2022 Mazda MX-5 RF vs. Toyota GR 86: Old Queen Takes on Young Princess

Published on October 5, 2022 in Comparative Tests by Guillaume Rivard

Entry-level sports cars come in all shapes and sizes, and some of them don’t really have a direct competitor. That’s the case of the venerable Mazda MX-5, which is still a ton of fun and a solid pick despite the current model nearing the end of the line. Sales were down markedly in the first half of 2022, while the Subaru BRZ-Toyota GR 86 duo came back with a second generation that’s stronger and more attractive than ever.

So, we’ve decided over the summer to pit Mazda’s old queen against Toyota’s new princess, the latter now sold as a member of the Gazoo Racing family. If you’re hesitating between the two, you need to read this.

In the Blue Corner: The Roadster That Begs to be Driven

You can’t help but smile when you walk up to the lovely Mazda MX-5. This one-of-a-kind little roadster is obviously not made for everybody due to its tight cockpit, but taking a seat in it always gets you closer to the very essence of driving: the love of the road.

Photo: Guillaume Rivard

Ideal weight distribution, firm and razor-sharp steering, agile handling (at the expense of ride quality) and nicely calibrated braking make for an extremely pleasant combination. Now with Kinematic Posture Control, the MX-5 applies a very slight brake to the inner rear wheel during high-g cornering, pulling down on that corner, suppressing body roll and making steering response feel more linear through tight or rough corners. It’s yet another reason why this car is so nimble and fun to drive.

A few sacrifices are required when it comes to visibility due to the thick windshield frame, small mirrors and of course the targa-style configuration of the MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback). This is why we prefer the soft-top model, even though it’s louder with the top up. 

Photo: Guillaume Rivard

We’ll say it again: the 181 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque are ample enough to move this tiny sports car weighing just over 1,000 kg. The naturally aspirated 2.0-litre engine and exhaust system should be tweaked to deliver a better sound in our opinion, but the former beautifully responsive and enjoyable to exploit nonetheless. The six-speed manual transmission has a good clutch and a shifter that’s generally easy to manipulate (we wish it could be smoother going from first to second gear).

For drifting purposes, it’s too bad the hand brake is on the wrong side of the centre console. Also, the rotary controller and buttons for the infotainment system are definitely not ergonomic, and the screen loses its touch functionality while driving. 

We’re happy to report our tester achieved 7.6 L/100 km—better than Natural Resources Canada’s official rating of 8.1 L/100 km. The catch? Even though the engine is not turbocharged, Mazda keeps recommending premium fuel, so don’t forget about that.

Photo: Guillaume Rivard

In the Red Corner: The Sporty Coupe for Any Day of the Week

The new Toyota GR 86 is a classic sporty coupe that represents a substantial improvement from the old 86. With a Premium model featuring 18-inch wheels on Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires and an integrated rear spoiler similar to that of the GR Supra, it displays a bit more character and aggressiveness than its predecessor, not to mention the MX-5.

Photo: Guillaume Rivard

The interior combining leather with Alcantara definitely looks the part, but some areas like the dashboard lack inspiration and refinement. What’s more, the steering wheel is slightly too thin for our liking. The aluminum pedals provide good feedback, the sport seats are low and supportive enough, and both the hand brake and shifter are perfectly positioned for easy manipulation.

The seven-inch TFT display in front of the driver as well as the eight-inch centre touchscreen are more interesting to use than those of the MX-5. And that’s despite the GR 86 not getting the new Toyota Multimedia system yet.

Photo: Guillaume Rivard

As a 2+2 coupe, the Toyota has an edge over the Mazda, but you shouldn’t force anyone to sit in the rear unless you’re just five feet tall and you move the driver’s seat forward quite a bit. The trunk, meanwhile, can fit 178 litres of cargo, which is a lot less than the Supra (290 litres), but obviously more than the MX-5 (130 litres).

On the road, the GR 86 trumps its rival in terms of visibility and power. The naturally aspirated 2.4-litre engine generates 228 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Because the GR 86 is heavier, sprints from 0-100 km/h are roughly equal (around 6.5 seconds). Much like the MX-5, we wish the engine sounded better and the ride was smoother on rough pavement. Steering is not quite as sharp, but close, and similar braces are found in the engine bay for greater stability.

Our tester unfortunately came with the six-speed automatic transmission, which feels a bit jerky and makes the GR 86 less quick from 0-100 km/h. It does bring more driver assistance features into the mix and lowers fuel consumption by nearly 1 L/100 km (premium gasoline is required here, too). On our watch, the GR 86 managed 9.1 L/100 km, marginally better than the official rating but 1.5 L/100 km worse than the MX-5.

Photo: Guillaume Rivard

The Winner

The 2022 Mazda MX-5 and Toyota GR 86 are dynamic, agile and reliable. While we’ve previously shown how winter can be fun in an MX-5, the GR 86 is unquestionably a better all-weather option—and way more suitable as a daily driver. Despite the fixed top, the cabin could be quieter, but it’s not that big a deal.

Choosing the MX-5 makes more sense if you go with the soft-top model, which offers a really unique experience and costs less than the hardtop variant. The latter starts at around $42,000 (including freight and PDI), while the most expensive GR 86 can be yours for about $39,000. When you put fun, practicality and value all together, Toyota’s sporty coupe easily wins this matchup.

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