Joy Rides: Playing With Two Fun Cars Nobody Needs
We interrupt this site’s stream of thoughtful automotive analysis covering sensible proletarian SUVs, plutocratic fantasy limos, and sports sedans for the bourgeoisie to bring you some irrational exuberance about a couple of light, cheap, front-engine/rear-drive vehicular toys. Nobody needs a car like these, but their pricing starts about $8,000 less than the national average new-car transaction price so—statistically speaking—most of you could afford to buy them. And buy them you should! Consider it your auto-civic duty to bolster segment sales to lure more automakers into this endangered market.
Today’s choice of cars matching the above description has dwindled to three, two of which are identical twins. The third, Mazda‘s perky 26-year-old MX-5, has everybody salivating as it reinvents itself for only the third time. And what a charming reinvention it is, returning to its roots by trimming nearly every dimension and “adding” Lotus-grade lightness, dropping 186 pounds relative to the last similarly equipped Club edition model we weighed. Intense attention to every performance-related detail of the engine, transmission, body, and chassis makes this the best performing stock Miata we’ve experienced, handily trumping even the Mazdaspeed turbo.
You don’t need us to tell you which of these cars to buy. You consult experts when making rational purchases; these are visceral, emotional buys, and you’d never be happy with something we talked you into. Follow your gut. But we’re in the comparo biz, so the three luckiest editor/voters grabbed keys and a company credit card, invited Randy Pobst, our favorite kid-at-heart racing pal, to join us, and headed out to our nearest playgrounds: the Streets of Willow Springs racetrack and the famed Angeles Forest, Angeles Crest, Glendora Mountain, and Mount Baldy roads.
Representing the twins is the Subaru BRZ because it came out on top of a hi-po six-coupe shootout in 2012 (besting a Miata GT) and because the very next year a starchier MX-5 Club model vanquished a Scion FR-S. We’re also not crazy about the latter’s Miley Cyrus tendency toward twerking. Our BRZ came outfitted with Subaru‘s latest Series.Blue package of fancy black STI wheels, ground-effects gingerbread, and interior spiffs. Then, just to mix things up, we also invited a VW GTI as a similarly priced, higher-powered front-drive counterpoint to help us answer the question, “Does a sporty toy really need rear drive?” The immediate answer was a resounding “YEP.” So we excused the honorable hot hatch from the direct competition. With that prologue, let’s play.
First stop: Streets. We give our MT resident race champ first crack at the fresh tires in each car, and he starts out in the BRZ. “You can dance to it. It is extremely well-balanced and easy to drive right on the edge of its grip with very small inputs. The front and rear tires are at similar slip angles. Even with just 200 horses, I have to feed the throttle in very gently because the car is right on the edge of the grip in the middle of a corner. It’s a pleasure.” He says the tires feel a bit like they’re on marbles but recalls that grippier tires he tested with Tire Rack didn’t improve the BRZ’s lap times. “The Subaru is very happy on its stock tires because it’s so balanced that there’s not much drag in the turns. Extra [grip-induced] drag in cornering can slow it down.”
Next up was the MX-5. “The personality of the original Miata is still here, with an amazing amount of body roll—more than the BRZ offers. It feels like it has way more tire grip, but when the tires lose their grip, they lose it very fast, so this car needs to stay hooked up. It feels so light with a responsiveness that is almost absent from all cars today, except the Alfa 4C—I really like that. I don’t think I experienced any understeer anywhere at any time, and I drove deeper into the brake zone on the uphill into Turn 2 than I have in any car ever. It stops really well, and the tire grip felt great compared with the BRZ. The shifter is quick and accurate and slicker than the BRZ’s.” Recent Miata owner Pobst’s lap times align with his preference: 1:29.91 for the MX-5, 1:31.27 for the BRZ.
