Toyota 86 VS Mazda MX-5
- Huge fun to drive
- Comfortable despite purpose
- Good value
- Dodgy interior materials
- No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto
- Raucous engine
- Fun factor
- Legendary status
- Tiny boot
- No CarPlay (it's coming)
- Slightly firm ride
Toyota's 86 might have been a huge surprise when it burst onto the world stage, but now it's difficult to imagine a world without it. Heralding a so-far slow and steady return to more interesting cars for the Japanese giant, the 86 has steadily clocked up the sales.
The tiny sports car picked up a few specification tweaks late last year as well as a longed-for 'Performance Pack' and the mildest of upgraded stereos.
Half a decade on and with the Mazda MX-5 (in both convertible and hardtop) as a strong price rival, with an army of hot hatches nipping at its heels, is the 86 still the bargain funster we'd been missing all those years?
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Buying a car for fun, rather than just transport, is an unimaginable luxury for most of us, because most vehicles that are genuinely joyous - the kind that make you smile like a four-year-old in a bath full of gelato - are almost unobtainably expensive.
And that's what makes Mazda's MX-5, a car quite accurately described by the company's spokes folk as the "icon" of the brand, so special. Because it is hugely fun, and it is far more of a toy than a tool, and yet, with a price starting at just $34,190, it's the kind of dream car that's actually within touching distance of reality.
Mazda has just unveiled yet another facelift for the venerable roadster (and retractable hardtop) as part of its goal of "continually seeking new ways to make it even more thrilling and satisfying to drive".
It has aimed to kick this goal by redesigning the cupholders, giving it black wheels instead of silver ones and, for the first time, offering a steering wheel with telescopic adjustment (people have only been wanting that since its first version, back in 1989). There's also a new reversing camera tucked into its taut behind.
Rather more importantly, the 2.0-litre engine has also been given a proper going over and now creates more power, more torque, and revs higher, for an even better aural experience. Which sounds pretty fabulous. Prices are up $750 across the range to pay for all that, which sounds like a reasonable deal. Let's find out.
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The overall score doesn't really reflect how good this car is. It's let down by silly things like the lack of a decent stereo head unit, a ho-hum warranty package and a lack of advanced safety features. Those things sort of miss the point for most 86 buyers as the sales figures suggest.
It's old school fun without all the reliability and usability issues. It's a better proposition than any bargain sportscar for decades and is never not a barrel of laughs. The best value - and most fun - is a manual GT with the Dynamic Performance Pack. It's still good value, has a bit more oomph in the brakes and suspension and adds just a little bit of spice to the 86.
Has the 86 withstood the test of time? Or have other, new options stolen your heart? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
This latest face lift for the fabulous Mazda MX-5 may not be revolutionary, and indeed some if it is just fiddling at the edges, but the improved safety, rear-view camera and nice black wheels may impress a few buyers, while the extra zest and reviness from the engine will most certainly attract fans of this car's core ingredient - fun motoring.
Do you dream of having an MX-5 in your garage, just for sunny days, tell us in the comments section below.
As ever, the 86 exterior design is tasteful - low-slung and with a mild body kit including side skirts, a modest front spoiler and a metal rear wing that nobody seems to like. The 86 has those classic sports car proportions despite its diminutive dimensions.
The rear diffuser looks good but is unlikely to do much other than house the fog light and reversing lights. The big twin exhausts look terrific, so if you want a quad exhaust, I will only ask why.
Inside is as minimally thoughtful as ever. There's nothing especially wrong with it but there is little to commend it with a mix of materials and various cop-outs to save money. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, given the car's intentions, but if you're expecting a premium interior, you're of out luck. Having said that, the suede-like panel in the GTS looks pretty good.
Changes to the look of the MX-5 would best be described as singular, because there is only one - a swap from silver wheels to metallic black ones, in a bid to "emphasise the car's visual impact".
Even the base model roadster gets the new black look, albeit 15-inch versions, while the RF gets 17-inch alloys. the range-topping GT, strangely, gets 17-inch silver wheels.
Other than that, the looks of the MX-5 remain the same, and that's a very good thing, because this is, far and away, the angriest and sexiest looking version of the classic two-seater ever to roll out of the Hiroshima factory.
