[photo credit: Nate Luzod]
A weird thing happened the other day. We were messing around and looking at car discounts and deals online, when we stumbled upon the AOL Autos Best Deal tool. (No, AOL didn’t pay us to write this part; we just genuinely think they’ve got a cool thing going here.) The online tool allows you to search for “best deal” by showing cars in your area that are being offered for the most money off of the baseline MSRP. At the time, we’d just booked a one-week loan of a Mazda RX-8, so we took a look at what discounts were available for the car (one we’ve always been pretty fond of).
To our surprise, we found some pretty good deals: prices around the $25K mark. Those numbers got us to thinking, “Doesn’t the Speed3 run close to $25,000? Can’t I get an MX-5 for about that, too?” Game on.
Of course, we wouldn’t really need the excuse of closer-than-expected pricing to pull the trigger on an all-Mazda sports comparison. All three of these cars are enthusiast tools of the first order, and complete badasses in their own ways. And, of course, we’ve driven all of them more than a few times now, but never together, never like this.
Front-drive and rear-drive; convertible, hatch, and coupe (sort of); naturally aspirated, turbocharged, and rotary-engined; it’s more than a small wonder that these three cars come from the same automaker, let alone are on sale at the same time. Clearly, taste will play a huge factor in which of these hot Mazdas appeals to you the most, but we wanted to know which offered the best total package for drivers.
So we booked all three and took them out to drive on some of our favorite local roads. We’ve used the base five categories from our Involvement Index as reference points for our driving notes, and paid special attention to how the three Mazdas compare to each other, rather than to their “real” competitive set.
Conclusions? Well, not to spoil anything, but we’d probably be forced to pick the world’s most popular roadster if we had the lucky dilemma of having to choose from among these three. (Though it’s fair to say that Mr. Miersma would fight stridently for the RX-8 as the best of the bunch—and he’s the boss.) But even the “third place” Speed3 is more fun than a trip to an amusement park with a bottle of whiskey and the Jessica Alba Look-Alike Contest runner up. Read on, for fun.
The MS3 was sort of the jack-of-all-trades here. It was competent at any type of the motoring fare I threw at it, but it didn’t particularly excel an anything specific besides rocketing from a stop. —JBS
The Speed3 was the harshest of our group, delivering a rougher ride over bad patches of road than the sportier RX-8 and shorter-wheelbase MX-5. At the same time, its weight kept it from really handling with the verve that I expected from a Mazdaspeed product.
I’m going to disagree with Brandon’s statement above, because he’s kind of wrong (though I appreciate where he’s coming from). The Speed3’s secondary ride dealt with road imperfections on the scale of small holes and cracks better than the RX-8’s, which tended toward a little bit more harshness because of that car’s overall rigidity. That said, the MS3 tended to “float” a lot more discernibly over bigger bumps and small crests, which is, I think, closer in spirit to what Brandon takes issue with above. —SM
Sharp throttle response, augmented by turbo boost, was rewarding. The brakes did a fine job of shedding speed firmly. Probably the most lackluster clutch/transmission combination in terms of feel, which says a lot for the other two, as the MS3 is above average compared to the general population. Nicely done, Mazda. —JBS
The Speed’s controls were probably the most difficult to deal with. The shifter and clutch were both hard to adjust to, with the far left pedal acting like an on-off switch, and the shifter just feeling too notchy and stiff. I’d also like to get more feedback from the steering. On the plus side, the Speed’s heavily bolstered seats were seriously nice pieces to gobble up highway miles in. —BT
The clutch and shifter have just feel a bit uninspired every other time I’ve driven this car, but the beauty of the MX-5 and RX-8 setups leaves me feeling downright hostile towards the Speed’s cog swapper. Just heavy and inelegant when compared with the other two.
