There are no losers here. This is not a cop-out, a case of a wishy-washy writer not wanting to draw a conclusion here. My mind overflows with thoughts on these two, but the main thing is that we as car enthusiasts are damn lucky that we have two affordable, world-class rear-wheel drive sports cars. In a slightly more rational world, Mazda would not sell a Miata, and Toyota would not sell a GR86. We can also foresee a not-too-distant future where they don't exist, or exist in a very different form.
Where else to go with a GR86 and a Miata but Lime Rock Park? The old-school Connecticut road course that's become something like a home to many of us, however, in the spirit of low-dollar motoring, we decided to forgo the track itself for the excellent infield autocross course. Also because it's easier to do slides there, and isn't that at least half the point of owning a car like this? Plus, the roads around the track are excellent, traversed by sports-car drivers for decades, and you have the makings of as thorough and relevant a test for these types of cars as we could ever think of.
The fourth-generation "ND" Miata debuted eight years ago and our love has only grown since. Two staffers own NDs, and after one day of driving, I started doing the math. It's the purest sports car on sale today. Mazda developed a unique platform for the car, keeping dimensions tidy and weight remarkably low, well under 2400 pounds for this well-equipped GT soft top. Since 2019, the Miata gets power from a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder that makes 181 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. Price as tested, $33,910.
Toyota's GR86 is the fresh one, arriving just last year. If the Miata is the modern take on the classic roadster, this is a classic take on a sports coupe. The Datsun 240Z to the Miata's Lotus Elan. It rides on an updated version of the platform developed for the original Toyota 86 (née Scion FR-S) and its not-quite-identical twin, the Subaru BRZ. Parked next to anything except an ND Miata, it's a small car, certainly no larger than a 2+2 coupe need be. This is a Premium model, mechanically identical to the base car except for 18-inch wheels and summer tires. Curb weight is 2848 pounds, which is very light compared to pretty much any new car but an ND Miata, and price as tested is $31,750.
Given that these two are the only affordable, lightweight sports cars on the market, it's remarkable how different they feel. Their execution of a similar idea is quite different, and myself, plus R&T staff writer Brian Silvestro and editor-at-arge Travis Okulski, on hand to help with evaluation and photography, found ourselves discussing their details at length. In between bouts of sliding the cars around.
I often worry that familiarity breeds contempt in cars, yet after many hours in ND Miatas over the years, it still feels like a revelation. The Miata is defined by its size, shorter even than the original of 1990, and smaller than pretty much anything on sale today. If you want something to stretch out in, get a different car, yet if you're willing to be just a little more snug than usual, you're rewarded with a world-class driving experience.
It has the more ideal sports-car chassis, with double-wishbone suspension up front and multi-links out back. Double wishbones are more expensive and harder to package than McPherson struts, but allow for better camber control in cornering without the need for a stiffer spring/damper setup. Dave Coleman, the engineering ace at Mazda North America, once said that the best, most exciting roads are usually the worst when it comes to surface quality, so a sports car shouldn't be overly stiff. Out on the road, the Miata provides a near-perfect balance of ride and handling and a feel that matches the best sports cars of old. It takes a moment for the car to take a set, as it has a lot more body roll than most modern performance cars, but once it does, it can be driven on the throttle. It's a joy, and testament to the fundamental rightness of the Miata's design. The engine is a gem, too. Updated for 2019, it got more power, though more important, it got more revs. It sings to a 7500-rpm limiter, delivering smooth, linear power all the way there. Add in a perfect gearbox and it's impossible not to fall for the Miata's charms.
Though very different in philosophy, the GR86 has a lot to offer too. It's, perhaps, the more serious car of the two, stiffer, sharper on turn-in, and maybe even a little quicker point-to-point. The fact that it has distant origins with more pedestrian cars and its larger size mean that the GR86 can't match the Miata for absolute purity and focus, yet there's so much to love here.
The driving position is spot-on. As with the old 86, the GR86 is one of those cars that feels right immediately when you get in. The seats are far nicer than the standard Miata chairs, with much more bolstering though no meaningful sacrifice in everyday comfort. You can get better seats in a Miata, but you need to option the expensive, yet desirable $4500 BBS/Brembo/Recaro package, which as the name suggests, adds gorgeous forged BBS wheels and larger Brembo brakes. Toyota and Subaru nailed the steering wheel, too, with a thin rim and small diameter that helps give the car immediacy and a sense of lightness. The Miata's steering is ultimately a little more feelsome, yet the Toyota's is still excellent. I love how pointy the front-end is, too. The GR86 turns in sharply and the rear follows in an instant, providing tons of driver confidence and speed.