Apparently there are people who find the latest look too sharp, too Japanese and too anime, and would prefer a look to the rounded, happy-puppy looks of old. But those people are simply wrong. This is a fantastic looking vehicle, no matter which colour wheels it has.
When it comes to paint colours the same six remain on offer - 'Soul Red Crystal Metallic', 'Machine Grey Metallic', 'Snow' aka 'White Pearl Mica', 'Ceramic Mica', 'Eternal Blue Mica' and 'Jet Black Mica'. So no green, yellow, orange or gold. Soul Red is clearly the choice here.
There is a body kit available as part of the optional Kuroi sports pack ($4220), which also includes a rear diffuser. Roof racks are not an option. Floor mats will also cost you $166.23 extra. Ouch.
Interior photos reveal a cosy space for driver and passenger. The rear seats are almost entirely pointless, although you can get small kids in. Like really small - I'm just on 180cm and drive closer to the wheel than most but I could still only slot a laptop computer in the 'legroom'.
The front seats are split by a narrow console with a moveable tray with two cupholders and a slot that holds a smaller iPhone or Android phone. There is no armrest, but that's for practical gear-shifting reasons. Those in the rear don't get a cup holder at all.
People always ask how many seats Toyota has crammed in, and the answer is four, but it's really a 2+2.
Boot space isn't terrible at 223 litres and if you fold down the rear seats, you've capacity for a set of four wheels and tyres. Which might be handy given there is no longer a spare tyre, so a tyre repair kit might be in order...
As you might imagine, ground clearance isn't off-road spectacular but the 86 does pass my driveway test. In other words, I can get it up my driveway - some SUVs don't even manage without that stomach churning scraaape.
Once again, the changes inside the MX-5 are not huge, but one of them - the addition of telescopic adjustment for the steering column - will be very welcome to fans who have long wondered why they couldn't be just that bit more comfortable at the wheel.
This Mazda already had a fantastic, low-slung driving position that made you feel like part of the car, but it's even better now that you can have the wheel exactly where you want it.
There's also been a slight tweak to the design of the sun visors, for better coverage, and the gaps between the detachable cupholders - of which there are two - have been optimised to allow easier attachment and removal. They've also been made more rigid, "to suppress wobble", because no one likes a wobbly drink, particularly around fast bends.
In yet another example of paying attention to every detail, the levers you use to adjust the seats have also been made slightly thicker and more rigid, just so they feel better.
In terms of practicality, of course, it's not really a key selling point of any MX-5, nor has it ever been. There's limited oddment storage behind the gear lever and a tiny kind of lunch box behind your left shoulder, and a very small glove box as well, with no room for bottles, or anything else, in the doors.
There's not a lot of room, generally, in the MX-5's tight and glove-like cabin, but that's just the way it's supposed to feel. Small and perfectly snug.
The boot is deep-ish, but narrow, and it's overnight bags only in its 130-litre space (boot capacity in the RF is an even smaller 127 litres).
While shoulder and elbow room are limited, headroom is quite good, even in the hard-topped RF version.
Price and features
There are still only two trim levels these days, if you discount the racing version. The Toyota website suggests the 'Apollo Blue' is a separate model, but you'll soon see that's a bit cheeky. Our brief comparison features RRP straight off the price list. The drive-away price is obviously between you and your dealer.
Standard features include 16-inch alloys, a limited-slip diff (manual only), LED headlights and daytime running lights, reversing camera, 6.1-inch touchscreen, AM/FM radio, power windows and mirrors, electric power steering, air-conditioning, floor mats, hill start assist, a sound system with six speakers, Bluetooth and USB, cruise control and cloth trim.
The second level of the road going range is the GTS, starting at $36,640 for the manual and $38,940 for the auto. To the base model you can add bigger rims at 17 inches, dual-zone climate control, an info display in the dashboard between the gauges, privacy glass, heated front seats, stereo controls on the steering wheel, keyless entry and push button start, fake leather seats with Alcantara trim inserts and GPS navigation system with SUNA traffic info.
The GTS's tyres are markedly better Michelins.
