Reuben van Niekerk, Brenwin Naidu and Thomas Falkiner sampled two of the foremost purist sports cars – the Mazda MX-5 and Toyota 86 ‑ at Zwartkops Raceway. Pictures by Waldo Swiegers. Full gallery and vehicle specifications below.
Cars used to be mechanically simple, with nothing added that did not play a part in the car doing its job of transporting passengers from point A to B, writes Reuben van Niekerk.
But as cars have evolved, more and more technology and creature comforts have been added with the result that they have become oversized and overweight. Manufacturers have realised this is not good for dynamics and efficiency. Now we are constantly told how much weight has been shaved off the latest models with the use of some fancy space-age technology. Luckily certain manufacturers have stuck to making simple cars built to be driven with no time wasted adding fancy gadgets. Designers and engineers have been able to focus their attention on making these cars great to drive. The recipe is simple, coupe styling, rear-wheel drive, low weight and a peppy engine. What you get is low-cost motoring nirvana. The Toyota 86 design team had a simple brief: design a car that delivers maximum fun at minimum cost. And that’s exactly what chief design engineer Tetsuya Tada did. In his opinion, unlike many contemporary sports cars that have diluted the essence of driving by bolting on big turbos, big tyres and four-wheel drive, the 86 kept it simple.
We recently got to drive the fourth generation Mazda MX-5, which goes on sale at the end of November, and sourced a Toyota too. We then headed for Zwartkops Raceway to put these two Japanese coupes through their paces. Once in the Mazda you immediately notice the impressive interior with a combination of round and blade-like air vents, a tablet style infotainment system and its clean design. The MX-5 does not offer modern conveniences like a reversing camera or an electrically operated roof but it does have heated seats and built-in speakers as part of the Bose sound system.
One concern was that the steering wheel only offers tilt adjustment, but other basics are spot on, with clear instruments and well-placed controls. The seats keep the driver and passenger snug between the transmission tunnel and the sculpted door skin, reinforcing that you are inside the car, rather than on top of it. I say snug with a pinch of salt. My 198cm frame took some convincing getting in and out of the car and this could mean that larger fans, whether vertically or horizontally, might have to look elsewhere for their roadster fun.
Storage in the cabin is minimal with no cubbyhole, and the boot, with only 130 litres of space, has just enough space for an overnight bag. The interior of the Toyota is definitely simpler. One can also see it is already a couple of years old with a retro vibe that is reinforced by the velour upholstery, a radio from a Hilux and a digital clock that was first seen in the 1980s Corolla. But the 86 is more spacious, with rear seats that can fold down, improving luggage capacity. The more practical interior of the Toyota means it will be much easier to live with every day.
Under the bonnet of the Mazda is a 2.0 litre normally aspirated four-cylinder engine that produces 118 kW at 6 000 rpm and 200 Nm from 4 600 rpm that has been transversely mounted to get the weight closer to the centre of the car. The unit’s willingness to rev, coupled with crisp throttle response and a delightful gear change make zipping through traffic or around Zwartkops an entertaining experience. Short ratios have been employed in the latest MX-5 rather than overdrive gears and this helps to get the most out of the naturally aspirated engine. The Toyota uses a Subaru-sourced boxer engine coupled with Toyota’s direct fuel-injection system to create the world’s first horizontally opposed engine with direct-injection technology. This allows it to produce 147 kW at 7 000 rpm and 205 Nm at 6400 rpm. The 86’s notchy transmission is similarly precise in operation. The Toyota might boast slightly more power than the Mazda but it is also carrying an extra 200kg, making the two cars very equal when looking at the power to weight ratios.
Both these cars might feel down on power at first, especially if you are used to driving turbocharged cars, but they do allow you to use every single kilowatt effectively. There is great reward in driving a “slower” car quickly and these cars make driving at the absolute limit accessible to the man on the street. Short throw manual gearboxes and the need to stir them to keep the engines on the boil are at the centre of the action and the rewards come from the sensation of driving, not the numbers on a dynamometer graph. A big factor in the MX-5 driving experience is its size, the car is now shorter, even when compared to the original, and although the car was already lightweight, Mazda has used aluminium extensively to slim it down to just over 1 000 kg. This allowed for the use of smaller brakes and wheels. The brakes offer great feel and add to the driving experience of a small lightweight car where handling is low on inertia, allowing the car to flow easily through the corners.
Mazda have also managed to get the electrically assisted steering perfectly set up where many others have failed horribly, with the MX-5 having some of the best steering you can find in any car. Driving the Toyota after the Mazda, makes it feels bigger than it is, but it remains an enthralling drive with a tail-happy balance that is there if you want it but not waiting to penalise you for untidy driving. Even though these two cars are very similar in principle I think they will appeal to two different buyers. The tuner crowd will probably still go for the Toyota while the Mazda will appeal with the fact that it rewards drivers of all abilities because it is fun to drive at all speeds and you can drop the top in a couple of seconds.
The Toyota has had its season the sun and there is good reason why the three previous generations made the MX-5 the world’s best selling sports car. The fourth generation picks up where its predecessors left off and improves in all departments ensuring that a smile a mile comes standard.
The second-generation Mazda MX-5 (anoraks will know it by the ‘NB’ internal designation) offered this humble scribe a thorough schooling in the finer points of vehicular dynamics. My dad owned a gleaming red example – and the little roadster often found itself sneaking out to accompany me on the usual sojourns that define the years of a zealous teenager with a not-yet-dry driver’s licence. So the nostalgia levels were high when I was at the wheel of the new ND version. It is a car that left enthusiasts a little uneasy before launch, especially given the lacklustre nature of the bloated NC model that preceded it.
