With the first flowers of spring now out in abundance, it also means that many summer cars are slowly emerging from their winter long hibernation deep in the confines of the garage. But what if your a first time buyer that’s looking for a fun car that can also deliver a good value?
In this installment of Marketplace Comparisons, we aimed to answer that question, and reunited with the 2017 Mazda MX-5 Grand Touring roadster to see how it measures up against two of its budget enthusiast rivals. We also threw the recently launched Mazda MX-5 RF into the fray, to see if it does indeed standout in anyway against its roadster sibling.
2017 Fiat 124 Spider:
Speaking of sibling rivalry, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider is FCA’s sole entry into the small two seat roadster segment. Originally designed to be an Alfa Romeo product before being switched into the Fiat model family, the 124 Spider aims to blend Italian charm with the solid underpinnings that define the MX-5. The exterior styling is a mixture of retro and futuristic elements, and while the front fascia still straddles the line between retro and odd, it does transition into a stylish side profile as well as Maserati-esque tail lights.
The interior is largely carried over from the MX-5, but this is actually a good thing since it does retain the good ergonomics as well as the cozy atmosphere that help define the MX-5’s driving experience. The 124 also adds more comfort as well as minor trim improvements that make it look slightly nicer than the MX-5’s accommodations, while also avoiding the mistakes that other automakers have made with prior rebadged models in the past.
Unlike the Mazda, the Fiat does have two key weaknesses that help it lose some ground to its Japanese sibling. The first is in its performance hardware, though we will give the excellent six speed manual transmission a free pass due to its short and precise gear shifts. Instead, the bulk of the blame centers around the 1.4 liter MultiAir four cylinder engine. While the 160 horsepower it produces is slightly better than the MX-5’s 155 horsepower 2.0 liter engine, torque delivery is awful, and maximum acceleration occurs only within a narrow range of the rev band (even in the Abarth version). Secondly, the Fiat also has a slightly higher pricing ladder than the MX-5, with fully loaded examples approaching $35,000 though the base $24,995 124 Spider Classica does have the distinction of being the lowest priced turbocharged convertible on sale in the U.S.
2017 Toyota 86:
The artist formally known as the Scion FR-S has had a very interesting roller coaster ride since it was first unleashed to U.S. buyers several years ago. Originally designed to help breathe new life into the old Scion brand, the FR-S had a promising start before the Scion brand was pulled out from under it due to crumbling sales figures. Now dubbed the Toyota 86, the new and improved coupe aims to be a pillar of Toyota’s resurgence into the performance car market.
The 86 is only available as a coupe, but despite this initial disadvantage, the 86 does have racier styling than the MX-5, and also manages to have a bit more presence when parked alongside other sports cars. The interior is just as tight, but the 86 does have a bit more legroom, as well a slightly more cohesive ergonomic layout. However, headroom is lacking here, and some of the interior trim falls short of the Mazda’s especially in regards to the quality of interior plastics and other trim.
Performance for both cars comes from a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine with the 86’s 205 horsepower engine having slightly more punch than the 155 horsepower unit found in the MX-5. Both cars also have six speed manual and automatic transmission offerings, but the MX-5 shines in overall handling with the roadster offering less bodyroll than the 86 while still retaining the high levels of poise that have come to define the little two seater.
Pricing for the two is also close, with the base MX-5’s $24,915 slightly edging out the $26,255 Toyota asks for the base 86. However, this pricing ladder also causes the 86 to inadvertently compete with its brand cousin the Subaru BRZ, which offers even more style, and a marque exclusive performance package that brings upgraded brakes, Sachs dampers, and spiffier wheels for less than $30,000.
2017 Mazda MX-5 RF:
We saved the best for the last, a head to head MX-5 vs MX-5 match-up. In this instance, the roadster also faces some internal competition from the newly launched MX-5 RF. Both the roadster and the RF share the same platform, engine, and even the same basic cabin layout. However, the RF stands out thanks to its retractable hardtop that allows it to truly transform into a solid three season car (or four with good winter tires.) The hardtop also allows the RF to have a quieter cabin than the roadster with the roof in place which should please some buyers.
The performance gap between the two is very thin with the RF being slightly heavier than the roadster which does little to affect its performance. Both models were never known for their copious amounts of trunk space, but the MX-5 roadster does edge out the RF slightly in this area thanks to the modifications Mazda engineers needed to do to fully accommodate the mechanisms for the folding hardtop.
However the RF makes up the 113 lb weight difference by slightly outshining the roadster in handling due to the suspension tweaks that engineers had to make to allow the RF to fully cope with the retractable hardtop. With all of these good attributes, the one trait that the RF cannot shake is its higher base MSRP. Unlike the roadster which starts at a budget friendly $24,915, the base RF is only available in either Club or Grand Touring trim with the hardtop adding a $2,755 premium over the roadster. The end result when fully equipped is a $31,555 coupe that shares its price bracket with the much more powerful Ford Mustang as well as the Chevrolet Camaro.
In the end, it will ultimately depend on buyer tastes on which car to opt for, but if you don’t mind the extra wind noise, we recommend the lighter, and open air friendly MX-5 roadster especially in mid-grade Club trim.
2017 Mazda MX-5 GT
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.