Group test – Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86

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. With less bulk to shift around it’ll be more willing to turn in to corners, too; all key attributes of a great sports car.

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 lightweight and, like the Mazda, feeds the power from a 2.0-litre petrol engine to its rear wheels. It’s better value than it has ever been, too, thanks to a new entry-level Primo trim.

So, despite one being a coupé and the other a convertible, they share similar DNA. Which one is the better sports car?

The contenders

Mazda MX-5 2.0 160 SE-L Nav

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

Toyota GT86 2.0 Primo

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

What are they like inside?

Both have four-cylinder 2.0-litre engines, but there are differences. The Toyota’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 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 of these 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, which gives you a slightly better connection with the front wheels. However, the differences are small, and the Mazda’s steering is hard to fault for accuracy.

The Toyota 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.

What are they like to drive?

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 Mazda has the smarter interior. The Toyota’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 Mazda which, unlike the Toyota, lacks door bins or even a glove box. There is a small, lockable cubby between the two seats, with small storage spaces just behind them.

While the Mazda is strictly a two-seater, the Toyota 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 pokey boot will only hold a couple of weekend bags, so be prepared to pack light. 

What will they cost?

If you’re a private buyer, the MX-5 should cost you just over £1000 less to start off with. Both cars will lose a similar amount in depreciation although owning the Mazda over three years will cost you around £1300 less, thanks to its cheaper insurance and road tax and considerably better real-world fuel economy.

The Mazda also works out cheaper as a company car, with a saving of £1700 in benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax over the next three years, thanks to its lower CO2 emissions and cheaper list price.

It’s a similar story if you’re buying on PCP finance. The MX-5 comes in at £247 a month over three years – based on a £5000 deposit and 10,000 miles a year – while the Toyota adds £45 to that monthly bill. The Mazda also makes a similar saving when it comes to leasing.

The Mazda might be well priced but it’s surprisingly well equipped, too, with sat-nav, climate control, LED headlights, Bluetooth, a DAB radio, 17in ‘gunmetal’ grey alloys and cruise control all featuring as standard. The entry-level GT86 Primo makes do with basic air-con and Bluetooth from that list. A DAB radio isn’t even available as an option, and its 16in alloys don’t fill the wheelarches quite as well as the MX-5’s larger wheels.

Neither car has been crash tested by Euro NCAP, but both come with front and side airbags (plus driver’s knee and curtain ’bags in the GT86) and a tyre pressure monitor. However, you won’t find any modern safety features such as emergency city braking or traffic sign recognition – even on the options list.

Both cars get an alarm and immobiliser and proved similarly effective at resisting theft and break-ins when tested by security experts Thatcham.

The GT86 comes with a five-year, 100,000-mile warranty while the MX-5 makes do with an extendable three years or 60,000 miles.

Our verdict

Both cars are brilliant fun to drive and offer an authentic sports car experience. Toyota has slashed the price of the GT86 and it now makes more sense than ever. The MX-5 serves up even more fun; you’ll have the wind in your hair and a fantastic sports car beneath you.

True, it doesn’t steer quite as sweetly as the Toyota, and it isn’t as practical, but the Mazda is more comfortable, better equipped and considerably cheaper.


Mazda MX-5 2.0 160 SE-L Nav

For Roof-down thrills; fine handling and ride; strong performance; low costs

Against Cabin space; small boot; roof-up wind noise

Verdict As much fun as you can get for the money


Toyota GT86 2.0 Primo

For Great handling; decent ride; practical cabin and good-sized boot

Against Engine noise; cheap-feeling cabin; more expensive to buy and run

Verdict Superb fun to drive; Primo version makes good financial sense

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