For the GT and GTS you can choose from six colours: 'Tornado Grey', 'Storm Black', 'Ice Silver', 'White Liquid', 'Gravity Blue' and 'Ignition Red'. If you go all in on a GTS, you can also have Apollo Blue. Fans of orange and yellow are out of luck. Only Ignition Red is a freebie, the rest will stick you with a $450 bill.
The GT and GTS also offer the 'Dynamic Performance Pack' option. How much does it cost and what do you get? Sadly, no turbo or increase in engine size or improvement in engine specs for a bit more speed. I know many of you pine for more horsepower to improve the 86's stats, but Toyota won't help out.
So, the $2200 (GT)/$2900 (GTS) pack includes a darker set of alloy wheels, SACHS suspension and a set of Brembo brakes. GTS buyers can also specify Apollo Blue as the exterior colour, raising the price again to $39,950 for the manual and $41,890 for the auto.
The 6.1-inch infotainment screen that runs the sound system is an ongoing disaster. Too small, terrible software, it's an afterthought. To add insult to injury, there is no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto despite the Subaru version managing to fit a stereo with exactly that feature. It's a perplexingly bad decision to leave them out, especially when it's a basic double DIN unit that's easy to replace.
Accessories include interior lighting, rear parking sensors and a bootliner. Missing from the list are a towbar, HID headlights (the standard LEDs are excellent) and, unsurprisingly, air suspension.
Conspicuous by their absence are a roof rack and sunroof. Despite a soft top concept a few years back, there isn't a convertible either. If you want a subwoofer, you'll have to go aftermarket.
The waiting time for your 86 is a thing of the past - stock levels appear solid around the country.
Prices have risen $750 across the entire range for this new update to the MX-5, but Mazda Australia claims that's more than made up for by the extra new safety kit, plus the reversing camera, the new wheels and, in the case of the 2.0-litre models that 95 per cent of people will buy, more power, torque and revs on offer.
The base model Roadster, at a very temping $34,190, will still appeal to some purists who hate the idea of big, heavy roofs (70 per cent of buyers will go for the RF) and big, powerful engines.
Standard kit at that level includes that new reversing camera, 16-inch alloy wheels (now black metallic for extra visual menace), a cloth soft top, LED headlamps, power mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, climate-control air (but who needs that, with a convertible!), black cloth seats, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with 'MZD Connect', an audio system with six speakers and DAB+ (but no CD player), Bluetooth streaming, internet radio integration, satellite navigation, 'Smart City Brake Support', or AEB, in both forward and reverse, 'Traffic Sign Recognition', 'Driver Attention Alert' and reverse parking sensors and blind-spot monitoring.
Step up through the trim levels to the GT Roadster with the 2.0L and you're quickly over $40K at $41,960 (add another $2000 for the auto, if you must), and you'll score 17-inch alloys, adaptive LEDs headlights and DRLs, black or tan leather on your seats, which are now heated, a 'Premium' Bose stereo with nine speakers, 'Advanced keyless entry' and lane-departure warning.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto gadgets are not available yet, but a dealer-fit fix is expected very soon, at some extra cost.
If you want the folding hard-top RF version, and most people do, then the basic spec will set you back $39,400, the GT $45,960 or the RF GT with the optional black roof $46,960.
It's still a lot of car, or at least a lot of fun in a little car for the money, but you'd have to consider whether you'd could be just as happy in a car that's almost as more fun but has five doors and a decent boot, like VW's Golf GTI.
What price, though, a roof-down drive on a summer evening? On its day, the Mazda makes a compelling argument against buying a Porsche Boxster. Which is high praise indeed.
Engine & trans
The Subaru-sourced 2.0-litre 'boxer' four soldiers on and in the six-speed manual produces 152kW/212Nm, both high in the rev range. Annoyingly, when paired with the six-speed automatic transmission, you only get 148kW/205Nm.
One of the reasons for the boxer engine is that it sits nice and low, which works for styling and packaging. Even getting the battery lower in the chassis means an improvement in handling.
The power heads rearwards (purists love rear-wheel drive) and is apportioned by a limited-slip differential.
