Mazda Miata and Porsche Boxster Achieve Sports Car Perfection

DW Burnett

It is easy to deplore the condition of the roadster. In the fifties and sixties we had all kinds of British and Italian car manufacturers. In the 90s, the Mazda Miata began a renaissance. Now there are only a handful, with more attrition expected in the very near future. Today’s roadster buyer isn’t really spoiled for choice. But thanks to these two, all is well. The Mazda Miata and the Porsche Boxster are still around today, more beautiful than they have ever been.

For a few years now, I’ve been telling everyone who listens to me that the Miata and Boxster are two of the best performance cars at any cost. I’d rather have one than any supercar on sale today, and most people think I’m kidding. True believers know that I am not.

A few months ago, I decided to organize a group test to better articulate my thinking. It is not a one-on-one, with a clear winner and loser. This is a celebration of two great sports cars of all time, built at a time when consumers almost completely rejected this sort of thing.

Even seven years after its debut, the fourth-generation Miata – the ND, to connoisseurs – looks like a fucking revelation. The car has stood up to industry trends by being smaller and lighter than its predecessor, despite incredibly strict safety requirements and consumer demands that typically lead to bloating. The fact that a relatively small company like Mazda has been able to develop a bespoke sports car on its own, and get it right, is a great achievement.

The typical refrain of Road & Track staff member, coming out of an ND Miata, especially the current ND2 with its inline four at 7,500 rpm, is “Why don’t I have one?” Editor Travis Okulski bought some shortly after this test. There is so much to love. The Miata has more body roll than most modern performance cars, but it offers comfort and a driving feel. Everything is very old school: you turn, wait a moment for the car to take a train, and adjust your line with the throttle as the whole car pivots around its outer rear wheel.

A few weeks earlier, I had had the pleasure of driving a first Lotus Cortina, the small English family sedan that Jim Clark took to touring car glory. On some fairly technical New Jersey country roads, the Miata felt remarkably similar, taking a similar stance through the corners. But unlike the Lotus, you can go to a Mazda dealership and buy a Miata, and it will never break.

Mazda sent us a Miata in the (relatively) luxurious Grand Touring specification. The best Miata you can get today is a Club with the optional BBS / Brembo / Recaro pack, which adds gear from these legendary brands, but the GT is still good. From 2020, the Club and GT are basically the same underneath, both fitted with Blistéin shocks and a limited slip differential. And as always, the engine and transmission are the same.

The Miata’s 2.0-liter reminds us that a four-cylinder doesn’t have to be a simple device. It shares the basics with other Mazda engines, but a number of key enhancements make it a true sports car powertrain, smooth, eager to turn, and fully linear from idle to redline. It even sounds good, with a nice amount of intake horn. Then there is the transmission, which is perfect. No other automaker makes a nicer manual – Honda, Porsche, or anyone else.

Very few modern sports cars compete with the fun offered by the classics that set the tone more than half a century ago. The Miata does, and does it with virtually nothing to ask of its owner. Which gift.

And then there’s the Boxster. While an ND Miata is remarkably similar to the original NA in terms of specifications and philosophy, the Porsche Boxster has changed a lot over the years. No version illustrates this better than the current 718 Spyder, a product of the same people at Porsche who make the GT3 and GT2 RS. This is serious hardware, sharing many suspension components with the older 911 GT3 and a 4.0-liter flat-six.

I asked Porsche for the Boxster GTS 4.0 manual we reviewed earlier this year, but it was not available. Looking back, I’m happy. This PDK-equipped 718 Spyder, although not actually called a Boxster, represents the nameplate highlight and shows how far it has come. When it debuted 25 years ago, the Boxster was only developing 201 hp; this one has 414.

Unlike the Miata, there is no need to wait for the chassis to take a set. Being a mid-engined car with a very tight chassis, it immediately enters corners, with the whole car appearing to pivot around your seat. This is a much more modern and sophisticated car than the Miata, with the absolute precision we expect from a Porsche sports car. Depreciation, in particular, is a highlight. In Normal or Sport settings, the Spyder is perfectly in control, with a flexibility that most sport sedans can only dream of. It’s strange. Porsche understands that just throwing a lot of the spring and bar on the problem doesn’t make a good handling car. There’s no stiffness per se here, just the right amount of control to make sure the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires are capable of performing at their best. It’s the performance car suspension as it should be.

This fairly new 4.0-liter six N / A often feels a bit gruff, though that’s really just a flaw. There’s an immediacy of response here that few engines match, and despite reving at 8,000 rpm, it’s pretty muscular. It has tons of torque across the rev range, so you’ll never run out of anything. And while a dual-clutch gearbox is an odd choice for such a purist roadster like this, it remains the benchmark for its type.

What makes the Spyder the best Boxster to date is that despite all this precision engineering, the car never leaves you indifferent. Yes, it generates big numbers, much bigger than those of the Miata. But the Spyder is all about the subjective. It’s really in the same spirit as the Miata, with just more of everything. Both are cars built explicitly to throw the roof back and go early in the morning. And the same goes for the “less” Boxsters. In this way, a strong connection was maintained with the original from 1997, although there are many differences on paper.

Okulski prefers the Mazda, arguing that purely in terms of fun per dollar, the $ 107,190 Spyder we have here (a 2022 Spyder costs $ 1,000 more) isn’t worth three times as much as the $ 33,560 Miata ( a 2022 is worth $ 33,815). I maintain that no car is three times more fun than an ND2 Miata; with the Porsche, you of course pay the badge and a higher level of technical sophistication in addition to your enjoyment. Only a car that costs that much could drive like this. In addition, a Boxster is more practical than a Miata. The Spyder’s manual soft top is far more tedious than the Miata’s simple wonder, but in a Boxster there’s just more room for everything. He’s a better driver on a daily basis, although the Spyder is more compromised than the rest of the lineup.

However, this is not a daily drivers test. It’s a sports car test, and both are triumphs. The bridge is stacked against cars like these. They are among the last of a possibly dying race, cars that from a purely financial point of view do not make complete and total sense. More worryingly, these are cars whose production is more difficult to justify, as the need to invest in electric vehicles has increased dramatically. In a few years, the Boxster will likely go all-electric. Mazda, ominously, hasn’t glanced at the future of the Miata.

These are the only two soft roofs with manual roofs on sale today. The Boxster’s roof is much harder to mount, but it has these wonderful buttresses.

DW Burnett

It’s remarkable that these two cars are still there, still going strong. There are people in these two companies who are like us, fighting the good fight. Mazda and Porsche deserve all the credit in the world for keeping the faith, seeing the ever smaller crowd of sports car enthusiasts, and giving them something wonderful.

If you will allow me a cliché in closing, we are the real winners here.

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