Cheap thrills

Tested: sports cars that don’t cost a for­tune

The Courier-Mail - Cars Guide - - Front Page - JOSHUA DOWL­ING NA­TIONAL MO­TOR­ING EDI­TOR joshua.dowl­ing@news.com.au

THEY’RE more nim­ble than quick but that doesn’t make them any less fun.

The Mazda MX-5 has been the world’s best sell­ing twoseater sports car for close to three decades, with more than 1 mil­lion sold. But the Toy­ota 86 rein­vented the seg­ment in 2012, hav­ing lim­boed the start­ing price of a fun two-door close to $30,000.

Since the Toy­ota 86 went on sale, more than 16,000 have been sold lo­cally ver­sus 3000 MX-5s over the same pe­riod.

Which is why Mazda sharp­ened the price as well as the styling when the lat­est gen­er­a­tion MX-5 went on sale last year.

Now the goal­posts have shifted again.

Mazda has just re­leased an MX-5 with a fold­ing metal roof, to be sold at a pre­mium along­side the rag top model.

It’s de­signed to add se­cu­rity when the car is parked but still de­liver fresh-air thrills.

Mean­while, Toy­ota has given the 86 a nip and tuck, with a frac­tion more power and some cos­metic changes.

We took the pair to the tight and twisty south cir­cuit of Syd­ney Mo­tor­sport Park to see which de­liv­ers the most smiles per mile.

TOY­OTA 86

Toy­ota says the 86 is a car built by en­thu­si­asts for en­thu­si­asts, but it’s also one of the eas­i­est sports cars to live with day to day.

The cabin is com­par­a­tively roomy, and the seats are su­perbly sup­port­ive and com­fort­able — yet it’s easy to get in and out.

All con­trols are in­tu­itive to use, and Toy­ota has made sure at least two of the four cup hold­ers (the one in each door) will still have a wa­ter bot­tle in them af­ter a tight bend.

Qual­ity is good and the cabin gets a sub­tle boost from the soft rub­ber ma­te­rial on the in­stru­ment panel and doors, as well as the faux car­bon fi­bre panel across the dash­board.

Cruise con­trol and a dig­i­tal speedome­ter help you stay on the cor­rect side of the law.

Auto up power win­dows, a space-saver spare tyre, a cen­tre con­sole and glove­box, two back seats with ISOFIX child re­straint an­chor points, a rearview cam­era and a de­cent size boot mean the 86 is about func­tion as much as form.

Un­der the bon­net is a 2.0litre en­gine sourced from Subaru (Toy­ota’s joint ven­ture part­ner) matched to a six-speed man­ual gear­box send­ing power to the rear wheels. As with the Mazda, an auto is op­tional.

The low-slung styling gives the 86 a low cen­tre of grav­ity, de­liv­er­ing a go-kart sen­sa­tion that makes it en­ter­tain­ing and en­gag­ing on a race track.

How­ever, there are a few caveats. The most af­ford­able 86 runs the same en­ergy-sav­ing, low fric­tion tyres as a Prius. Which is why they chirp if you en­gage third gear in a hurry. They can also squeal pre­ma­turely in cor­ners and be dicey in the wet.

On the track you can feel the car wrig­gle around as it finds grip. On the road that sup­ple­ness trans­lates to com­fort.

The en­gine may have been given a mod­est boost from 147kW/205Nm to 152kW/212Nm but it has the

same short­com­ings as be­fore.

It’s not very fast and it feels like there is turbo lag — even though there is no turbo.

I don’t care that the Toy­ota 86 is not a mis­sile, my gripe is with the de­layed power de­liv­ery.

The en­gine is asth­matic un­til about 5000rpm and it doesn’t re­ally come alive un­til 6500rpm — just as a light advises you to change gear, leav­ing you just 1000 rpm to play with at the very end of the rev range.

Af­ter half a dozen runs on the same stretch of tar­mac in both di­rec­tions — us­ing satel­lite-based tim­ing equip­ment — the best we could ex­tract from the 86 was a 0 to 100km/h time of 8.2 sec­onds. A Camry Hy­brid is quicker.

The 86 also has more ex­pen­sive tastes in fuel than the Mazda.

It is quite pos­si­bly the most frus­trat­ing use of 98 pre­mium un­leaded in the sports-car world — all that high qual­ity fuel revving the en­gine’s guts out to go not very fast.

It even needs revs to keep mov­ing at free­way speeds, with the en­gine tick­ing over at a high 2800rpm in sixth gear at 100km/h; the Mazda’s gear­ing is not much bet­ter, pulling 2600rpm at the same speed.

MAZDA MX-5

Af­ter the Toy­ota 86, the Mazda MX-5 feels like squeez­ing into a tight pair of jeans.

Once you’re strapped in, the per­cep­tion of qual­ity is bet­ter in the MX-5 thanks to chrome high­lights, body coloured pan­els in the doors, and faux car­bon fi­bre trim near the power win­dow switches.

The MX-5 seats are com­fort­able, but not as good as the Toy­ota’s, and you need to con­tort your el­bow to ad­just the vol­ume knob in the cen­tre con­sole.

Cabin stor­age is at such a pre­mium the owner’s man­ual is in the boot. And boot space is so tight there’s no spare tyre, only an in­fla­tor kit. (Be warned: find­ing a re­place­ment if you get a flat could see you stuck for days).

There’s no dig­i­tal speedo or auto up win­dows, and the top of the door glass rubs nois­ily against the roof rub­bers on bumpy roads.

Mazda’s mis­sion to save weight was so in­tense that the RF with its fold­ing metal roof is only 47 kilo­grams heav­ier than the rag top ver­sion, an im­pres­sive feat.

Nav­i­ga­tion is stan­dard and the tablet-style cen­tre screen looks up­mar­ket but a rear view cam­era is op­tional. That said, you could al­most reach around with your hand to check if there’s any­thing in the way.

Once on the move, the MX-5 starts to shine. The tyres have a higher level of grip than the Toy­ota and as a re­sult the car feels more sta­ble and se­cure.

The dif­fer­ence is ac­cen­tu­ated on our tight test cir­cuit, where the MX-5 grips like Vel­cro and the brakes and gearshift have a more pre­cise feel. The MX-5 feels like you’re us­ing a pair of tweez­ers; the Toy­ota 86 feels like you’re us­ing a pair of tongs.

On the open road, grip is equally im­pres­sive, although the sus­pen­sion is not as for­giv­ing on mid-cor­ner bumps as the Toy­ota.

The Mazda’s 2.0-litre en­gine has much smoother and more ac­ces­si­ble power de­liv­ery than the Toy­ota and will run on 95 oc­tane pre­mium.

The MX-5 has less power than the Toy­ota but it also has 155kg less weight to shift, so its 0 to 100km/h time is a lit­tle bet­ter (7.6 sec­onds on the same stretch of tar­mac on the same day).

But let’s stay grounded: this is still only marginally quicker than a Camry Hy­brid.

VER­DICT

The Mazda MX-5 is the sharper driv­ing in­stru­ment but it’s more at home as a week­end-only car.

If you want a fun, af­ford­able and rel­a­tively prac­ti­cal sportscar that can han­dle the daily grind as well as a wind­ing road the Toy­ota 86 is still the bench­mark.

Need wind in your hair? Put both win­dows down in the Toy­ota and save $7000.

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