On Autos: Two low-slung sports cars long for springtime fun


The MX-5 Miata RF offers a partially retractable hardtop roof. (Photos by Brady Holt/The Current)

The first day of spring was a cruel joke for everyone. That was especially true this year, when the District was preparing for snow, eventually receiving more than four inches.

But it was truest of all if you have a Mazda MX-5 Miata. Springtime should be the time to lower the top and enjoy Mazda’s delightful little convertible. But with low ground clearance and rear-wheel-drive, most local Miatas probably had to wait for the snow to melt.

The 2018 Mazda MX-5 Miata is a performance bargain — when the weather isn’t too bad.

The good news is that they did not have to wait long. The District’s weather is usually pretty hospitable for a sports car. And the MX-5 Miata is a particularly good sports car for urban conditions.

Unlike most sporty vehicles, the Miata is delightfully fun even at low speeds. Even if you stick to the speed limit of a bustling city street, you can have a blast, with the car’s rev-happy engine and low seating position making you feel like you are moving faster. Alert and agile, the little Mazda brings joy to commuting or errands like few sports car can in a crowded, speed-camera-laden city.

For a little bit more winter protection, last year Mazda added an “RF” model with a partially power-retractable hardtop roof. Some folks will prefer the RF’s style, which adds a “flying buttress” look to the rear of the car – rather than the standard Miata’s tub-with-canvas-hat appearance. The hard roof is also easier to clean than the canvas top, and it provides some extra sound insulation.

But you can’t fully put the roof down, and even when you have stowed the section above your head, the buttresses remain in place to block your rearward view. The MX-5 is also one of the few vehicles on the market that still lacks a backup camera. Fortunately, the car is small enough – just 154 inches long, some two-and-a-half feet less than a Toyota Corolla – that parallel parking is still a relative breeze.

The Current tested a 2017 RF model last fall and tried out a 2018 soft-top model last month. This year, Mazda made some mechanical tweaks to improve the MX-5’s already excellent handling and its surprisingly decent ride quality.

It also added some new color options, including some that dress up the fabric soft top; richer interior upholstery on the top Grand Touring trim; and sport seats to hold the driver in place better on the tested Club model. The base model also added heated seats as standard equipment, which is handy if you want to put the top down in chilly weather.

The 2018 MX-5 Miata starts at $26,185, a bargain for a serious sports car or any convertible. And its upscale interior design and newly upgraded cabin trim keep it respectable if you are shopping it against, say, a used Porsche Boxster.

The RF retractable hardtop model starts at $32,800, reflecting the cost of its more intricate roof design as well as additional standard equipment. A comparably equipped soft-top model would cost $30,045.

Just keep in mind that the MX-5 Miata is a sports car, not just a casual open-air experience. It has only two seats, and neither fits someone who’s terribly tall or wide. You need some agility to clamber in and out of the low cabin, and you do not have a ton of luggage room. And unlike a growing number of today’s sports cars, it is not offered with all-wheel-drive for days bad weather hits.

The Toyota 86 is a fun-to-drive sports coupe with a little more functionality than a Miata, but a less premium ambiance.

For a similar driving experience with a smidge more practicality, consider the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ. These are fixed-roof, four-seat coupes, but they are also rear-wheel-drive, low to the ground, and supremely agile and fun to drive even at relatively low speeds.

Toyota and Subaru co-developed these cars to continue filling out the market niche of small, relatively affordable rear-wheel-drive cars that focus more on handling than power. (The 86 used to be called the Scion FR-S, but Toyota discontinued its Scion brand last year and renamed the car.)

An 86 tested last year matched or even bettered the Miata’s lightning-sharp steering and confident handling – no mean feat. It also accommodates a wider range of drivers’ body types, and on more comfortable seats at that.

But its four-cylinder engine lacks the Mazda’s eager joyful sound; it’s just loud. Meanwhile, the cabin feels more low-rent and the infotainment system is dated, particularly on the Toyota. You do get a backup camera, at least.

Meanwhile, the 86 and BRZ are sports cars. Like the MX-5, buyers accept a low seating position and rather noisy ride in order to enjoy exemplary driving dynamics. There is a rear seat, but even children would struggle to fit in it. And the 86’s base price of $27,150 means that buyers are likely to be dedicated enthusiasts.

If youa re just looking for the look of a sporty car, a two-door Honda Civic offers superior comfort, refinement, utility and value.

Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.