Even driving at 80 percent of Pobst’s pace, the editorial Willow notes largely mirror Randy’s. Associate road test editor Carlos Lago reckons the BRZ’s “chassis accepts corrections more readily than the Miata’s and feels a bit more flexible overall,” adding that the MX-5’s “roll and lack of power mean you need to be correct with your initial steering input.” He suspects that for him, “the [$3,400] spent on the Miata’s Brembo/BBS/Bilstein package would be better spent in the aftermarket.” The BRZ’s gearing averages 6 percent shorter than the MX-5’s, but its 7,400-rpm redline is higher, so it requires a bit less shifting. It corners a lot flatter than the MX-5 but generates less grip (0.94 versus 0.97 g), making it a drifter’s dream while the Mazda just feels so much lighter and more nimble. It also pulls stronger out of the corners than the Subaru—curious given the BRZ’s gearing advantage and 7 percent better weight to power ratio. Blame a noticeable flat spot in the BRZ’s torque curve and credit Mazda’s fattened torque curve and 18 percent advantage in weight to torque. Time runs out long before we tire of playing with these toys here, but as the sun sets, Lago proclaims the BRZ his preferred track car, yours truly is pondering 2016 Spec Miata ownership, and copy chief Emiliana Sandoval is undecided.
Day two starts at our test track, where the 155-hp MX-5 covers the 60-mph dash in 5.8 seconds, a half second quicker than the Subie and 0.3 second quicker than the previous 167-hp Miata (despite 10 percent taller gearing). It’s still 0.4 second ahead at the quarter mile (14.5 versus 14.9 seconds), though the BRZ catches up by 100 mph. The Mazda brakes 5 feet shorter from 60 mph at 111 feet. We also discover that Mazda’s savvy suspension geometry leverages that body roll to produce big grip. Its 25.2-second, 0.76g figure-eight performance bests the Subaru’s by 0.5 second and 0.04 g and matches that of two much bigger toys from a decade ago: the Ferrari 575 and Lambo Gallardo. Lago says, “I enjoyed the Miata more on the figure eight, telling me it’s more fun at slower speeds.” Notes testing director Kim Reynolds: “The Miata rolls a lot and merrily dances its tail around, but those body motions take time to complete, so the car is slower to re-position than the BRZ. The Subaru is a superb track car that can be liberally drifted, or understeer mid-corner, or be tossed into any orientation in between on a whim thanks to its firm chassis, quick steering, and responsive—not high—power.” Still, at this track Mazda again takes a performance lead.
With our “work” concluded, we head for the mountains for some real-world play. Five-feet-of-fun Sandoval finds the BRZ’s cockpit an ideal fit that compounds the confidence inspired by the chassis’ responsive steering and flat cornering. She regards it as “a patient older brother taking his kid sister to a PG movie when he’d prefer an R-rated one with some drifting.” Lago concurs: “Seems like you sit lower in the BRZ, and I like the feeling of sitting down in the car rather than on top of it.” Sandoval likens the Mazda’s poise and balance to that of a ballerina, its minimal weight forever “over its center,” able to pirouette effortlessly. While admitting she’d personally buy the better fitting BRZ, she notes that “it’s like a distressed leather jacket whereas the more refined Miata is a fine merino wool sport coat.” Lago declares, “The Miata falls on the big-boy toy scale between the Alfa 4C and a Jet Ski,” adding that it perpetually “gives me a goofy grin.”
Driving the BRZ briskly in VSC-Sport mode, I am instantly struck by how often and/or noticeably the stability control intervenes to keep me on my intended line. They’re sharp, buzz-killing interventions I can often feel through the steering wheel. Driving the Mazda in full stability-on mode, I occasionally catch a peripheral glimpse of the flashing ESC light but perceive no electronic nannying. Feed in the gas mid-corner, and the limited-slip diff and the gentle toe-in effect generated by the body roll combine to tighten the driving line like magic. Mazda’s approach makes me feel superheroic; the Subaru’s, klutzy. My 5-foot-10-inch frame fits the Mazda perfectly, and the 2016’s more inboard seating position, lower hood, and expanded windshield make for perfect forward visibility. Seeing the road rushing by so close over the low hood enhances the impression of speed. The Subie’s coarse bark sounds great at 7,000 revs but a little tiresome (“like a giant irked bee”) at freeway speeds, and the Miata’s engine always “sounds like it’s clearing its throat” to Sandoval. Actually, there’s tons of road and wind noise in the Mazda (sound deadening adds weight), but the headrest speakers cover it at reasonable volume levels. Oh, and if you didn’t notice, the top comes off, which googletuples the fun.
So we arrive at an interesting result, wherein both Lago and Sandoval would buy the BRZ (this vintage Brit-roadster owner votes Miata) while we unanimously agree the Mazda is the better car and hence deserves the official win. But please do as we would and buy whichever one you liked best before you read this. Just do us a favor: Think twice about boosting the power or adding fatter tires or a kidney-krusher suspension because, as Reynolds laments, “Drivers now have lost all memory of what light Lotuses and little MGs were like to drive. These cars are a refresher course in their glories.” Trust us: It is more fun to drive a slow car fast. And fun is the object here.
