November 29, 2022

The Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Toyota GR86 would both be on Finding Your Roots. They could trace their ancestry back at least to mid-century European roadsters. Many of these Old World sports cars have died or been replaced by more sophisticated and expensive models over the years. Only Mazda and Toyota (and Subaru’s BRZ), are left to build simple, affordable sports cars that offer old-fashioned fun.

This is where you should start your search if that’s what it is. The GR86 (substitute BRZ if preferred Subarus) and the Miata are the last remaining descendants of the affordable rear-wheel-drive sports car family tree. Both are fun to drive but which is the best starter sports car?

We gathered the most exciting and aggressive versions of both models, the GR86 Premium convertible and the MX-5 Miata Club convertible. The standard equipment of both models is identical: small, naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines with high revving natural gas; 6-speed manual transmission; summer tires. Both cars are rear-wheel driven, just like sports cars. We chose the Miata soft top to compare with the retractable-hardtop model RF in order to ensure purity.

The base prices of these sportsters are close to their spec sheets. They cost $31,325 for a GR86 Premium and $32,165 for a Miata Club. The $4500 BBS Recaro package (which includes Brembo front brakes and Recaro buckets as well as BBS forged wheels) inflated the Mazda’s cost to $37,260. The GR86 was equipped with Track bRed paint (425) and a few accessories, which brought it down to $32,432, a substantial $4828 more than the Mazda.

2nd Place:
Mazda Miata

Highs: Eager engine, playful chassis, often requires SPF 30.
Lows: Webbly in hard cornering and expensive BBS Recaro packages. Who hid the glovebox!

1st Place:
Toyota GR86

Highs: Easy to exploit, lots of zipping, surprising practicality.
Lows: The engine’s grinding sound, along with the dash that is clunky and ominous, is what makes the car low. A Miata is louder.

In the past, starter sports cars were more about fun than performance. With solid test results, this pair is an update to that idea. Both achieved 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds. The quarter-mile sprint was completed by the Miata in 14.2 seconds at 97 mph. The GR86 took 14.0 seconds at 101 mph. The Miata circulates the skidpad at 0.95 g while the GR86 sticks to it at 0.97 g. They are also close in their cornering grip.

We took these two runabouts to an autocross course, beyond their instrumented testing. Our rear-drive cars were able to glide their tails as if they were NASCAR V-8s on the course at Pontiac’s M1 Concourse campus. Although the GR86 was a lot more fun to slide through the cones than the Miata, its fastest run of 26.7 seconds was just a bit faster.

Both cars are able to live up to their mission of joy driver involvement in everyday driving. The cars are agile and well-weighted, with crisp steering feel that cuts precisely while reducing effort. It takes just a few clicks to switch gears. Their engines are eager for revs. Their brakes are strong and light. Both riders ride well, clip-clopping across seams and dampening pavement heaves. They sound so much sexier than they are. The Miata emits a deep, undistinguished hum while the GR86 howls at high rpm as if it were a blender with puree.

The GR86 shines brighter than the Miata if you press them as hard as possible, just like we did during our 10Best evaluation loop. The Toyota feels solid and secured thanks to its chassis tuning. The Mazda is a drunk, leaning on its rear tires in an angry two-step and threatening to break sideways when it encounters hard corners. The open structure is shivered by rough pavement. Push hard and the GR86 will prove it’s a more talented athlete.

Due to the wind roar at highway speeds, neither car makes a good long-distance companion. The GR86 roars at 70 mph and the Mazda’s supplementary 79-decibel cacophony makes it sound like you’re next to a 737. It’s not worth turning on the audio system of either car at 80 mph.

Comfort has not been a top priority for starter sports cars. These vehicles are still very comfortable, with heated seats and decent infotainment. However, their daily useability and convenience differed enough to affect the result of this comparison.

Because the Miata’s cabin is so small, it is difficult to store sunglasses. There is only one spot between the seats at shoulder height that can be used while driving. The cupholders in the Miata are almost useless. It does not have map pockets. The GR86 has a glovebox and multiple storage cubbies. It also features a vestigial rear seat, which is a handy landing area for groceries or gym bags. The Toyota feels more like a car than a weekend toy.

Both cars continue the fun-to-drive tradition of their predecessors. One car is more powerful, has more control under pressure, and is more affordable. The other, however, offers far more practicality and performance. The GR86 requires you to give up open-air driving but it offers more and requires fewer sacrifices. This is the ideal sports car for beginners.

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