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by Matt Campbell

Power up front, drive to the back, a stick-shift in the middle – it’s how nature intended sports cars to be. And these two purist offerings – the 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF and the updated 2017 Subaru BRZ – are true to that formula.

Both of these Japanese, sporty, fun and affordable cars may follow the same path towards inducing grins, particularly when fitted with manual gearboxes as our test cars are, but there are some fairly large differences between them.

The Mazda MX-5 RF has a hardtop roof, albeit one that can be stowed away if you’d prefer some open-top motoring. The Subaru BRZ, on the other hand, has rear seats and a bigger boot for the semblance of extra practicality. And a permanent roof.

And while both respectively tick the proverbial affordability box because they’re pretty damned cheap to buy and own, the slinky, sexy drop-top of the Hiroshima-built Mazda does add some extra cost over the Gunma-made Subaru. (Yes, that’s the same production line that the Toyota 86 comes from, because yes, they’re the same car in essence: but we thought the updated BRZ offered a bit of a different take on things for this test).

So, given the choice between the hardtop convertible Mazda MX-5 RF and the Subaru BRZ coupe, the question that comes to mind is this: is getting the wind in your hair worth spending the extra money?

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Pricing and specs

There’s not a massive gap between these two in terms of price, but if you’re after an affordable sports car, every dollar counts.

The Mazda MX-5 RF manual we have here is priced from $38,550 plus on-road costs. It’s the most affordable hardtop – or Retractable Fastback (yes, that’s what the RF stands for) – version of the MX-5 on the market, and you can option it with an automatic transmission for $2000 more. There’s also a dearer, better-equipped GT version if you so desire, and one with a contrasting black roof should that design tickle your fancy. Mazda reckons 60 per cent of all MX-5 orders will be of the RF variety, so it makes sense to offer plenty of choice.

The Subaru BRZ, on the other hand, isn’t an option-heavy vehicle. The manual model we have on test is a good chunk cheaper at $32,990 plus on-road costs – and the only other version of the BRZ you can get is a six-speed auto ($2000 more). That pricing, however, places the Mazda a solid 17 per cent more expensive than the Subie – and we’re talking about $5560, so it’s not a small sum.

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The Subaru – which is $1230 cheaper in 2017 guise – gets a few niceties the Mazda misses out on despite being less expensive. The BRZ, for example, comes with dual-zone climate control, where the Mazda has manual air-conditioning. The BRZ also has a rear-view camera, where the MX-5 misses out on that and doesn’t even supplement its shortcoming with rear parking sensors.

The MX-5 does, however, have satellite navigation (which the BRZ doesn’t) and it betters the Subie with standard blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert despite lacking the parking aids that would no doubt be more useful day-to-day.

Both cars have Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, but neither has Apple CarPlay or Android Auto connectivity, and both have USB connectivity (1x jack in the BRZ and 2x ports in the MX-5), but the BRZ still has a CD player – the MX-5 doesn’t. The BRZ has a smaller 6.2-inch touchscreen; the Mazda’s screen is a 7.0-inch touch-capacitive unit with a supplementary rotary dial for moving between the menus on the go.

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Both have 17-inch alloy wheels, and both have LED headlights with LED daytime running lights, including auto on/off functionality, as well as LED tail-lights. Neither has automatic wipers.

We’ve discussed the active safety bits the Mazda has, but it misses out on some passive safety stuff: it has four airbags (dual front and front side), where the Subaru has seven (dual front, front side, full-length curtain and driver’s knee). Neither has autonomous emergency braking… but remember, these are purist sports cars!


Ownership

It’s not just affordability at the point of purchase that counts for these types of cars – maintenance is also something potential customers will likely consider.

With neither of the cars featuring forced induction, you’d expect cheap servicing: and that’s the case for both, though the best deal for the consumer will be determined by the amount of mileage they do.

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The Mazda needs maintenance every 12 months or 10,000km, whichever occurs first. The average cost per year over a 36-month period is $313 before consumables.

Subaru requires you to have the BRZ serviced every nine months or 15,000km, whichever occurs first – so it could actually work out better for you if you travel a lot of distance. The average cost per year over a 36-month period for the BRZ is $299 before consumables, so there’s not much in it.

As for warranty cover, each has the standard three-year/unlimited kilometre cover you’d expect, and neither has complementary roadside assistance included with the purchase.

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Interior

Pure as they may be, people expect decent accommodation nowadays, and these two are pretty different in terms of their interior treatments.

For one, the Subaru’s cockpit seats four – well, there are four seatbelts, and the rear has ISOFIX and top-tether anchor points for little ones – so you can, theoretically, fit four people in the cabin, but we’d suggest the rear seats are considered more suitable for children or emergency adult occupancy only. Or you could fold down the rear seat back and utilise the flat load space for luggage, spare wheels… whatever.

It doesn’t have the most upmarket feeling cabin, and part of the reason is because there’s a lack of cohesion. There are blue graphics on the media screen, then orangey-red screens on the climate controls, then green lights on the switches, then a white font with orangey background on the driver info screen – it just doesn’t gel as well as it could. At least the red stitching is consistent and tidy.