This engine was by far the most potent of our group, with its turbocharger doing a pretty decent slingshot impression. I liked the sound of the whoosh as the MS3 gobbled up masses of air. —JBS
Turbo lag is still a serious issue on the Speed3. Once spooled up though, this car offers an amazing amount of mid-range punch. Sadly, power drops off quickly once over 4500 rpm, making the Speed3 difficult to keep on the boil. I liked the sound coming from the Speed’s dual pipes, especially at lower rpm, as it provided an almost aftermarket sound that nicely contrasted the howling RX-8 and growling MX-5. —BT
As Brandon points out, you’ve got to stay a gear higher in the Speed than in the other two cars on the same roads; torque is just found lower. Still, I can’t say enough about the urgent, almost punishing power of this engine; it’s loud, and thrilling, and exactly what I want from a hot hatch motor. Zoom, indeed. —SM
I found myself fighting the steering wheel a lot, because of the tremendous torque steer. Powering through turns, I found the handling to get quite twitchy. Off throttle, the car seemed very well composed. —JBS
It’s a big car compared to the competition, but the Speed3 is still a fun car to hustle down the road in. It doesn’t communicate through the steering or suspension as well as our other two cars though. Turn-in is adequately sharp, and front/rear balance is certainly a plus, but the amount of lateral roll through the suspension did little to inspire confidence. —BT
The biggest failing of the 3 when compared to its Mazda brothers is its front-drive orientation. A hot hatch, no matter how good, will never quite give the same subtle and satisfying handling performance of a rear-wheel-drive sports car. Tidy turn-in, and more front-end grip than a car this powerful ought to have, still. —SM
A good level of intensity and inherent functionality made this feel like a really smart, solid package. It went fast without really looking the part—kind of the inverse of the RX-8. —JBS
The turbocharged engine in the Speed3 is fun to wrestle with, and gives the car a fire and intensity that was distinctly different from the other two Mazdas. However, there is no disguising the Speed’s economy roots. It lacks the purpose-built coherence of the RX-8 and MX-5, and with the exception of outright speed, doesn’t deliver many new or exciting attributes once the big turbo thrill has faded. —BT
Evocative styling, wild power delivery, and boundy handling are all love-me-or-hate-me propositions. But it’s hard to argue that the MS3 doesn’t have the biggest personality of the Mazda crew, and by a long shot, too. Then again, Jim Carrey has a big personality, and I’m not sure he’s the kind of guy I’d chose as my desert island buddy, if you get my meaning. —SM
The RX-8 offered the most in terms of stability, be it on the highway or over bumps. It felt downright agile, which was probably its greatest strength. While the MS3 felt the best over broken roads in a straight line, this was the least upset by irregularities under cornering load. —JBS
The RX-8 felt the most stable and compliant of our trio, especially over the rougher portions of our test route. It was also a blast in the turns, dispatching tight twisties and long sweepers with ease, and a good bit more poise than the softer MX-5. —BT
The RX-8 was just a tiny bit too stiff over the very worst roads we drove, but by and large it offered a nice ride/handling compromise for a sports car. I was really surprised, too, to drive and remember how stable, planted, and relatively quiet the car is at high highway speeds. —SM
This clutch just felt really good underfoot. It had a nice weight to it, and I was able to clearly feel the uptake. A good, sporting seating position allowed for a comfortable angle for my leg, which probably had something to do with it. The shifter felt good in hand, too, and didn’t vibrate a lot (though it appeared to sort of float around in its boot, in tandem with the movements of the chassis). —JBS
While we missed the feel provided by the MX-5, the RX-8’s controls did a fine job of putting the driver in “the zone.” The seating position is just right, providing good visibility, although headroom is tight thanks to the sunroof. —BT
The truly important controls—pedals, steering wheel, shifter—all feel terrific; the best of our Mazda trio. Seating and visibility overall are challenging for me at six-feet, five-inches tall. —SM
It accelerated very flatly (and not very quickly) through the first two gears. The higher end of third gear is where it finally started to feel like it had some extra thrust. Keep those revs high, folks. —JBS
The RX-8’s weakness came from its 1.3-liter rotary engine. There just isn’t much in the way of low-end torque, meaning you need to rev the hell out of it to get going. This is a car that is much happier in the high rpm. Thankfully, keeping it up high is fun, as it sounds like nothing else on the road. The high-pitched exhaust note is a bit buzzy at lower revs, but provides a rich, distinct sound in the meatiest part of the power band.
This Renesis engine is polarizing, certainly. I love the sound, I love having to really work to keep it moving fast; in general I really enjoy how it forces the driver to truly focus on driving in order to enjoy the ride. But enjoyment on this level takes a certain disposition. Most of us can get behind the fun of a torque-rich V-8 (or a bulldog turbo four, for that matter)—there’s a smaller audience for the joy of keeping your tiny rotary motor spinning at 9000 rpm for mile after twisting mile. —SM
This is where the RX-8 really shined. It was able to hold onto its speed through the bends—a good thing since it takes so much effort to achieve that speed in the first place. Now, a bit more communication in terms of grip, and this would be nearly perfect in the handling department. —JBS
In terms of outright handling prowess, the RX-8 felt the most stable, agile, and overall best of our three cars. But there just wasn’t as much feedback as what we found in the MX-5. Where you can really feel the Miata move around you through the bends, the RX-8’s body motions tended to feel more isolated. —BT
Just stunning handling dynamics here, with aggressive damping and roll stiffness that still manage not to lead to any choppiness or counterintuitive behavior. —SM
For me, The RX-8 fell a little flat in terms of character. While the rotary engine is unique and unconventional, and the car looks really mean, it lacks intensity and flavor. The novelty doesn’t really translate to specialness for me. —JBS
