Car Reviews

Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota 86 vs Ford Mustang

The MX-5, Toyota 86 and Ford Mustang are all rear-drive sportscars you don’t need, but want. So, Which one should you choose?

RECENTLY I filed a report on the new Mustang after a two-day press launch which came mid-way during my week-long test of the MX-5, which itself arrived exactly three years to the day after I bought my Toyota 86. So it seems appropriate to compare all three.

Your rear-drive options

The Mustang is offered in six variants. There’s just one trim level, but there are choices of a 4-cylinder turbo or a naturally-aspirated V8, both in auto and manual. There is a convertible available with either engine and that’s automatic only. Prices start at $45,990 (manual 4-cyl coupe) to $66,490 (auto 5.0L convertible), plus onroads.
 
The MX-5 gives you a choice of eight versions. There’s a 1.5L in Roadster or Roadster GT trim, both available in auto or manual, and same again for a 2.0L engine option. All MX-5s are convertible. Prices run from $31,990 (manual 1.5L Roadster) to $41,550 (auto 2.0L Roadster GT), plus onroads.
 
The 86 has four options. There’s the base model GT and the higher spec GTS, available in automatic or manual. There’s no convertible option. Mention must be made of its sister car, the nearly-identical Subaru BRZ which you can buy in one trim spec that’s closer to the GTS than GT, and in either automatic or manual. The 86’s price range is $29,990 (manual GT) to $38,490 (auto GTS), plus onroads.
 
Let’s get the obvious and boring out of the way first. Compared to a hatchback, all these cars are more expensive to buy and run, less practical and there’s no logical reason to buy them. But the more interesting humans spice their logical lives with excitement, pleasure and fun which is why these cars exist. And they exist for very different purposes.

daily-drive Practicality

Let’s get the less exciting bit out of the way first, and that’s the boring car-based errands we all have to do. The ascending order is MX-5, then 86, then a bit of daylight, then Mustang in first place. The big Ford wins because, well, it’s big. It has the best rear seats, handily beating the MX-5 which has none at all, and the 86 which has tiny ones. But don’t be thinking the Mustang is a true four-seater because it’s not, it’s what’s known as a 2+2. The Mustang also scores highly with a large boot (two golf bags, apparently), relatively high ride height and suspension that absorbs bumps rather than flattens them. It is also the heaviest on fuel, but that tends not to worry owners of these cars.
 
Next is the 86, which in this respect is a smaller, harsher-riding Mustang. It’s more effort to lower yourself into, speedbumps become a thing of pain and you’re lower so you don’t see as far. The clutch and engine in the manual aren’t as easy to use at low speeds as the Mustang, but both autos are easy. So why does the 86 rate above the MX-5? Space is the answer. The 86 has a much larger boot than the MX-5, and it has two tiny seats. The 86’s second row even folds down for more space, and it has something known as a “glovebox”, a concept the MX-5 designers haven’t heard of. You’d be lucky to fit a weekly shop for two into the back of an MX-5. And the little Mazda is also a soft-top which is a security concern.
 
But the 86 doesn’t win on all fronts. The MX-5 is an easier drive with better low-speed tractability, and it has a much softer suspension so bumps aren’t going to hurt as much. It’s also very small and easy to park.

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MX-5 does not care. Mustang deals with it. 86 drivers grimace.
 
Bottom line: All three can work as daily drivers. The MX-5 would be best if you don’t need the space, the Mustang is both spacious and comfortable, and the 86 is uncomfortable but has good space for its size.

Cruising and touring

In first place is the Mustang, which has a comfortable, modern interior. The suspension suited for sports cruising, the car is quiet at freeway speeds, offers plenty of space, and doesn’t lack for pace. The only concern is a lack of a spare tyre, although you can take a space-saver.
 
In second place, joint, are the MX-5 and 86. The MX-5 is a better long-distance drive as it’s quieter and more refined, but it is compromised by space. The 86 has the option of a full-sized spare tyre. The MX-5’s soft top is not very quiet, but it’s not much worse than the unrefined 86’s tin-top. Neither Japanese car has in the lower trim levels all the electronic and upper-spec options you find as standard in the Mustang; examples are very good satnav, split-cycle aircon, heated and cooled seats.
 MUSTANG  164
 
Bottom line: you’d take the Mustang interstate for pleasure, you’d take the others if you had to.

Performance Driving

A definite last place here for the Mustang. It’s at least 1666kg and that’s around 400kg more than the 86, and 600 or so more than the MX-5. No amount of tuning can overcome that sort of disadvantage at this price point so the Mustang is never going to feel as connected, nimble or joyful as the two smaller cars. Yet it is fun, rewarding and is an easy car in which to make rapid progress. It is no real shame for it to be placed third behind two of the finest sportscars seen this decade.
 
