Sports car skirmish – Subaru BRZ vs Mazda MX-5

Subaru BRZ vs Mazda MX-5
Date:1 June 2012 Tags:, , , ,

Subaru claims its new BRZ is feathery light, quick off the line, and a better handler than just about any car this side of a Porsche Cayman – and does it all for (in the USA) around $25 000. In the sports car world, them’s fightin’ words. Because the MX-5 has been delivering sports car fans that same fun formula for the past 20 years, it was time for a showdown. We took both to the twisty roads deep in the Santa Monica Mountains to find out which is better. Can the Subaru outgun the benchmark affordable sports car? – Ben Stewart

The Miata is a classic convertible that looks to the past, aping the British roadster tradition of half a century ago, although our test car had the ingenious power-folding metal roof. The BRZ appears as though it’s been rendered expressly for a starring role in Gran Turismo 6. It’s also a four-seater, which is largely the reason for the 25 cm of length over the MX-5.

Even though these cars appear different, there are plenty of similarities. Both use 2,0-litre four-cylinder engines with six-speed manual transmissions, and both power the rear wheels.

On the inside, the Miata is like a snug-fitting T-shirt. The BRZ is roomier, and some will find it far more comfortable. The Subaru also has more headroom, comes with supportive STI-like seats, and has a fat steering wheel unmarred by stereo controls. You sit taller in the Mazda, and that creates an exceptional view of the car’s corners – and the road ahead.

If you need to haul a lot of stuff in your MX-5, think again. It has no storage space behind the front seats, and the boot is a small 141 dm3. The Subaru’s more useful, and with the rear seats folded it can carry two golf bags or a full set of race tyres. But even though the BRZ has room for four, don’t bother trying to sit back there unless you’re of leprechaun proportions.

According to the spec sheets, the BRZ and the Miata are well matched, but on the road they have vastly different personalities. On a sunny day with the top down, there are few better places than the Mazda’s cockpit. It’s a little down on power compared with the BRZ, but that simply provides an excuse to frequently row the wonderfully mechanical shifter and keep the melodious motor at peak revs. The MX-5 dives into traffic gaps unsuitable for larger cars.

Likewise, the BRZ is an expert at the daily cut and thrust. The shifter requires a bit more effort, but it’s so accurate you’ll never flub a gear change. Like the Miata, the BRZ favors high revs. Although the exhaust note is a bit coarser, this engine freely spins to the lofty 7 400-r/ min redline.

The MX-5’s relatively soft suspension sucks up the worst potholes and rough road surfaces. The Subaru is firm – perhaps not exactly too firm, especially for true sports car nuts – but if our commute included lots of potholes, we’d grab the Mazda keys. Yet the BRZ is quieter and fits more stuff, so for a long road trip – especially one where mountain rides are involved – it’s the easy choice.

Driving the MX-5 on canyon roads we got into a satisfying rhythm connecting the scintillating curves. There’s such harmony between the driver and this chassis that it makes the car easy and fun to drive. But work it harder, to the edge of its abilities, and that balance goes away. The body rolls and bobs around on its suspension and the car becomes a little flustered. Although these two are nearly equal in a drag race, the MX-5 simply cannot catch the BRZ on a snaky road. The Subaru’s firm suspension and robust chassis work together to make the car an animal in this terrain. The Subaru bends into a corner so aggressively and with such mastery that it almost makes it boring to drive at anything less than its limit.

If you do get into trouble, the stability control system responds instantaneously. The system corrects any mistake quickly, then lets you get back to driving. The Mazda relies on older tech for its stability control, and it feels more intrusive.

But there are roads that perfectly fit the MX-5. On the tightest and roughest curvy road we could find, the Mazda’s supple suspension handled the bumps that threw the BRZ off course. If the road is bumpy or undulating, the Miata’s the master.

Bottom line
It’s clear after a week of hard driving that the new Subaru BRZ is the more capable handling machine. The BRZ is quicker in just about any situation, provides serious feedback for the driver, and is the ideal track-day partner. The Miata’s not quite as sharp, but here’s the caveat: its performance bandwidth is perfectly tuned for the normal below-the-limit driving we do most of the time. For a swift cruise down a country road, few cars can match the Miata’s charisma. This one’s a close call, but the Subaru wins.


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