Thankfully, the back-to-basics approach Mazda employed has paid dividends. Through intelligent engineering, it was able to fulfil the health and safety criteria required by modern automobiles, while retaining those virtues from yesteryear that get purists poetic and misty-eyed. Indeed, the MX-5 is the stuff of sweet haiku verses. Not that the Toyota 86 is bad either, dear reader. But from this rhyming couplet with similar recipes and a shared nationality, the offering from the Hiroshima Prefecture feels truest to the genre.
It does not matter that the MX-5 produces less power than its rival from Aichi, because it is considerably lighter. Great measures were taken to keep the weight down. Lotus Cars founder Colin Chapman would probably have approved of this spiritual successor to his famed Elan. The fabric top, for example, does not rely on electronics. Simply flip the tabs and push it back in one motion, as nonchalantly as a One Direction member would comb his hair into a quiff. Actually, wait –the looks of the MX-5 are no longer the butt of mean salon jokes. There are sharp pleats in the bodywork and angry eyes at the front. Pronounced haunches replace the maternal hips of the outgoing one. The old version had five lug nuts holding a wheel in place. This only has four. It might sound like an insignificant detail, but this is the extent they went to, in a bid to keep the heft to a minimum.
And it culminates in tangible gains when you drive it back-to-back with the Toyota. It feels nimbler, keener to change direction at short notice and, with the driver assistance systems disengaged, inducing sideways action is simple. The thing is though, once you find yourself in the throes of oscillation, it is incredibly easy to control and correct. It is the kind of machine you can enjoy 100% of the time. Unlike many of the high-performance cars that get us waxing lyrical, you do not have to be pushing triple digits to feel like you are having fun. Of course, the 86 scores better in the pragmatic aspects. It offers a bigger boot, two rear seats and a roomier interior. The starting price is far more palatable too. And yes, I know, it plays on the undeniably cool cult status of the old Corolla AE86 Sprinter Trueno. But when it comes to heritage, the Mazda MX-5 has it beat. Only one of these two cars has a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, after all.
Oh man, this is a tough one. I love affordable Japanese sports cars. I particularly love the Toyota 86 and the MX-5. So asking me to pick just one is like asking me to choose between Emma Roberts or Hannah Simone – a beastly, mind-wracking burden of angst and introspection. But anyway, here goes. Now I’ll start with the cloth-top because it’s shiny and new and stealing the limelight. I spent a good few days with this re-envisioned roadster and the more I drove it the more I liked it – especially the engine. Mazda has been powering the MX-5 with a simple inline four since 1989. That’s 26 year’s worth of knowhow and development and it shows. Displacing two litres, this motor happens to be an absolute honey of engineering: a buttery-smooth operator that revs urgently all the way up to its fairly modest, 6 500rpm limit. Not that you need to do this very often because it makes an impressive amount of lowdown torque. This, combined with a feathery kerb weight of around 1050kg (depending how much of a lard-ass you are of course), means that acceleration is pleasingly swift.
Even up here at Johannesburg altitude you can, with a little effort, get the MX-5 to hit 100km/h in under eight seconds. You can also get it to break traction and shake its rump. Turn the traction control off and this roadster, equipped with a mechanical limited-slip differential, will slide about like some wayward ice-skater – even at low speeds.
However, keep things tidy and you will be rewarded with scalpel-sharp handling that allows you demolish even the most demanding switchbacks with a cool, calculated ease. It’s this duality, this ability to blend accuracy with absurdity that makes the all-new MX-5 a proper, dyed-in-the-wool driver’s car. There is, however, one problem and that has to do with space. If this is going to be your only car then the Mazda might be a very tight squeeze.
Compared to the model it replaced this one has a smaller boot as well as a cabin that seems considerably more claustrophobic ‑ which is where the Toyota suddenly starts to make more sense. You get a bigger boot plus two token rear seats that can be folded flat to swallow larger deposits of luggage. It’s easier to get more comfortable inside the 86 – especially if, like me, you find yourself on the awkward side of 2m. The seat slides back more, plus the steering wheel comes equipped with reach-adjustment (the MX-5’s can only be raked up and down). Although I’m a Toyota fanboy I’ll concede that the Mazda is a more pleasant car to drive more of the time. It has a better-built interior and a fantastic Bose sound system. It also has a better gearbox as well as a much nicer engine – one that doesn’t require stratospheric revs in order to build up any form of momentum. It feels quicker and more urgent off the mark too due to its significant weight advantage – around 200kg. However, having said this, I did actually prefer the 86 when blasting around Zwartkops. It rolled noticeably less in corners and, thanks to that higher redline, necessitated fewer gear changes through the more technical parts of the 2.5km circuit.
Now as I am a bit of a track day junkie this definitely counts in the Toyota’s favour. As does its more practical, tall-people-friendly packaging and slightly lower price tag. Which is why, despite the Mazda’s obvious power and drivetrain advantages, it’s the one I would ultimately choose to take home and live with happily ever after.
Type of engine: 1998cc, four-cylinder boxer
Fuel consumption: 7.8l/100km
Co2 emissions: 181g/km
0-100 km/h: 7.6 seconds
Top speed: 226 km/h
Price from: R350 100
Type of engine: 1998cc, four-cylinder
Fuel consumption: 6.1l/100km
CO2 emissions: 161 g/km
0-100 km/h: 7.3 seconds
Top speed: TBC
Price from: R390 000 (estimated, launching end November)
THIS REPORT WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE OCTOBER EDITION OF SUNDAY TIMES MOTORING.