Tested: sports cars that don’t cost a fortune
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 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.
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.
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.