There are no known common issues with the 86's boxer four. As to whether the engine features a timing belt or chain, the good news is that it's a chain, meaning lower long-term ownership and servicing costs.
The manual transmission doesn't seem to suffer any widespread complaints or issues and the automatic gearbox seems similarly reliable. If you needed to settle the manual vs automatic argument, that's yet another reason to go with the manual gearbox. As well as the lighter weight. And better performance figures.
There is no 4x4, front-wheel drive or AWD version, nor is there a diesel motor available. Although that would be interesting...
For some reason, the 86 comes in for criticism for its 0-100km per hour acceleration time, which is a swift seven-ish seconds.
Toyota does not offer a towing capacity figure, perhaps for obvious reasons.
So, let's start with the engine that almost no one - other than rusted-on purists apparently - will opt for; the 1.5-litre engine lurking in the base-model roadster, which is still seen as "the ultimate expression of the MX-5", by the marque's hardcore, old-school fans.
Small tweaks to this engine - which will make up just 5 per cent of total sales - have seen power rise by a single kilowatt to 97kW, and torque bumped from 150Nm to 152Nm.
The bigger and more exciting changes have been made to the 2.0-litre engine, which is the only choice you have anyway if you're opting for the RF - which 70 per cent of buyers will - but in the case of both engines the control units have been revised to give a feeling of more direct acceleration, a sensation further exacerbated by tweaks to both the automatic and manual transmissions to offer quicker response times, and less "jerk" during acceleration.
Yes, you can have your MX-5 with a six-speed automatic transmission, and a shocking 43 per cent of buyers are tipped to make that choice, even though it is the wrong one. The six-speed manual goes with this car the way tomato sauce goes with a pie, or soy sauce with sushi.
Revisions to the 2.0-litre power plant, including the use of a new, dual-mass flywheel, have increased power significantly from 118kW to 135kW, while the redline has also soared to 7500rpm from 6800rpm. Overall torque is up from 200Nm to 205Nm.
The engineers claim to have a delivered a sensation of "urgent, limitless acceleration", with linear responses all the way up to that new rev ceiling. Against the stop watch, that means a 0-100km/h time for the 2.0 of 6.5 seconds in the Roadster or 6.8 in the RF, against 8.3 seconds for the 1.5-litre Roadster.
Mazda says there's also more torque available across the whole rev range, while tweaks to the exhaust system, including a new inner silencer structure, also provide a more resonant, exciting sound to go with the extra power and revs.
The engine uses a timing chain rather than a timing belt. Oil capacity is 4.1 litres.
Fuel consumption is quite different between the transmission types. The manual's claimed combined cycle figure is 8.4L/100km while the automatic's is 7.1L/100km. Usually mileage figures are closer between transmissions, so if fuel economy is at the top of your list, it's the automatic.
Fuel tank capacity is 50 litres and you have to fill it with 98RON premium unleaded.
The official figures, for once, aren't a bad guide - my most recent week with an 86 manual returned 9.3L/100km.
Fuel economy for the little 1.5-litre engine is 6.2 litres per 100km for the manual or 6.4L/100km for the auto, while the 2.0-litre version - which is naturally aspirated rather than turbocharged or supercharged and thus wonderfully old-school, returns 6.8 and 7.0L/100km respectively in the roadster, rising to 6.9 and 7.2 in the RF.
All of these figures reflect an ideal world, rather than the real one, where you will regularly push it all the way through the rev range in several gears and get nowhere near those numbers.
Every time I drive the 86, I am struck by the same things. The first is just how small it really is. Its road footprint is tiny, the Toyota dwarfed by just about everything. That means it's great in the city for ducking in and out of gaps and if you keep the left arm busy on the shifter, you'll be able to use its momentum to carve through the dawdling idiots infesting our roads.
The steering is always a delight - fast and direct, you know what's under those skinny front tyres and the weighting is near perfection. Coupled with the finely-tuned chassis, it's super-predictable and a huge laugh out of damp roundabouts.
The best bit is the balance - you can really feel the car underneath you. When you strip it all back, ignore the rackety engine and plasticky interior, it really feels like a car twice the price. The whole experience is centred around fun but without abandoning the needs of daily driving - the soft suspension allows for body roll which is both fun when you're thrashing but delivers a bearable ride on the school/work run.
