Unfortunately, rear-wheel-drive, two-door sports cars are often associated with one thing and one thing only: the mid-life crisis. Because of this, many people just assume that they are solely for slightly overweight men in their late 40s or early 50s, who are desperately trying to cling on to their quickly fading youth.
It’s all a bit tragic, really, because this eagerness of society to dismiss such cars as mere vessels through which these ageing men can project their often distorted recollections of how ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ they were in their youth often overlooks one thing – sports cars are a huge amount of fun to drive.
We’ve pitted some of the biggest names in the segment – the Porsche 718 Cayman, Toyota GT86 and the new Mazda MX-5 RF – against one another to find out which is best.
Looks and image
More often than not, sports cars such as the three we have here are bought purely because of how they look. Therefore, an eye-catching appearance is paramount if a manufacturer wants its particular model to sell.
Right off the bat, Mazda has this nailed. The regular soft-top MX-5 was already a rather pretty thing to begin with, and the addition of the new folding metal roof only serves to emphasise this. Of the three, the MX-5 RF – which stands for ‘retractable fastback’ –certainly garnered the most attention from other road users, turning many a head and attracting numerous knowing nods of approval.
— Simon Davis (@SimonDavisNZ) February 17, 2017
The Porsche also got quite a lot of attention, although in its case the signs of affection that the Mazda received were replaced with some rather unsavoury gestures and exclamations that aren’t really fit for print. There’s no denying the Cayman is a good-looking car, especially when finished in the Graphite Blue Metallic colour of our test car, but the connotations attached to its badge might prove to be a bit of a turn-off.
The Toyota, on the other hand, is a bit of an oddball in this regard. It certainly turns heads thanks to its sports car proportions, but actually looking at it proves to be a rather uninspiring procedure. It isn’t ugly, but next to the likes of the Mazda and the Porsche it’s just a bit beige.
Of the three, the cabin Porsche is hands down the nicest place to sit. But then it would be, as it costs from £39,878, whereas the Mazda and Toyota cost from £22,195 and £26,410 respectively. The Porsche’s build quality is sublime, and while the other two also feel well put together, the quality of materials used in the Porsche leave both of them for dead – particularly the Toyota.
Space and practicality
You would be deluded if you bought a car such as these with any intention of using them as practical family runabouts. The Porsche and the Mazda are strictly two-seaters, and while the Toyota does have a second row of seats, you certainly won’t be popular with any passengers you force to sit in them – children included. At least they can double as a useful parcel shelf, however.
Boot space is at a premium in all cars, although because of its mid-engine layout the Cayman does benefit from a second storage compartment at the front. All up, the Porsche offers 425 litres of space, while the Toyota comes with 237 litres. The Mazda can only manage a meagre 130.
Behind the wheel
If the Porsche, Mazda or Toyota are to even stand a chance of winning this group test, they must perform well in the category that matters the most where sports cars are concerned – how well they drive.
Luckily, all three are hugely fun and capable when you show them a bit of decent road – albeit for slightly different reasons.
On the one hand, you have the Porsche, which is the quickest, loudest and most powerful of the three. Dynamically, it is also better than the other cars and requires a fair bit of boot to make it step out of line. There is minimal body roll through the corners, and while the steering is on the light side of things, it does inspire a good deal of confidence with its feedback.
At the other end of the scale sits the Toyota, which is joyously analogue in its approach to being a sports car – especially when compared with the Porsche. It isn’t the fastest car here – even the less powerful Mazda will pip it to 60mph from a standstill – but it is a car that demands to be driven hard if you’re planning on getting the most out of it. While most people will find this a rather exhausting way to drive a car, those who glean great satisfaction from constantly pushing a car to its limits will find the Toyota a rewarding experience. Incredibly narrow tyres mean it’s more than happy to kick its rear end through the bends, too.
The Mazda occupies a satisfying space somewhere in between the Porsche and the Toyota. While it might be the least powerful of the three, it is also the lightest by some 400kg, lending it the most go-kart-like feel. The steering and pedals are all incredibly light and require very little effort on the driver’s part, and the six-speed manual gearbox is a stunner. It does roll about noticeably more than the others through the corners, which is a mark against its name, but it more than makes up for that by being the only car to come with a retractable roof.
So while the Porsche is, on paper, the most competent of the three cars, the Toyota and Mazda have it beat in terms of out-and-out fun. You can’t help but feel just a tad serious behind the wheel of the Porsche, while the Toyota and Mazda encourage you to have a bit more of a laugh. Because it comes with the option of having unlimited headroom, the Mazda is our pick of the three in this department.
Value for money
Unsurprisingly, the Porsche is the most expensive of the three – although that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best equipped. Although prices start at £39,878, our test car – with all its optional extras such as satellite navigation and Park Assist – actually costs a staggering £53,506.
— James Fossdyke (@JFossdyke) February 22, 2017
While that might buy you bucketloads of badge prestige when compared with the Mazda and the Toyota, the two Japanese cars represent far better value for money when it comes to how well they drive and the equipment they come with.
The MX-5 RF and GT86 both gain satellite navigation as standard, and provide equivalent if not greater levels of fun for far less money. Sure, they may not be as luxurious as the Porsche – but is an upmarket interior really the most important feature in cars such as these?
If this test was based on factors such as pedigree, badge prestige and out-and-out performance, then the Porsche would win hands down. As a sports car, it is the fastest and most competent of the three. It also sounds wicked, despite what some people would lead you to believe.
However, it’s eye-wateringly expensive. Kitted out to test specification, it was practically twice as expensive as the 2.0-litre MX-5 RF and you know what? It certainly didn’t feel as though it was twice the car.
— Jack R W Evans (@jackrober) February 17, 2017
Next to the Mazda, the Toyota is also fairly difficult to recommend. Not only is it slower, it’s also more expensive and nowhere near as good looking. It’s further let down by an incredibly dull cabin as well.
At the end of the day, there can only be one winner in this triple test: the Mazda MX-5 RF. Not only is it hugely fun to drive and incredibly pretty, it’s also the cheapest car here and it has a convertible roof. Not much more needs to be said other than that, really.