The 9000-rpm redline of the rotary engine and sharp handling make the RX-8 feel every bit the sports car that Mazda claims it is. It’s also a challenging car to drive quickly, in that you need to resist the urge to shift at 4000 to 5000 rpm, and keep the engine going all the way to redline to get the most of the power on hand. The lack of torque also forces you to focus more on carrying speed through corners, as the RX-8 is rather easy to catch flat-footed. —BT
I’ll just come right out and say that this is my favorite Mazda ever. That’s saying a mouthful, too, considering I’m really too big to drive it comfortably, and I’m rarely happier than when I’m driving a convertible. The RX-8 just has so many things that I want on my all-time list of car wants: amazing handling, a great gearbox, sexy looks, and lots of quirkiness. —SM
This car was awesome at tackling the twisty stuff, but not all that stable in highway driving. Still, it was good at darting through traffic, and wasn’t too stiff or skippy over broken roads. —JBS
The short wheelbase of the MX-5 hurt its overall ride, as bumps and imperfections kept it from feeling as stable as the larger RX-8. That being said, this is a car that is equally adept at handling tight twisties and long sweepers at some seriously high speeds. —BT
In typical Miata fashion our latest test car was just a perfect tool on great, winding roads. There’s just enough suspension compliance to make the rough parts bearable. The only place the car feels unhappy is in the mundane world of the highway, where its short wheelbase makes it just slightly jittery. —SM
The steering wheel felt really good in hand, and offered the appropriate, quick response from the wheels. This six-speed was my favorite shifter of the three, with gear swaps feeling really solid and short of throw. —JBS
Everything in the MX-5’s cockpit is where you want it. The shifter sits where your right hand would fall naturally, meaning the process of shifting has an instinctual feeling to it. The small steering wheel is plenty talkative, although the MX-5 still relies mostly on suspension chatter to communicate (more on that in a moment). The Miata’s engine, being a naturally aspirated four, felt the most linear of our three cars, not requiring the build-up of revs that the RX-8 needed or the spool of the turbo that we noticed in the Speed3. —BT
Loads of feedback through the steering wheel and a perfectly snicker-snack gearshift. Intuitive control layout and neutral handling make driving the MX-5 well as easy as breathing. —SM
I could actually feel the motor through the sole of my right foot when applying throttle. This was a helpful form of communication when the top was down and the roar of the wind was filling was my ears. —JBS
The MX-5’s 2.0 liter does a fine job of propelling the roadster, although I found high-end power to be wanting. Despite that, there is plenty of grunt at low and medium engine speeds, making the Miata a breeze to drive quickly. I also found the MX-5’s exhaust to be the most pleasing singer of our three cars, with its traditional I-4 bark, reminiscent of the British roadsters of the past. The sharp throttle response took some adjustment, especially after the Speed3, but overall it was exactly what I wanted. —BT
Because the total Miata package comes together so well, with great handling, really nice controls, and, most importantly, light weight, it’s easy to imagine that this engine is more than a pedestrian four-banger. Of course, that’s what it is, and the truly impressive bit is that the car is great in spite of its engine, rather than because of it. Few cars (Lotus Elise being a notable exception) can pull that trick off. —SM
It was so willing to rotate, and so good at communicating grip levels, that I had fun letting it get a little loose. Bringing it back from the edge was a simple task, and it was hard not to feel confident when driving the MX-5 with vim. —JBS
This car can dance. Turn-in is sharp, and lateral movement is nicely controlled. But the thing that really shocks is just how communicative the suspension is. You can constantly feel the car rotating around you, giving you subtle clues to grip levels in front, out back, and laterally, creating a seriously confidence-inspiring driving experience. The short wheelbase means the MX-5 does rotate rather quickly, but it generally comes on in a progressive, easy-to-handle manner. —BT
John and Brandon (and all of the other hundreds of thousands of Miata drivers out there) get it; the simplicity of the car’s design make it brilliant to toss about. The MX-5 feels like a fish in water when on the road: fluid movements, with amazingly quick changes of direction, and improbable control. The fact that the suspension setup isn’t entirely stiff—there’s very progressive roll in evidence here—allows you as the driver to come very close to the limits of handling without feeling like you’re getting into trouble. —SM
The MX-5 was definitely my favorite package here. It had a really classic driving attitude with its small footprint, small motor, great rotational ability, and convertible top. It made me feel like I was always going fast. I want one. —JBS
There are few cars at this price point that provide the outright thrills of the MX-5 in a package that is so incredibly accessible to the average person. At the same time, this isn’t a one-trick pony. The MX-5 is enjoyable in so many different ways, be that on an autocross, a road course, your favorite winding road, or just on a tear down the freeway. —BT
As John points out, let us not forget that we’re talking about a convertible here. Blue skies and smiles go hand-in-hand, after all. Even if you’re a Porsche or Ferrari driver, I feel like the MX-5 has the power to charm you. It’s basic and basically good, and there will always be an enthusiast who’s looking for this kind of car. —SM
Engine: Turbocharged I-4, 2.3 liters, 16v
Output: 263 hp/280 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 5.9 sec (est)
Weight: 3272 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 18/25 mpg
Base Price: $23,700
On Sale: Now
2011 Mazda RX-8 6MT
Engine: Rotary, 1.3 liters, 2 rotors
Output: 232 hp/159 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 6.6 sec (est)
Weight: 3065 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 16/22 mpg
Base Price: $26,795
On Sale: Now
2011 Mazda MX-5 6MT
Engine: I-4, 2.0 liters, 16v
Output: 167 hp/140 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 6.8 sec (est)
Weight: 2511 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 21/28 mpg
Base Price: $23,110
On Sale: Now
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