Second Place: Subaru BRZ
If you have to drive it every day (and carry a spare set of tires to the track), this is your toy.
First Place: Mazda MX-5
If you have room in your life (and garage) for a fair-weather toy, this is the best one for the money.
2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI
We obviously love our current reigning VW Golf Car of the Year, and this two-door GTI variant fits smack dab in the price range of our other two contestants. Furthermore, with 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of turbo oomph on tap, GTIs with the performance pack have racked up track stats that put our rear-drive sportsters on the trailer. So although it’s 300-plus pounds heavier and it spins the “wrong” wheels, we invited it along.
Then everybody who drove all three cars got out of this one asking what it was doing here. Pobst: “This is probably a very nice street car, but after coming out of two of the best track cars ever made, it’s a bloody frustrating experience. The stability control can’t be turned all the way off, and it constantly interferes all the way around the racetrack. Coming out of a Miata and a BRZ, it just feels so numb. The steering feels numb, the suspension feels numb, there’s this numb understeer. It’s quiet and smooth, but it’s not a satisfying track car. In the Miata you feel like you’re going 1,000 mph—in a good way—but in this car you feel like you’re wrestling a hippo.”
Points duly noted, though it was the fastest car around the track. That’s all due to the lag-free turbo torque, potent Potenza tire grip, and front-drive traction pulling out of the corners. Plus, most of the track (and our mountain road stretches) can be driven in second gear (its ratio averages 30 percent taller than the Miata’s), so the time saved in manual gear changes alone may account for the lap-time margin of victory.
Performance aside, the upright seating position and high eye point exaggerate one’s perception of body roll (though it’s reasonably well-controlled), sending entirely different—and less sporty—signals to the brain’s fun center than do our low-slung track stars. Then there’s the way hard acceleration lightens the steering effort (without quite qualifying as torque steer per se) and the sense that there’s a lot more weight being managed here. It’s managed well, though, registering best-in-test 107-ft 60-to-0-mph braking and a 25.0-second, 0.78g figure-eight time.
An imminently capable, world-class daily-drivable hot-hatch? You bet. A legit toy sports car? Not so much.
|2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$28,095|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 2-door hatchback|
|ENGINE||2.0L/220-hp/258-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,067 lb (61/39%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||168.0 x 70.5 x 56.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.1 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||14.6 sec @ 99.7 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||107 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.96 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.0 sec @ 0.78 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||25/34/28 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||135/99 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.68 lb/mile|
|2016 Mazda MX-5 (Club)||2015 Subaru BRZ|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD||Front-engine, RWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||I-4, alum block/head||Flat-4, alum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||121.9 cu in/1,998cc||121.9 cu in/1,998cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||155 hp @ 6,000 rpm||200 hp @ 7,000 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||148 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm||151 lb-ft @ 6,400 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,800 rpm||7,400 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||14.8 lb/hp||13.8 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||11.0-in vented disc; 11.0-in disc, ABS||11.6-in vented disc; 11.4-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.0 x 17-in, forged aluminum||7.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES||205/45R17 87W Bridgestone Potenza S001||215/45R17 87W Michelin Primacy HP|
|WHEELBASE||90.9 in||101.2 in|
|TRACK, F/R||58.9/59.2 in||59.8/60.6 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||154.1 x 68.3 x 48.8 in||166.7 x 69.9 x 50.6 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||30.8 ft||35.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||2,296 lb||2,759 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||52/48%||55/45%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.4/- in||37.1/35.0 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||43.1/- in||41.9/29.9 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||52.2/- in||53.1/45.3 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||4.6 cu ft||6.9 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||1.8 sec||2.3 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.2||3.3|
|QUARTER MILE||14.5 sec @ 94.2 mph||14.9 sec @ 94.6 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||111 ft||116 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.97 g (avg)||0.94 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.2 sec @ 0.76 g (avg)||25.7 sec @ 0.72 g (avg)|
|1.55-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||89.91 sec||91.27 sec|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||2,450 rpm||2,650 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$32,950||$30,285|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side/head||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||11.9 gal||13.2 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||27/34/30 mpg||22/30/25 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||125/99 kW-hrs/100 miles||153/112 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.65 lb/mile||0.78 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|