You might be asking why we pitted the 2018 Toyota 86 to the Mazda MX-5 RF. The answer is simple: both cars in base trim starts at around $25k. In this head to head comparison, we will take a look at the Toyota 86 TRD Edition and the Mazda MX-5 RF, which are both within the $32k price range.
For the uninitiated car lover, both vehicles are two-seat sports cars with rear-wheel drive. Granted the Toyota is a proper coupe with two rear seats for humans without legs, while the Mazda MX-5 is strictly a two-seater with a folding roof. They are the same, but also strangely different in a way. What’s more, both vehicles are powered by naturally-aspirated four-cylinder motors. In this crazy world of turbocharging and forced induction, N/A motors are a welcome relief.
Whatever the case, both the 2018 Toyota 86 and the Mazda MX-5 RF are a rare and dying breed. Both vehicles are brilliant and capable handlers, but we want to choose the one that shows the true emotion of driving. Let’s begin.
2018 Toyota 86 TRD Edition
The 2018 Toyota 86 TRD Edition comes with added goodies like TRD 18-inch split spoke alloy wheels, TRD front, rear, and side underbody spoilers, and a TRD tricolor side-body graphic. This particular model also comes with a TRD performance exhaust system and, most importantly, Brembo brakes and SACHS performance dampers.
The Toyota 86 TRD Edition is equipped with the same 2.0-liter horizontally-opposed DOHC Boxer engine that produces 205 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque at 6400-6,600 rpm. The engine is bolted to a short-throw, close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission. The motor benefits from Toyota’s D-4S dual-injection system with direct and sequential port injection.
The Toyota 86 is a quick car. The motor can rev willingly to 7,500 rpm all day long without missing a beat. The car can scoot from 0 to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds. The numbers may sound modest, but it masks the reality of how the Toyota 86 feels when driven hard in a straight line. It doesn’t attack the straights like a charging bull, but it feels fast enough to keep up with more powerful sports cars.
And besides, acceleration and top speed is beyond the point if you want to buy the Toyota 86. This car excels properly in the curves. It handles with alacrity while the steering feels as sharp as a katana sword. However, while the retuned motor of the 2018 Toyota 86 offers more power on paper than the Mazda MX-5, it doesn’t feel like a more powerful car. It is still pretty quick, but the Mazda MX-5 somehow feels, well, faster and more eager.
I guess this all boils down to the lower curb weight of the Mazda MX-5 RF, which is at 2,445 lbs. The base Toyota 86 has a curb rate of 2776 lbs. but the TRD Special Edition with the bigger wheels and plethora of body kits is at a rather portly 2,837 lbs. This will probably explain why the Mazda MX-5 is sprightlier in an actual road test despite the added weight of the retractable hardtop roof.
The 2018 Toyota 86 TRD Special Edition comes with dual zone climate control, a 4.2-inch TFT multi-information display, and a new gauge cluster with a small electronic screen beside the speedometer. It might be small, but it can display lap times, G-force readings, torque curves, and many more.
But our biggest caveat with the Toyota 86 is the slight dip in torque at around 3,000 rpm. Driving the 86 in the city, you will need to push the pedal deeper to access the true potential of the Boxer motor as you sprint from one stoplight to the next.
2018 Mazda MX-5 RF
It’s a good thing the boffins at Mazda did their homework. They equipped the standard 2.0-liter SKYACTIV four-banger with upgraded internals. The result is 155-horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque at 4,600 rpm. The standard transmission is a 6-speed SKYACTIV manual connected to a rear-wheel drivetrain.
Here’s the clincher: even with just 155 horsepower, the Mazda MX-5 RF can achieve the 0 to 60 mph run in 7.4 seconds. That is 0.2 seconds faster than the Toyota 86 TRD Edition. In reality, the difference can boil down to faster gear shifts and reaction times, but the Mazda MX-5 feels a tad quicker. Both cars are fast, and they feel fast. It just boggles the mind how Mazda managed to make the Mazda MX-5 feel quicker than it actually is.
However, there are downsides as well. The steering in the Mazda MX-5 feels lame compared to the Toyota 86. We also think the steering feel is too light for a sports car. On some roads, the steering can feel a bit numb as well. This is highly evident when driving at slower speeds.
The standard suspension in the MX-5 RF is also a bit soft for our liking. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Softer suspension means more body roll as you enter a corner. But this type of behavior can remind you if you entered the corner at a faster than normal rate. Put it this way: the MX-5 is more forgiving, and it gives the driver more confidence to do it right next time.
In our humble opinion, the folding hardtop roof in the 2018 Mazda MX-5 RF seals the deal. For almost the same price, you get everything that a small rear-wheel drive sports car has to offer with the added bonus of a folding roof. You can still buy the ragtop MX-5, but why should you when you can have a proper roof when you need it most? The roof folds completely up or down in 13 seconds. The only caveat? You need come to a full stop before doing so.
In terms of equipment, the Mazda MX-5 comes with standard navigation and telematics system along with voice-activated controls for the audio, navigation, and Bluetooth enabled devices.
Both the 2018 Toyota 86 TRD Special Edition and the Mazda MX-5 RF are brilliant driving machines. If you want a true driver’s car that reacts instantaneously to expert inputs, the Toyota 86 TRD Edition is the right choice.
The more forgiving nature of the Mazda MX-5 RF makes it perfect for novice and intermediate drivers. Our mind is rooting for the Toyota 86, but the heart is shouting for the Mazda MX-5 RF.