Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86 : Used test

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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?

The Contenders

*** Note : £1 = $1.35 (correct at time of post)
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

Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86

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.

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.

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.

Mazda MX-5 interior

What are they like inside?

Tall drivers might find the MX-5 cramped, but everyone else will be perfectly comfortable. The seats are narrow but supportive, and while there’s no reach adjustment for the steering wheel, the driving position is otherwise pretty good.

The GT86 feels appreciably bigger inside and there’s more adjustment in its driver’s seat. The steering wheel adjusts for reach, too, and the seats also hold you in place better during hard cornering.

Mind you, the MX-5 has the smarter interior. The GT86’s cheaper-feeling dashboard plastics and low-rent LCD displays make it feel like a throwback to the 1980s.

By contrast, the MX-5 feels thoroughly modern inside, with good ergonomics. SE-L Nav trim adds an excellent sat-nav to the infotainment system, which is controlled by a rotary dial between the front seats; the touchscreen in the GT86 is nowhere near as slick.

There’s not much storage space in the MX-5. Unlike the Toyota, it lacks door bins or even a glovebox. There is a small, lockable cubby between the two seats, with small storage spaces just behind them.

While the MX-5 is strictly a two-seater, the GT86 will technically carry four. In reality, the back seats are better used as extra storage space, although a couple of small children will fit.

That, and a decent-sized boot, make the GT86 a relatively practical proposition by sports car standards. The MX-5’s poky boot will only hold a couple of weekend bags, so be prepared to pack light.

The MX-5 may be well priced but it’s surprisingly well equipped, too, with sat-nav, climate control, LED headlights, Bluetooth, a digital radio, 17in ‘gunmetal’ grey alloy wheels and cruise control all standard. The GT86 does without the sat-nav, but it does at least get dual-zone climate control, cruise control and Bluetooth. A digital radio wasn’t available as an option at the time the car we’re testing was built, although this was added later, and Toyota will retrofit one to your older GT86 for £229.

Mazda MX-5 rear

What will they cost?

When these two cars were brand new, there was a hefty discrepancy between their list prices. That gap has narrowed with time, but the GT86 still costs a fair chunk more to buy than the MX-5 does.

You might argue that the GT86’s extra cost is worth it given that it has two years’ extra warranty; but, then again, you could buy a three-year-old MX-5 and extend its warranty to that level and still pay less.

What’s more, the GT86 will cost you more to run. Its official average fuel economy is 36.2mpg to the MX-5’s 40.9 – and that rings true in the real world, too. As a result, you’ll also find that the MX-5 is the cheaper car to tax, at £195 a month, compared with the GT86’s £250 a month.

The MX-5 further trumps its rival when it comes to servicing costs. A Toyota main dealer will charge £205 on a basic service; by contrast, the same level of service at a Mazda dealership will come in at just £109.

The GT86 does at least have the better reputation for reliability. While we have no data for the GT86 specifically, Toyota as a manufacturer performed exceedingly well in our 2017 reliability survey, ranking third out of 32 brands. Mazda finished in a much more average 16th position, while the MX-5 itself scored 71% – not bad, but not exactly exemplary, either.

Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86

verdict

When these two cars were new, they were priced so far apart that it was very hard to recommend the Toyota GT86 over the Mazda MX-5.

Now that they’re a little older, the gap between the prices has narrowed, and that makes the GT86 far more tempting. After all, it has plenty to recommend; not only is it the sharper, more focused car to drive, it also comes with the security of a metal roof and the added practicality of two rear seats and a larger boot. And let’s not forget the standard extra couple of years’ warranty.

That’s almost enough to win it, but not quite. Were the GT86’s interior smarter, perhaps, or the engine noise a little more appealing, that could have sealed the deal. But, as it is, the dashboard’s plain unpleasant to look at, while the engine’s gruff and doesn’t feel anywhere near as quick as it should given its power advantage over the MX-5’s. Throw in the higher running costs and it has to take second place here.

The MX-5 isn’t perfect, mind you. What it really lacks is space and storage – both inside and in the boot. It’s also rather noisy with the roof up and, ultimately, it can’t quite boast the feel of the GT86 on a back road.

But for all but the keenest drivers, the difference will rarely be felt; what’s more, the MX-5 has the sweeter engine and by far the smarter interior. It also gives you the flexibility of taking the roof down when the sun’s out, plus it’s better equipped. All this, and it costs less to buy and to run. In short, it’s still a winner.

1st – Mazda MX-5

  • For Roof-down thrills; fine handling and ride; strong performance; low costs
  • Against Interior space; small boot; wind noise with the roof up
  • Verdict As much fun as you can get for the money
Specifications: Mazda MX-5 2.0 160 SE-L Nav
  • Engine size 2.0-litre petrol
  • List price when new £20,695
  • Price today £15,000
  • Power 158bhp
  • Torque 148lb ft
  • 0-60mph 7.6sec
  • Top speed 133mph
  • Fuel economy 40.9mpg (official average)
  • CO2 emissions 161g/km
2nd – Toyota GT86

  • For Great handling; decent ride; practical interior; good-sized boot
  • Against Engine noise; cheap-feeling dashboard; more expensive to buy and run
  • Verdict Superb fun to drive
Specifications: Toyota GT86 2.0 D-4S
  • Engine size 2.0-litre petrol
  • List price when new £25,000
  • Price today £16,000
  • Power 197bhp
  • Torque 151lb ft
  • 0-60mph 7.7sec
  • Top speed 140mph
  • Fuel economy 36.2mpg (official average)
  • CO2 emissions 180g/km

(whatcar.com, http://bit.ly/2IjGREh)

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