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And while it hasn’t got the same visual pizzazz as the Mazda, it has considerably better comfort on offer for larger occupants.

There’s better, more thoughtful storage on offer: a larger (yet open) centre console bin with cupholders that can be moved sits between the seats, while the door pockets are big enough for bottles, and there are map pockets in the back seats too.

The Mazda, in contrast, is tight, tiny and pretty banging. Literally banging: elbows and funny bones will be bumped on the daft cupholders between the seat uprights, and taller drivers will occasionally brush their hair on the ceiling when cornering or even re-adjusting in the seat.

Admittedly, the MX-5’s cabin instantly looks a lot nicer. The way the body colour paint reaches around you in the cabin is top-notch lovely; it almost feels like the door tops are giving you a hug. But those door tops are hard plasticky in their finish, where the BRZ has elbow-friendly padding. And the BRZ has soft padded sections on the centre console and on the door skins, which is handy when you’re punting it hard – the Mazda doesn’t have any of the soft stuff.

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The MX-5 feels a lot tighter inside, and it can’t match the BRZ for thoughtful storage, even with its neat storage box that sits between the backs of the seats. Claustrophobes may struggle here, and having no reach adjustment for the steering doesn’t help in making taller drivers feel comfortable.

The offset pedal box also makes it hard for the longer-legged, and the annoying hump in the floor pan on the driver’s side (under which hides some exhaust trickery) means your legs will be extended at all times, making long-distance driving stretches not as comfortable as you might like.

The Subaru has reach adjustment – ideal for finding your perfect driving position – but its seats are a bit annoying if you plan to use the rear seats a lot. That’s because there’s no top grab handle to tilt and slide the seats forward like you find in most other two-door cars, and that means access to the rear can be a bit clumsy. If you don’t plan to use it often, then it’s no biggie, really. And that rear seat offers space that is acceptable for very short trips, unless you’ve got short front-seat occupants who sit close to the steering wheel.

The Subaru’s seats are better for support and comfort, whether you’re just running to the shops, or you’re going for a spirited spin through the hills.

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The tablet-style media screen of the Mazda will either float your boat or sink it, but the usability of Mazda’s system is great.

The menus are simple to learn, and navigating through them is a cinch because of the MZD Connect rotary dial controller between the seats. Just be aware that your wrist will be cocked at a strange angle to use it, and we’ve had some slow load-time issues with MZD systems, particularly when you first start the car up in the morning.

The Subaru’s media system is a damned sight better than the old afterthought unit from Toyota in the pre-updated model, and while it has simple menus, a clean design and loads very quickly, it just isn’t quite as classy as the Mazda’s screen. But hey, what were we saying about simplicity earlier…?

As for boot space, the tiny little Mazda again falls short for storage, with just 127 litres of capacity. And while the Subaru’s 218L boot isn’t huge, its spare wheel has an impact on the cargo room available. The Mazda, on the other hand, doesn’t even come with a spare.

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The roof control toggle switch for the MX-5 RF is located down the bottom of the centre stack, offering easy access. The roof operation takes 13 seconds, and it’s pretty special to watch. Obviously the Subaru has nothing like that to offer, but it does have electric windows that are auto up and auto down, where the MX-5’s windows are auto down only.

The MX-5’s tiny plastic sun-visors feature tiny little mirrors, where the BRZ’s are typical Subaru units – large and a bit flimsy – but they have bigger mirrors and illumination.

So if it’s prettiness you prefer over practicality, the MX-5 comes up trumps, but the pragmatic buyer will surely see the appeal of the BRZ’s bigger cabin.


Drivetrain

The Mazda MX-5 RF is only available with the 2.0-litre inline four-cylinder petrol engine – there’s no 1.5L version available – and it has 118kW of power at 6000rpm and 200Nm of torque at 4600rpm. It requires 95RON premium unleaded, and Mazda claims fuel use of 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres.

The Subaru BRZ is also only available with one engine option, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder horizontally-opposed unit with considerably more push than the Mazda: it has 152kW of power (at 7000rpm) and 212Nm of torque (from 6400-6800rpm). Fuel use is claimed at 8.4L/100km.

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You can tell the BRZ has an extra fistful of power at its disposal, even though it is 162 kilograms heavier than the MX-5 RF (1242kg vs the Mazda’s 1080kg). It revs more freely, with more eagerness, more intent and more reward than the MX-5.

Look, both of these engines are probably most rewarding when you’re revving them hard in the lower gears, and rev they will! The BRZ’s peak power hits so high in the range that you might feel you’re hurting it by pushing the needle so hard, and neither engine sounds like it’s particularly enjoying being thrashed. But, the Subie’s induction noise is more pleasing, where the Mazda’s duller note just doesn’t excite as much.

At higher speeds the BRZ was more willing to accelerate in-gear: in fact, in sixth gear at freeway speeds, despite ticking over at just over 3200rpm, it felt like it just wanted to keep gaining pace. It could do with another six gears for proper high-speed motoring.

