There are no losers here. This is not a cop-out, just a case of a willing writer not wanting to draw a conclusion here. My mind wanders over these two, but the bottom line is that we as car enthusiasts are lucky to have two affordable, world-class rear-wheel drive sports cars. In a slightly more rational world, Mazda wouldn’t sell the Miata and Toyota wouldn’t sell the GR86. We can also foresee a very distant future where they do not exist, or exist in a very different form.
Where else to go with the GR86 and the Miata but Lime Rock Park? The old-school Connecticut road course has become a home for many of us, but, in the spirit of low-dollar motoring, we decided to forgo the track for the wonderful infield autocross course. Also because it’s easy to slide out there, and isn’t that half the point of owning a car like this? Plus, the roads around the track are great, ridden by sports-car drivers for decades, and you have the most thorough and relevant testing for cars of this type that we could ever imagine.
The fourth-generation “ND” Miata debuted eight years ago, and our love has grown ever since. Two employees own NDs, and after a day of driving, I started doing the math. It is the purest sports car on sale today. Mazda has created a unique platform for this well-equipped GT soft top, keeping dimensions tidy and weight significantly lower, under 2400 pounds. Starting in 2019, the Miata gets power from a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder that produces 181 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. As-tested price, $33,910.
Toyota’s GR86 is fresh, having arrived last year. If the Miata is a modern take on a classic roadster, it’s a classic take on a sports coupe. Datsun 240Z to the Miata’s Lotus Elan. It rides on an updated version of the platform developed for the original Toyota 86 (née Scion FR-S) and its identical twin, the Subaru BRZ. Parked next to anything other than an ND Miata, it’s a small car, certainly no bigger than a 2+2 coupe. It is a premium model, mechanically identical to the base car except for 18-inch wheels and summer tires. Curb weight is 2848 pounds, lighter than any new car except an ND Miata, and the as-tested price is $31,750.
As these two are the only affordable, lightweight sports cars on the market, it’s noticeable how different they feel. A similar concept is quite different in their execution, and itself, plus R&T Staff writer Brian Silvestro and editor-at-large Travis Okulski, to help with evaluation and photography, found themselves discussing their details at length. In bouts of sliding cars around.
I often worry that familiarity breeds contempt in cars, yet after many hours in ND Miatas over the years, it still feels like a revelation. The Miata is defined by its size, even smaller than the 1990 original, and smaller than anything sold today. If you’re looking to stretch things out, get a different car, yet if you’re willing to go a little smoother than usual, you’ll be rewarded with a world-class driving experience.
It has a more standard sports-car chassis, with double-wishbone suspension at the front and multi-link at the rear. Double wishbones are more expensive and harder to package than MacPherson struts, but allow better camber control in cornering without the need for a stiffer spring/damper setup. Mazda North American engineer Dave Coleman once said that the best, most exciting roads are usually the worst in terms of surface quality, so a sports car shouldn’t be overly stiff. Out on the road, the Miata delivers a nearly perfect balance of ride and handling and a feel that matches the best sports cars of old. The car takes a moment to get set, as it has more body roll than most modern performance cars, but once it does, it can be driven on the throttle. It’s a joy, and a testament to the Miata’s design fundamentals. The engine is also a gem. Updated for 2019, it’s got more power, though more importantly, it’s got more revs. It sings at a 7500-rpm limiter, delivering smooth, linear power there. Add a perfect gearbox and it’s impossible not to fall in love with the Miata.
Although very different in philosophy, the GR86 has a lot to offer. It is, perhaps, the more serious car of the two, stiffer, sharper on turn-in, and even a bit quicker point-to-point. Its origins are distant with more pedestrian cars and its larger size means that the GR86 can’t match the Miata for sheer purity and focus, yet there’s plenty to love here.
The driving position is spot on. Like the old 86, the GR86 is one of those cars that just feels right as soon as you get into it. The seats are much nicer than the standard Miata chairs, though there’s no meaningful sacrifice in everyday comfort. You can get better seats in a Miata, but you’ll have to opt for the expensive, yet desirable $4500 BBS/Brembo/Recaro package, which, as the name suggests, adds gorgeous forged BBS wheels and big Brembo brakes. Toyota and Subaru nailed the steering wheel with a thinner rim and smaller diameter that help give the car a sense of immediacy and lightness. The Miata’s steering feels a bit heavy at the end, but the Toyota is still excellent. I love how subtle the front end is too. The GR86 turns sharply and follows the rear instantly, giving the driver confidence and speed.