It's a bit tinny, it's missing some obvious bits and pieces but few cars put you in touch with the purity of driving like a manual 86.
The automatic - largely ignored - is still fun, but it's not really what the 86 is all about. For me, I once had an auto 86 and it was an opportunity to show my manual-shy wife what she's been missing.
Almost every time you drive an MX-5, of any generation, you find yourself doing a little glee face. There's something innocent, old-school and almost childish about how much fun they are.
The magic is in the simplest of set-ups - light weight, rear-wheel drive, short wheelbase, sharp steering, slick gearbox - and it's one that has only gotten better over the years with the addition of better technology. And, vitally, more power.
Every time you drive one, however, it's hard not to wonder how much more enjoyable it could be with just a few more herbs under the bonnet. The current iteration of the car, with its sharp, sleek lines and mean, take-me-seriously face, has been offered with a 2.0-litre engine for a while now, and it did make the MX-5 feel more potent than ever before… and yet you had to wonder if there was still a bit more lurking under the bonnet, waiting to be unleashed.
And now, finally and wonderfully, it has been. The upgraded version of the power plant produces more of its 205Nm of torque (up 5Nm) throughout the rev range, which now stretches all the way to 7500pm (up from 6800rpm), and power has taken a serious step up from 118kW to 135kW.
It's still not a huge number, but in a car that weighs just 1035kg (1087kg for the RF), it's enough to produce more than just the sprightly performance we've come to expect from this zippy Mazda.
The power now on tap means you can really up your pace if you want to, and go-to-jail speeds are now most assuredly an option for the keen/crazy driver.
What has always made the MX-5 one of the great sports cars, however, is that it's so much fun to drive even at lower, legal speeds, and that remains the case here. The way the car corners, the connection it seems to have to your core, through your hips and via your finger tips, remains as visceral and vital as ever.
It is telling that the engineers made no changes at all to the chassis or handling of this version, because they realised it was damn close to perfect already.
This MX-5, then, is just as much of a huge hoot as the one it replaces, it's just that it's now faster, and perhaps even a tiny bit louder, than before, and that is a very good thing.
If you can squeeze in a baby seat, there are two ISOFIX points and two top-tether points.
The maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating dates way back to 2012.
The standard safety offering is another area that's had the facelifting magic applied to it for this upgrade, with more 'i-ACTIVSENSE' technologies now coming as standard across the range, and, finally, a 'Rear Monitor', or reversing camera, now standard, tucked away in the centre of the rear bumper.
New safety features include 'Smart City Brake Support', or AEB, forward only on the base but also in reverse on GT and above, 'Traffic Sign Recognition', 'Driver Attention Alert' (GT spec only) and reverse parking sensors. Blind-spot monitoring was already included.
If all that fails you'll be protected by four airbags, two each for driver and passenger. The MX-5 received a five-star ANCAP rating when it was most recently tested, back in 2016.
Toyota still offers a three-year/100,000km warranty and roadside assist is an extra cost. Many customers understand that a key Toyota value proposition is reliability, but the three-year warranty club is almost as small as the full-term Prime Ministers club has been in the last decade.
Resale value appears strong, no doubt helped by a distinct lack of common problems, gearbox problems, issues, faults or complaints about the car. A second hand 86 should be easy to come by - since its launch in 2012, Toyota has shifted around 20,000 cars.
Service cost is capped at $180 per service and you're expected to visit the dealer every nine months or 15,000km, which is kind of odd.
The owners manual is packed with useful details like oil capacity and type.
Another question I'm often asked is "Where is the Toyota 86 built?" - the answer is Subaru's Gunma plant in Japan. Some also ask "Is the Toyota 86 discontinued?" - that's a firm no, although the US Scion sub-brand version, the FR-S, is no more.
As well as being good value you can bet this car will have good resale value. Check out our problems pages to see if there any automatic transmission, clutch or engine problems, faults or issues.
The warranty is now five years/unlimited km, which is pretty good for a sports car, but you will have to service it every year/10,000km. The first service is $304, the second $347, then back to $304 for the third and fifth. You get the picture.