Now that summer is upon us, a young gal’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of convertibles. There can be only one, specifically 2 seat, fun to drive, and affordable convertibles. The only question is, rear wheel drive or front wheel drive? I put the 2013 Mazda Miata MX-5 Club and the 2013 Mini Cooper S Roadster through their paces to find out which one offers more fun for your warm weather excursions.
The Mazda Miata is never going to wow you with spec numbers. The 2.0L 4 cylinder engine knocks out a mere 167 horses at 7000 and 140 lb/ft of torque at 5000 rpm. It should be noted that you lose 9 horsepower in the automatic, which only supports my argument that the Miata should not be offered in an automatic. Ever. The 6 speed manual allows you to drive it as it should be driven: high revs all around, downshifting into corners and frankly having a blast. But you pay a price for those revs in terms of fuel economy. EPA ratings are 22 in the city and 28 highway. Not disastrous numbers but I’ve certainly seen better. You’ll get from 0-60 in a lengthy 6.1 seconds, but the Miata has never been about flat out speed. It’s a corner carving convertible, not a dragster.
Spec numbers in the Mini are slightly more impressive. It brings a turbo to the table, giving its 1.6L 4 cylinder 181 hp at 5000 rpm and 177 lb/ft of torque with great range, getting you off the line at a peak of 1600 rpm, but continuing all the way to 5000 rpm. Although offered in an automatic, which is a travesty in my opinion, the 6 speed manual transmission scoots you from 0-60 in 6.7 seconds. EPA fuel ratings are much higher than the Miata, at 26 in town and 35 out on the highway.
The Miata is a light weight (2480 lbs) RWD car with hydraulic power steering and a short throw shifter. These all combine to make the 2013 Mazda Miata MX-5 one heck of a good time. The sport tuned Bilsteins keep the ride stiff, so if you’re looking for comfort along rough roads this is not the ride for you. Steering is crisp and responsive with excellent road feel that starts on the heavier side and weights up nicely with speed. Let’s hope Mazda doesn’t succumb to electric power steering in future models for the sake of a small gain in mpg. Traction control and sticky summer tires keep you pretty well planted on canyon roads, although you can disable it if you’d like to learn what understeer is all about.
Of course not everything is puppy dogs and rainbows behind the wheel. Road noise is, well, noisy and the seats, while improved from past models, are not the most comfortable. Storage in the cabin is at a premium and could use some better fit and finish. For example, the sliding door covering the cup holders does not lock in the open position. Upon hard braking expect your water bottle to suffer dents and possible spills. Navigation isn’t even an option in the Miata and while some might think the electric hard top pretty cool, I have nightmares of it stopping halfway in a rainstorm. I much prefer the manual soft top.
The Mini Cooper S Roadster is a light weight (2745 pounds) car as well, but the similarities end there. You’re looking at FWD, electric power steering, and an average throw shifter. Steering is heavy and quick to respond and turbo lag is kept to a minimum. In Sport mode it’s easy to squeal your tires off the line, but as in the Miata the ride is a bit harsh. The front and rear sway bars result in little discernable body roll and the stiff chassis makes you feel like you are just out for a drive in your go kart on steroids.
Mini Cooper claims they have torque steer under control. Distinctive to FWD vehicles, torque steer occurs when the power going to the front wheels makes them turn slightly upon gunning it off the line. Nice try Mini but it’s still lurking around. The steering, while being responsive, doesn’t offer a ton of feedback, nor does it reliably return to center, especially in sport mode. A short throw shifter would do wonders for making the driver feel more connected to the car. The ragtop is operated manually (hooray!) but the process is a bit cumbersome, forcing me to get in and out of the car to lock it into place.
There is a reason you always see Minis and Miatas at autocross events and track days. Both cars are affordable, reliable, and absolutely tossable through the corners. Sure their numbers aren’t off the charts, but these cars are about more than pure performance. They are about pure driving enjoyment, feeling connected to a machine.
But there can be only one, and I am a Mazda Miata MX-5 gal. Why? I prefer oversteer to understeer. Sure there are other little things I prefer on the Miata, but at my core, I will always prefer a RWD to a FWD. Now, if Mini Cooper offered their Roadster in RWD or AWD, then I’d have a quandary on my hands.
These cars are about emotion, not just performance. Which one gets your knickers in a twist?