. The MX-5’s new unit, though, makes up for its power deficit by being a genuine joy to wring out towards the red line.
However, it’s in the corners where I feel the Mazda cedes defeat. The suspension is too soft, so you have to push through disconcerting body roll before you get any sense that the tyres have locked into the tarmac. The extra travel also means it can be upset by mid-corner bumps, which lead to more than one squeaky bum moment at speeds that should’ve been a doddle.
I continue to be torn by the MX-5. With this power upgrade it’s a much more enticing prospect for the enthusiast, and there are genuinely few fun cars that feel quite such good value for money. It’s also effortlessly pretty and feels so light and pure to drive, particularly if you opt for the soft-top.
But the B-road demon inside me just can’t quite get on board with the evangelical petrolheads who claim it’s the automotive equivalent of a tantric orgasm. It’s brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but it just doesn’t quite inspire confidence when the going gets quick.
That said, for less than the price difference between the Mazda and the Toyota, you could head to an MX-5 tuning specialist like BBR and get suspension and performance upgrades that could make the equation much, much more complicated…