If you’re looking for rear-wheel drive performance somewhere around the $25,000-$30,000 range, you pretty much have two routes: small and Japanese or big and American.
Choose the small and Japanese route, and your choices are two (well, technically three): the iconic 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ, which are fraternal twins. The Miata has a nearly three-decade heritage of sticking to the less-is-more philosophy of sports cars, But the FR-S and BRZ are bred to be handling kings, masters of the track and the pure form of grip over straight-line speed. It’s the antithesis of the V8 muscle car philosophy and they’re both proud of it.
So which of the Japanese-built sports cars should you put your money down on?
One note: due to the disappearance of Scion for 2017, the Scion FR-S becomes the Toyota 86, complete with a slightly updated face, some new switchgear inside and five more horsepower. Other than that, it should be the same as the 2016 FR-S I drove.
2016 Scion FR-S Driving Impressions
Right away, you’ll feel the heaviness of the controls, from the steering that feels very connected to the front wheels, to the firm, deliberate shifts from the six-speed manual.
Power comes from a 2.0-liter flat-four engine that gets upgraded for 2017 to 205 horsepower and 158 pound-feet of torque. It doesn’t sound like a lot, because it isn’t really as far as performance cars go. Starts don’t feel especially quick, but once up to speed there is more than sufficient power to get yourself into trouble.
It’s not so much about the power as it is the feel. The engine fizzes and crackles like a Porsche’s and it hunkers down on the road through the corners. This is a handling machine and a serious one at that. You can have fun with it on a twisty road at 40 mph.
Unfortunately, the sports car tendencies also continue into the daily operation of the FR-S. The ride is rough, to say the least. The engine also constantly reminds you of its existence by barking at just about every speed, even in sixth gear. Fuel economy is also relatively bad given the power on tap. Despite a reasonably roomy trunk and rear “seats” that are at least useful for other packages or well-mannered children, the FR-S is taxing as everyday transportation.
2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Driving Impressions
You’d expect the Mazda Miata to be even less practical. It’s a strict two-seater with an even more compromised trunk. It’s also a convertible. But it manages to be a great car in addition to being a great sports car.
Believe it or not, the Mazda Miata weighs about 500 pounds less than the FR-S, itself not exactly a modern heavyweight at around 2,800 pounds. While Mazda’s 2.0-liter four is down 50 horsepower over the Scion’s, the whole car feels more energetic. A better torque curve means more of the power is available from a stop and doesn’t need a downshift as often, even though the six-speed manual in the Mazda is practically effortless to use.
While it’s particularly enjoyable to drive the Miata on a challenging road, it’s also fun in everyday use. Drop the top with one arm and it feels fun and lively at any speed. The steering and brakes operate the way you’d expect them to, connecting you to the car in a way almost unheard of in something made in modern times. Even in traffic, this car puts a smile on your face. Unless you’re fumbling with the cup holder or the navigation system.
The interior is downright cramped, and your passenger will undoubtedly complain about a lack of legroom. And with the top up, headroom isn’t anything to brag about. Taller drivers will likely be cramped, even more so than in an FR-S.
Consider, too, that a Miata starts around $25,000 but quickly climbs up to nearly $34,000, which is noticeably more than a new FR-S or BRZ.
Buying Decisions: Mazda Miata vs. Scion FR-S
If you’re in the market for a new one, count on an FR-S to be the better bargain right now since the 2016s have been selling slowly. It’s probably not worth waiting for a 2017 Toyota 86, either, and there are some used Scion FR-S buys to be had.
But frankly, the Miata is the way to go. It manages to be fun on back roads and then civilized when all you want to do is get home at the end of a long day, while it lifts your spirit at the same time.
And unlike in an American muscle car, you’ll also have no problem breaking 30 miles to the gallon.