Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86

The new Mazda MX-5 offers cut-price fun, but is it the best lightweight sports car on sale today?

Words ByWhat Car? team

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Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86

The contenders

Mazda MX-5 2.0 160 SE-L Nav

List price Β£21,095

Target Price Β£19,692

The new MX-5 offers great performance and handling, along with low running costs

Toyota GT86 2.0 Primo

List price Β£22,701

Target Price Β£20,877

Not as cheap to buy or run as the MX-5, but fantastic to drive and more practical, too

Make a car light and it’ll reward you in many ways. You’ll need less power to make it go, so a smaller, more efficient engine will provide enough performance. And with less bulk to shift around it’ll be more willing to turn in to corners.

It’s a formula that Mazda has always adopted with its iconic MX-5 roadster. This all-new version is even lighter than the car it replaces, weighing barely more than the original did back in 1989.

Toyota’s GT86 is similar in concept: it’s relatively light and, like the MX-5, feeds the power from a 2.0-litre petrol engine to its rear wheels. It’s now better value than it has ever been, too, thanks to a new entry-level Primo trim.

So, despite one being a coupΓ© and the other a convertible, they share similar DNA. But which one is the better sports car?

What are they like to drive?

Both have four-cylinder 2.0-litre engines, but there are differences. The GT86’s motor sits lower in the car for a better centre of gravity, and it develops an extra 40bhp. However, the MX-5 is a fair bit lighter, which helps give it the edge for straight-line performance. On a wet track, the Mazda slithered away from a standstill to hit 60mph in an impressive 7.6sec.

On paper that’s not much faster than the GT86, but the MX-5 feels like a considerably quicker car. That’s because when you put your foot down its engine starts pulling strongly from 1500rpm all the way to the red line. The GT86 doesn’t start to rouse until 2500rpm and is only fully awake at 4500rpm. As a result, you find yourself having to change down more often, and revving the engine harder to get the best out of it.

Sadly, the GT86’s engine doesn’t sound very good when pushed, emitting a gravelly, uninspiring whine. The MX-5’s is far more pleasant and encourages you to put your foot down at every available opportunity.

The MX-5 has an excellent six-speed gearbox, too. The stubby lever feels delightful and, as you grab each gear, the slick action has the mechanical precision of a Swiss timepiece. The GT86’s lever is longer and the shift is notchier.

Both of these cars are rewarding to drive quickly. Their lightness makes them seriously nimble, so when you turn in to a corner they respond immediately. There’s marginally more feedback through the GT86’s steering, which gives you a slightly better connection with the front wheels. However, the differences are small, and the MX-5’s steering is hard to fault for accuracy.

The GT86 is also better tied down, staying fairly flat through bends, while the MX-5 leans more as you turn in. Both feel beautifully balanced, though, with skinny tyres allowing you to exploit their playful handling at sensible speeds. Sure, plenty of hot hatchbacks offer more grip, more performance and more stopping power, but few can match the driving pleasure of these two lightweight sports cars.

It’s also surprising how well they ride given their sporting pretentions; both soak up bumps without ever becoming uncomfortable. The softer suspension in the MX-5 delivers the better all-round comfort, though. You still feel bumps as they pass beneath the car, but in a slightly less aggressive fashion.

The Toyota has the noisier engine but, with its soft-top closed, the MX-5 suffers from a lot more wind noise at motorway speeds – you might have to turn the radio up a notch or two. However, drop the roof, a process that takes just a few seconds, and the MX-5 is pretty refined by convertible standards, with very little buffeting.

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