Watch the video below and it’s obvious that there was little agreement in the AutoGuide office about which of these two roadsters is the better car. Despite the MINI Roadster being the latest in a long line of two-seater sports cars from the land of the Redcoats, when it comes to the key qualities of style, fun and value, it’s obvious that the Japanese make a superior British roadster, even to the British.
Starting with the design, the MX-5 is not off to a good start. While it may have a general shape that’s more in keeping with what a sportscar should be, there’s little else to recommend it. It’s lines convey little in the way of emotion and if the Miata’s reputation as a “chick car” wasn’t enough to keep the testosterone-endowed out of the driver’s seat, Mazda’s smiley face front bumper will.
The MINI on the other hand is fashion forward. In fact, it’s likely the brand’s design characteristics are far more important for the majority of owners than it’s fun-to-drive nature. One could easily bestow the “girls car” moniker upon it, though outfitted in Cooper S trim with some nice racing stripes and larger wheels helps give it a slightly more masculine appearance.
Switch over to the interior and the same themes carry forward, though with differing results. The MX-5 (a base Sport model in our test) is definitely simplistic. As a result, however, it’s incredibly easy to use with every button and switch where it should be.
The MINI on the other hand; oh how the interior controls are to be loathed. A stylistic home run, practicality is absent. The comical center speedomer can be ignored, though the toggle switches stand out like a flaw on one of Jerry Seinfeld’s girlfriends.
Even comparing the shifters and the Miata’s is tiny, with short and precise throws, and located exactly where you hand rests. The MINI on the other hand has a knob the size of a baseball and a stick the size of a bat.
Getting behind the wheel of each car continues to show just how dramatically different the two roadsters are.
The MINI’s seats are rather upright and lack any bolstering at all, feeling like a comfortable park bench – or a Corolla. The Mazda on the other hand hugs you on the sides and sucks you in, like you’re a part of the car.
As a result it’s hard to deny that the MINI is the more suitable driving position for every day use, allowing you to relax more while offering a more commanding view of the road. In the MX-5 you feel as every drive is going to be a white-knuckle affair.
The focused nature of the MX-5 is evident throughout the cabin as well, with little in the way or storage or space. The MINI on the other hand comes with a shelf behind the driver, perfect for tossing a laptop or a purse. It also boasts a pass through to the trunk, which is significantly larger than the Miata’s. Numbers like 8.5 cu-ft (MINI) and 5.3 cu-ft (Mazda) are hard to visualize, but do give the idea that there’s 50 percent more space in the MINI, with large trunk opening for easy access and the ability to store much taller objects.[vs-comparsion-table]
Having driven the MINI first we were convinced the MX-5 would be disappointing. We were wrong.
For starters, the low and tight seating position of this purist’s machine hints at a track-tuned suspension that will beat you up on rough roads. Quite the opposite is true. In fact, the Miata is smooth and soaks up bumps with ease, being dramatically more comfortable than the MINI, which feels as though it has cinderblocks for suspension components.
What a surprise, not to mention a disappointment, that the high-riding MINI cabin is so uncomfortable to live with, while the engaging drive of the Miata delivers actual comfort.
Execute your very first turn, at any speed, and it’s immediately obvious why the MX-5 has its own spec racing series. The car simply rotates around you like you’re sitting at the very axis between the wheels. The MINI, while no slouch in the handling department, feels disconnected, as though everything is going on three feet below your bum.
A major factor in both cars is the steering, with the MX-5 being significantly more responsive to inputs.
We were equally surprised by the power deliver in the MX-5. For starters the MINI Roadster in turbocharged Cooper S trim makes a solid dose more power at 181 hp, not to mention 177 lb-ft (192 in overboost). Like a toy you don’t get tired of playing with, it’s tremendous fun to lay on the throttle hard and feel the boost build, hearing the turbo spool and then the exhaust pop and crack behind you.
The Mazda by comparison makes just 167 hp and is down considerably in the torque department with just 140 lb-ft. The reward, however, is in the feel, with the sheer pleasure of a naturally aspired 2.0-liter meaning the engine always responds immediately. The larger 2.0-liter of the Mazda is also considerably more refined, with the direct-injection MINI motor clacking away like a diesel.
Comparatively the MINI is more for those who want to pretend to go fast, toying with boost and listening to the sounds.
Despite the outright power differences there is no clear victor when it comes to acceleration, thanks in part to the Miata weighing 300 lbs less at just 2,445 lbs. Where the turbocharged MINI does have an advantage is in the fuel economy department with a 27/35 mpg rating (city/highway) compared to just 22/28 for the Mazda.
With many of the same features available on both cars, our testers were not similarly equipped, with the MINI boasting leather, keyless access with a push button ignition, an outrageously good Harman Kardon audio system and Bluetooth (which refused to sync with one of our phones). The MINI had none of the above, though for good reason, priced well below at $23,190 compared to $29,250.
A base MINI Roadster can be had for less, though at $26,250 it’s still $3,000 more than the MX-5. And with just 121 hp, none of the fun of a turbocharger and a zero to 60 mph time of just 8.7 seconds (10 seconds in the automatic), it’s not a comparison worth making.
The MX-5 on the other hand, while poorly equipped in our comparison, can be had very nicely equipped for around $27,000 in soft-top. Plus, Mazda offers a hard top option, starting at just under $29,000.
For the record, both soft-top models are equally easy to use, and with a little flexibility and some upper body strength, can be open and closed from the driver’s seat.
An argument can be made for the MINI’s high-ride, easy access and a driving position that doesn’t demand that you’re always ready to race, though much of that is cancelled out by the excessively harsh suspension. The MX-5 Miata on the other hand, surprises with the most comfortable drive while being the easy victor when it comes to both value and driving enjoyment.
Lacking in the right-brain style department, the feel behind the wheel is more than enough to appease you Hedonistic tendencies, while there are more than enough sensible left-brain reasons to opt for the Mazda. It’s rare that the smart choice is also the one that’s the most fun. In this case, it is.