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Driver's Choice - Mazda MX-5 Miata vs. FR-S

For nearly 25 years Mazda ruled the light-weight, rear wheel drive car category with the MX-5 Miata having the market all to itself. For 2016 Mazda has launched an all-new MX-5 that goes back to its roots. It’s smaller and lighter than the outgoing model and with a starting price of just $24,915 it is still an amazing value.

But the MX-5 is no longer alone in the segment with the $26,100 Scion FR-S and $26,490 Subaru BRZ twins nipping at its heels. So when we were given the opportunity to drive a 2016 Launch Edition MX-5 we brought along our long-term Scion FR-S car and a stock Subaru BRZ Limited to see if the MX5 still rules.

Mazda’s philosophy with this new MX5 was dedicated to less is more. This is not only evident by looking at it, but it’s also clear in the stats. It’s still a 4 cylinder 6 speed manual, but it’s 250 lbs lighter than the last generation, and 12 hp less powerful with only 155 horses under the hood. Outside the US, there’s even a less powerful version. The result is a new car whose overall footprint is smaller than the original Miata. This car is small. Climb aboard and the theme remains true. My 6’3” frame fits, just.

Despite being less powerful than the previous model, this is the same Skyactiv engine found in the Mazda3 and proves more than capable here. Even with 45 fewer ponies than the GT86 twins, the MX-5 manages to be slightly quicker thanks to its smaller dimensions and 400lbs less bulk.

The light-weight trend continues throughout the car. The clutch is one of the easiest I’ve ever set my left leg to. The shifter follows suit, light and direct with a short shifter feel. Having sold nearly a million Miatas, Mazda clearly knows how to make the car appealing to all. Every interaction point is simple, straightforward and requires very little effort.

Unfortunately, when the road turns twisty, the lightness proves less appealing. I’m surprised at how light the steering feels, reminding me of the video game steering wheel I used with early console games, insanely light and rather numb. Despite this, the MX5 is direct and predictable. The other surprising sensation is the amount of body roll. From a driver’s standpoint it’s concerning. Entering a fast corner gives you the impression you’re going to slide out of control even as the car hangs on and keeps turning. The grip is actually superb. Once this realization takes hold, the body roll becomes hysterical. Each rolling hairpin gives you a sense the car is defying the laws of physics. You almost have to relearn how to drive fast in the MX5 because, as Paul put it, “it feels like it’s wearing orthopedic shoes.” The Mazda just doesn’t give you as much confidence behind the wheel as you’d expect.

Take the same twisting road in either the FRS or BRZ and the twins feel instantly different than the Miata. The steering is weighted but isn’t too heavy and many people (myself included) have compared it to the feel of Porsche’s steering. This is an electric steering rack done right. The ratio is also quicker than the Miata and it makes turn-in more connected and precise. The twins just dart into a corner with a quickness most similar to the gone and still loved S2000. Compared to the MX5, body roll in the FRS is non-existent.

We brought both a FRS and BRZ in order gauge how much tires change the comparison to the MX5. Most match-ups have left the stock Michelin Primacy tires on the GT86s and found the MX5 to be the slightly better car. Since Todd has Pilot Super Sports on his FRS we wondered if it would change our conclusions. The Potenza S001s on the Miata are a far more aggressive tire than the Primacys, but less than the Super Sports, so we expected to feel a difference. However, even the BRZ on Primacys feels more planted and controlled than the MX5. Ultimately the tires aren’t a major factor. The steering feel and body roll create clear differences in speed and confidence levels between MX5 and twins.

So is this a clear win for the FRS and BRZ? Not really. The decision comes down to your priorities.

The MX-5 is definitely the nicer place to be. The interior is small but filled with every modern convenience of larger cars while looking better than any prior MX5. By comparison, the interior in the twins, even in the more luxurious BRZ Limited, feels ten years older. It fails to even live up to the prior Miata. But the seats and driver positioning in the twins overshadows the Miata, feeling more hunkered down while the Miata feels a bit more upright. Everything is more aggressive and direct in the FRS and BRZ, but that requires some sacrifice and it’s not for everyone.

If you are all about cruising around enjoying the world at any speed then MX-5 Miata is the better choice. But if you are someone who seeks out a back road and wants to feel every bit of it, then the Scion FR-S or Subaru BRZ will be more to your taste.

Todd brought our long-term FRS to this comparison wondering if he’d bought the right car. I’d discussed it with him at length as my wife and I had been seriously shopping for an ND MX-5 over the past few months.

Ultimately, Todd left our shoot even more certain of his choice, and strangely, even Paul agreed. And after I climbed out of the MX-5 for the last time I was happy to carve the mountain road home in my own white BRZ purchased a few days before. For the kind of driving we like, the choice was clear.

Which would you choose?

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