So let’s look at MX-5 vs 86. If it’s a rural twisty road then the 86 will deliver a richly satisfying driving experience but given a choice between it and the MX-5 then I’m reaching for the Mazda keyfob. The MX-5 is slightly slower in a straight line, but it’s 250kg or so lighter, narrower and that translates into better agility, feel and an ability to connect the lines the 86 can manage but not quite as well. Oh, and there’s the option of top-down fun. But it’s only a narrow win to the MX-5 because the 86 has something many drivers will prize, and that’s a certain amount of untamed oversteery naughtiness you very rarely see in cars these days. You need to be careful with the 86 even at relatively slow speeds, whereas the MX-5 feels far more forgiving, there’s depth there to be explored but it’s not as intense as the 86, the throttle response isn’t as immediate, the rev limit is lower, and the dynamics don’t change as much with throttle movement. The Mazda edges the Toyota for smoothly rich dynamics if not on-edge challenge.
 
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Bottom line: The Mustang is a grand tourer sportscar with easy long-legged range, the 86 and MX-5 are your choice for shorter-range dynamic thrills bigger cars cannot deliver.

quality and premium-ness

Dead last here is the 86 which is strongly built, but poorly finished and even by Toyota’s standards you’d call it basic. The MX-5 and Mustang do much better, both of which show attention to detail and generally give the owner a sense of quality if not luxurious style.

This view shows the use of aluminium.
This view shows the use of aluminium.

Bottom line: if you want a car where you can enjoy the ambience and interior forget the 86, choose between Mustang and MX-5.

The style factor

What impression do you give off in each of these cars? It kind of depends on what you do with the car and who you are – take an MX-5 driven by a middle-aged bloke wearing sunnies and Harry Hairchest shirt in drop-top – different impression from the same car driven by a young lady.

Right now, if you drive a Mustang you will get attention, in a good sort of way. Mustangs are bought by people that love cars, as distinct from Lamborghinis which are mostly bought by people that love themselves. The same is true of the MX-5 but to a lesser degree, MX-5s have been around for ages and this new one is not getting anywhere near the love reserved for the Mustang. The 86 was super cool three years ago but is now so commonplace it is entirely unremarkable.

As all of these are unnecessary, impractical sportscars you can expect the tediously beige naysayers to tut and tisk at the sight of someone enjoying themselves, but that’s just a general hazard with anything nice these days.

MX-5 is only convertible (except for future aftermarket hardtop options), Mustang has a convertible option in EcoBoost or V8 but only automatic, and 86 is tin-top only. All three have six-speed manuals or six-speed autos with paddle shifts.

All three vehicles have a huge choice of aftermarket accessories and modifications ranging from bodykits to wheels to trim pieces to performance upgrades such as forced-induction (super or turbocharger) kits, brakes and suspension. You can truly make each of these your own, and they all have large and enthusiastic owner club communities. In the case of the Mustang much of that is in the USA, but it is sure to build up in Australia too.

MUSTANG  159

Bottom line: if you had to pick one, the Mustang would be the coolest but it’s more about what you do with the car and how you do it.

Value

The 86 is the best value by quite a margin. It delivers fantastic driving thrills at a low price, and it can work as a daily driver. The MX-5 is literally less car for more money, in some ways a better car, but still can’t approach the fun/cost factor the 86 does so well. The cheapest Mustang is more expensive than the dearest MX-5 or 86, but is a bigger car. It offers better straight line performance, cruiseability, space and the Mustang name. Right now, Ford can charge a premium for the Mustang and it will still sell, but as ever with sportscars expect initial demand to die off and then bargains can be had…some time in mid 2017!
 
All three cars are likely to do reasonably well on resale as there will be generations of enthusiasts looking for them in the future.
 
0487
 
Bottom line: The concept of value is something of an anomaly with these cars, but all three are price-competitive with their peers (especially MX-5 & 86) and each will be sought after for years to come.

Summary

The MX-5, Toyota 86 and Mustang as cars are brilliant vehicles in their own way. Mustang and MX-5 have the history, but the Toyota 86 has appeared from nowhere to become an instant classic. It’s always hard to guess at how and why people buy cars, but I can see the Mustang working well as a much-loved general purpose sportscar, used for short and long trips, maybe even a bit of motorsports work which is well within its capability. It is more expensive, but has a broader range of capability than the MX-5 or 86. In contrast, the MX-5 is more of a toy, or a car for people that don’t really need a car or much space. It is also superb for motorsports. The Toyota 86 is a mix of the two, able to deliver driving thrills, work as a daily driver and most definitely as a motorsports weapon
 

Also consider

The hot hatch. Doesn’t look as good, but goes as fast, handles as well and is even more practical with much better seats (sometimes five), sometimes more doors, more cargo room and a higher driving position. Examples include Fiesta ST, Peugeot 208 GTi, Golf GTi, Ford’s new Focus RS, Mercedes AMG A45. None are rear-drive, but do you need it?

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Or how about a hot sedan, maybe an Evo (while you can) or a WRX?

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Links

The MX-5 is closer in concept to Toyota’s forthcoming micro-sportscar, the S-FR. Read more about that, including a spec comparison, hereFiat have also released some early details of their version, the Fiat 124 Spider.

1 Comment

  1. dilligaf
    February 6, 2016 at 11:28 pm — Reply

    I always enjoy Robert’s reports, great read.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper