The Subaru BRZ and its twin, the Scion FR-S, have rightfully garnered reams of positive press; in these days of crossover fever, any lightweight, driver-focused, rear wheel drive sports coupe—and an affordable one at that—is something to be celebrated. And in many ways these two deliver upon the ethos of driver satisfaction that is their raison d’etre. Yet I’ve never warmed to them in the way I think they deserve, and now they are arrayed against the all-new, fourth generation of the best selling RWD sports car in history—Mazda’s MX-5 Miata.
I must be getting old, for the external additions that come on the Series.Blue do nothing to enhance the BRZ’s visual appeal for me; the multispoke black wheels look lost in the fenders and the body kit adds visual heft but not aggression. Inside things are better: there’s a two-tone leather and Alcantara trimmed cockpit with some nice matt finish carbon fiber-look trim, both of which dress up the solid but otherwise uninspiring interior. The BRZ’s driving position is still terrific, and its hatchback practicality makes it more useful than the new MX-5, but the Mazda simply kills it for ambiance. Both share the sense of all the masses moving around a very low center of gravity, with the driver right in the heart of the action.
Both vehicles have excellent, evenly matched control weightings for clutch, brake and throttle, and while the Mazda’s new transmission resets the bar for feel, the Subaru’s is still pleasingly direct. Actual stopping power is better in the Miata, with either its normal or optional Brembo brakes, as it weighs about 500 pounds less.
The Subaru’s 2-liter boxer engine has considerably more power than that produced by the inline four in the Mazda: 200hp plays 155hp, and runs to a higher redline of 7400rpm. Set against that is the BRZ’s extra quarter ton mass and very similar torque output: 148lb-ft for the Mazda against 151lb-ft in the Subaru. Due to these latter factors the MX-5 is about a half second faster 0-60 and feels much torquier and more responsive out of corners. In the hands of professional drivers, it appears faster than the BRZ and FR-S on tracks or autocross courses as well.
Speaking of which, I had the privilege of racing a Solo II National Championship level-winning FR-S last year, and it was one of the best handling cars I’ve ever driven, at any price, with super-direct (if feel-free) steering, incredible body control and virtually flat cornering. A true joy, it showed just how capable this chassis is, either stock or with some modest enhancements. The stock BRZ also boasts a predictable, playful balance and superb body control, thankfully combined with excellent ride characteristics over bad pavement—a corollary of that low, low CG.
The Miata has better steering feedback but slightly more body roll and a more “pattery” ride. The Subaru is quieter in road and wind noise but its engine sounds strained and harsh when extended—a real joy kill in a sports car. Both get excellent fuel economy and have very low running costs. On an emotional level, the Mazda exudes more pure fun, more of the time, than the Subaru (or the Scion); the BRZ really needs to be pushed to show its considerable talents, which is hard in dense urban settings.
Probably the biggest differentiator between these two great sports cars is that the Mazda is a convertible. For open-air aficionados that will be all that matters; others think that drop tops are for sissies. The MX-5 is also much smaller inside and has a very small luggage area. None of this matters will matter you want a roadster though. What the Subaru needs to really differentiate itself—not to mention make the most of its wonderful chassis—is a more musical, muscular engine. Let’s hope that’s not too long in coming.
EPA ratings: 22/30mpg; 25mpg combined
0-60mph: 6.4 seconds
Price as tested: $30,285
Here is what Subaru has to say about it.
Not as good as: Ford Mustang 5-liter, Mazda MX-5
Better than: Ford Mustang EcoBoost, Hyundai Genesis Coupe