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There’s also a lot of enjoyment to be had at lower speeds – burning through the lower gears, hitting fourth and to be still only doing 60km/h is pretty involving and also means you’re unlikely to threaten your points balance. It can also mean traffic is less of a chore than you might expect, but after spending back-to-back time in some of Sydney’s finest gridlock, it was the BRZ that was more comfortable to pilot in stop-start traffic.

The shift action of both cars is slinky, with the BRZ offering a really short throw and a nicer clutch action than the Mazda. The MX-5’s shift was also short but a bit sharp, but its gear knob is so stumpy, you’ll find yourself resting your hand on it (mainly because the only other place your hand will fit is on the steering wheel).

And while each of these cars takes a fair bit of shift work to get up to speeds that will endanger your licence, the Subaru’s digital speedometer is worthy of mention, because the Mazda doesn’t have one.

On test, the fuel use difference was a lot closer than the claimed figures suggest, too. We saw an average of 8.8L/100km in the Mazda, but it was only just a touch better on the go-go juice than the BRZ, which recorded 9.2L/100km.


Road manners

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Let’s put it out there: it’s hard to split these two for driver enjoyment, because they’re both genuinely good fun.

The slight and slinky MX-5 RF with its lithe frame (3915 millimetres long, 1735mm wide and 1235mm high) is considerably more contained than the bigger BRZ (4240mm long, 1775mm wide, 1320mm high), and that does translate to its chuckability through corners… sort of.

It’s more because of the MX-5’s softer suspension set-up, which is notably more pliant than the BRZ while also offering better comfort on rough surfaces. The softer damping of its suspension enables a bit more body roll, and the way the weight shifts over the wheels is definitely involving for the driver.

Tip into a tight corner and the nose of the MX-5 will dip and tuck, while the rear will step out if you hit the throttle mid-corner. The traction control system is pretty eager to keep things in line, though, and unlike the BRZ it doesn’t have a Track Mode function that disables it all.

We didn’t go on a track this time around, so we left that button un-pressed to be on the safe side, but the BRZ still proved eager to kick its backside out a bit more than the MX-5, and while both have limited slip differentials, the BRZ felt more tail-happy and eager to shred its Michelin Primacy HP rubber. Indeed, the Bridgestone Potenza rubber on the MX-5 didn’t feel as grippy at the nose, but it dealt with the lower power output at the rear wheels decently.

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The same corner saw the BRZ hold a much flatter line, with less dipping at the nose and a better rigidity. That last point wasn’t because the MX-5’s roof was down, even though that does affect the stiffness of the car: there was some noticeable scuttle shake over back roads, and a little bit of steering column shudder, too.

As for steering, our Mazda’s response was a bit dull on centre before becoming ultra-direct and weighty in corners. It wasn’t as pure to steer as the BRZ, which – as part of the update – saw extra stiffening and a thicker rear anti-roll bar, as well as stiffer front springs (hence its handling tenacity) but softer rear springs, and we noticed it could bounce around over bumps a bit more than the MX-5. It even bounced to the point that the traction control was triggered, but even so it felt considerably more tied down and faster point-to-point.

Around town the MX-5’s more supple suspension set-up offered a more comfortable experience than the BRZ, but not by much. The Mazda does, however, have a little bit better ground clearance (150mm versus the Subaru’s 130mm), so speed-humps aren’t as much of a wince moment.

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The Subaru’s brakes offered better eagerness too, with more aggression to the way the calipers bit down on the discs. The MX-5’s brakes offered decent stopping power, but the pedal feel was a touch too soft in hard driving.

Both of them were noisy over coarse-chip surfaces, but the MX-5 was even louder on regular, smoother surfaces, and the Mazda also had noticeable wind noise around the roof seals.

At the end of a few hours of hard driving (and a few days of regular driving) in each car, it felt as though the Mazda MX-5 RF was more of a gentleman’s roadster than a sporty sports car, where the Subaru BRZ was more like a young thug: more lively, with more angst and a bit more fitness on its side.


Verdict

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There’s every chance you might have made up your mind before even reading this story – that’s because if you want a convertible, a coupe just won’t do it.

And that’s cool. We get it. Nothing beats the feeling of dropping the roof, seeing the sky and hitting the road. But if you wanted to really drop the roof, you should probably buy a soft-top MX-5, which definitely gives you a more open-air experience.

Just know that if you decide to buy a Mazda MX-5 RF, you won’t be buying the better affordable sports car out of these two.

That’s because the Subaru BRZ is our pick, it’s the one we’d recommend. It is more spacious, more thoughtful and more fun. If you’re worried about missing out on the sensation of getting the wind in your hair, just wind down the windows.

MORE: BRZ news, reviews, comparisons and videos
MORE: MX-5 news, reviews, comparisons and videos
MORE: all Subaru news and reviews

MORE: all Mazda news and reviews

Click the Photos tab above for more images by Sam Rawlings.



MAZDA MX-5 BREAKDOWN

Mazda MX-5 RF v Subaru BRZ comparison
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SUBARU BRZ BREAKDOWN

Mazda MX-5 RF v Subaru BRZ comparison
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