Used test: Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86

The Mazda MX-5 has long been the de facto source of cheap thrills on the used market. But the Toyota GT86 is now temptingly affordable – so which is best?...

Used test: Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86

The Contenders

Mazda MX-5 2.0 160 SE-L Nav

List price when new £20,695

Price today £15,000

Available from 2015-present

The MX-5 offers great performance, ride and handling, as well as low running costs

Toyota GT86 2.0 D-4S

List price when new £25,000

Price today £16,000

Available from 2012-present

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

Price today is based on a 2015 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing

Summer is here. Or, to be more precise, summer isn’t that far away – although, given some of the weather we’ve had in the UK lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking it had arrived prematurely. And along with the images of pub gardens, sunset barbecues and days at the beach that come with the season, thoughts are also turning to sports cars of the sort that may provide a spot of summer fun in the country lanes.

Buyers looking for such a thing on the used market have long had their heads turned by the Mazda MX-5. Economical, reliable and usable, and yet immense fun to drive, the MX-5 returned to its roots with the arrival of the fourth generation in 2015, which was smaller and lighter than its predecessor. The MX-5 has always been cheap, too, and this model is now becoming available with reasonable miles for less than £15,000, putting it within reach of a vast tract of buyers.

Used test: Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86

It’ll cost you a little more cash to get into a Toyota GT86 of the same age as the earliest Mk4 MX-5s – expect to pay around £16,000 for a three-year-old example with around 30,000 miles – but it has its own advantages. For starters, at this age the GT86 will have two years remaining on its warranty; the MX-5’s will have expired. What’s more, there’s the security of a hard top, a more powerful engine and a sharper drive. Does that make the GT86 worth the extra outlay? Time to find out.

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 develops an extra 40bhp. However, the MX-5 is a fair bit lighter, helping to give the car the edge for straight-line performance. On a wet track, the MX-5 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 redline. The GT86 doesn’t start to rouse itself until 2500rpm and is only fully awake at 4500rpm. As a result, you find yourself changing 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 soundtrack 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, although it’s far from unpleasant.

Used test: Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86

Both cars are supremely 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, giving 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 the umps as they pass beneath the car, but in a slightly less aggressive fashion.

The GT86 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.

Used test: Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86