Exam No. from Car and Driver Point out that the two cars are just as fast as each other, at least at road speed, but the Toyota feels faster. Its relatively large 2.4-liter flat-four has much more mid-range torque and flexibility than the Miata’s 2.0-liter inline-four, so in-gear performance feels superior. Still, the engine isn’t as smooth and sweet as the Miata’s, and the gearbox is a little too rubbery and imperfect. The GR86 also has a bit of rev-hang, where the throttle is open moments after the driver releases the pedal. This helps with excretion, but makes it difficult to transfer easily. It’s a behavior the Miata never exhibits, and as such, going up and down the gears is more enjoyable in the Roadster.
Overall, the GR86 is a little less comfortable on the road, too, although its longer wheelbase and tin roof mean you don’t get some of the jitters and cowl shake that the Miata exhibits. (It’s also worth noting that the Subaru BRZ, which Tuned to be slightly softer overall than the GR86(But we just like the Toyota better.) The extra stiffness and weight make the GR86 a little more suited to sliding around an autocross, well worth the slight loss in comfort.
With the Miata, you’re constantly trying to manage more extreme weight transfers, so slides take a lot more commitment. In the Toyota, it’s much easier, and the car is much more willing to hold big corners and transition into them. “There are ways to make more adjustments out of bounds,” Silvestro said. “Torque and stiff suspension,” added Okulski.
A few less-oversteery laps of autocross and previous experience indicate to us that the GR86 is probably the best track car. Despite being easier to slide, the range is actually much higher, with that extra stiffness translating into more grip. The engine’s torque means gearing is less of an issue, and having a fixed hardtop means you don’t have to worry about rollover protection. If you want to track your Miata, you’ll probably need an aftermarket roll-bar, and you’ll hope you pass the “broomstick test.” Also, the GR86 has luggage space for a jack and a set of tires, where the Miata obviously doesn’t. Still, the Miata is deeply satisfying when you’re playing at the limits of grip, with that extra body roll and nice steering giving the driver a great sense of what’s going on beneath them. For anyone looking to do frequent track days, however, we have to recommend the GR86.
Really, the GR86 is a good car for most people. No, it’s not a car you’ll carry four passengers in, but the extra space makes it much more practical. Overall, the ride is better in the Miata, as is fuel economy, but the GR86 is probably the superior commuter because it allows the driver to spread out a bit more. Also, being a hardtop has many advantages. Outside of size, there isn’t much to divide them internally. Both feel similar in terms of quality, and both have infotainment systems that feel a bit dated, each offering Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (wirelessly in the Miata), so it doesn’t really matter. Maybe the Toyota feels a little more contemporary inside, though I doubt that’s going to be a huge selling point.
“I could definitely live with a Miata full time, but I can see why people wouldn’t,” Silvestro said, and I agree. The Miata ultimately offers a better sports-car experience, but it won’t work for many people. Especially for younger enthusiasts who aren’t looking at either as a second car, the Toyota makes more sense. And it’s still one of the best driving cars on sale.
Price is also important here. The base GR86 is mechanically identical to this premium model except for slightly smaller wheels, and costs $28,995. A bargain for any New cars today, let’s have the sweetest driving experience at any price. Extras (the usual caveat of “if you can find one for MSRP” applies here). The extra $2600 for the Premium trim seems well worth the upgraded interior trim, heated seats, better tires (Michelin Pilot Sport 4s vs Primacy HP) and those gorgeous 18-inch wheels.
With the Miata, you probably don’t want the base Sport model because it has a softer chassis setup and no limited-slip differential. The Club starts at $32,615 and the GT at $34,115, adding a leather interior, automatic climate control and some other nice features, but no mechanical upgrades. Really, the Miata you want is the Club with the BBS/Brembo/Recaro package, priced at $37,150. Opting for the folding metal hardtop on the RF model increases the price even more than the standard soft-top. At this end of the market, these price differences actually matter, especially when you’re paying a negligible premium for a less practical car.
So, we will not rank the cars here. When both don’t fit such different use cases and budgets, and when neither is good. Myself, Silvestro and Okulski all love the way the Miata drives and offers an increasingly rare refinement. Hell, Okulski owns an ND. Yet we all still love the GR86, and we all have the utmost respect for anyone who buys it.
While affordable, rear-drive, lightweight sports car options aren’t plentiful, the Miata and GR86 offer a lot to many. One of the two winners misses the pick point. These are cars that are products of emotion over reason. At the end of the day, we are grateful.