Testing numbers from Car and Driver indicate that the two cars are just as fast as each other, at least at road speeds, but the Toyota feels quicker. Its relatively large 2.4-liter flat-four has a lot more mid-range torque and flexibility than the Miata's 2.0-liter inline-four, so in-gear performance feels superior. Still, the engine isn't as smooth and sweet as the Miata's, and the gearbox is a little more rubbery and imprecise. The GR86 has a bit of rev-hang, too, where the throttle is held open momentarily after the driver releases the pedal. This helps with emissions, but makes it harder to shift smoothly. It's a behavior the Miata never exhibits, and as such, going up and down the gears in the roadster is more enjoyable.
Overall, the GR86 is a little less comfortable on the road, too, though its longer wheelbase and tin roof mean you don't get some of the jitteriness and cowl shake that the Miata exhibits. (Worth noting, too, that the Subaru BRZ, which is tuned to be slightly softer overall than the GR86, but we simply like the Toyota better.) The extra stiffness and weight make the GR86 a little better suited to sliding around on an autocross, well worth the slight loss in comfort.
With the Miata, you're constantly trying to manage more extreme weight transfer, so slides take a lot more commitment. In the Toyota, it's much easier, and the car is far more willing to hold big angles and make transitions between. "There's way more adjustability beyond the limit," Silvestro said. "Torque and stiffer suspension," added Okulski.
A few less-oversteery laps on the autocross and previous experience indicate to us that the GR86 is probably the better track car. Despite being easier to slide, the limits are actually higher, that extra stiffness translating to more grip. The engine's torque means gearing is less of an issue, and being a fixed hardtop means that you don't need to worry about rollover protection. If you want to track your Miata, you'll likely need an aftermarket roll-bar and you better hope you'll pass the "broomstick test." Plus, the GR86 has the luggage space for a jack and a set of tires, whereas the Miata quite obviously doesn't. Still, the Miata is deeply satisfying when you're playing right at the limits of grip, that extra body roll and nicer steering giving the driver a great understanding of what's happening beneath them. For someone looking to do track days frequently, however, we'd have to recommend the GR86.
Really, the GR86 is the better car for most people. No, it's not a car you're ever going to take four passengers in, but the extra space does make it far more practical. Overall, the ride is better in the Miata, as is fuel economy, but the GR86 is probably the superior commuter as it just allows the driver a little more room to spread out. Plus, being a hardtop has many advantages. Beyond size, there's not much to split them interior-wise. Both feel similar in quality, and while both have infotainment systems that feel somewhat dated, each offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (wirelessly in the Miata), so it doesn't really matter. Maybe the Toyota feels a little more contemporary inside, though I doubt that's going to be a huge selling point.
"I can certainly live with a Miata full time, but I can see why people wouldn’t want to," Silvestro said, and I'm in agreement. The Miata ultimately offers the better sports-car experience, but it's just not going to work for a lot of people. Especially for younger enthusiasts who aren't looking at either of these as a second car, the Toyota makes more sense. And it's still one of the best-driving cars on sale today.
Price also matters here, too. The base GR86 is mechanically identical to this Premium model other than slightly smaller wheels, and costs $28,995. A bargain for any new car today, let alone one of the sweetest driving at any price. The extra (Usual caveat of "if you can find one for MSRP" applies here). The extra $2600 for the Preimum trim seems well worth it for the upgraded interior trim, heated seats, better tires (Michelin Pilot Sport 4s vs Primacy HPs for the base) and those gorgeous 18-inch wheels.
With the Miata, you probably don't want the base Sport model as it has a softer chassis setup and no limited-slip differential. The Club starts at $32,615 and the GT is $34,115, adding leather interior, automatic climate control, and some other nice features, but no mechanical upgrades. Really, the Miata you want is the Club with the BBS/Brembo/Recaro package, which costs $37,150. Opting for the folding metal hardtop of the RF model over the standard soft-top increases the price further still. At this end of the market, these price differences actually matter, especially when you're paying a not-insignificant premium for a less practical car.
So, we're not going to rank the cars here. Not when both fit such different use cases and budgets, and not when both are this good. Myself, Silvestro, and Okulski all prefer the way the Miata drives and the increasingly rare purity it offers. Hell, Okulski owns an ND. Yet all of us still love the GR86, and we all have deep respect for anyone who buys one.
Though the options for affordable, rear-drive, lightweight sports cars aren't plentiful, the Miata and GR86 offer so much to so many. Picking a winner between the two misses the point. These are cars that are products of passion over reason. At the end of the day, we're thankful.