Nothing Compares: Three Decades of Love for the Mazda Miata and VW GTI

Two cars that satisfy us as much today as they did decades ago

Jake HolmesWriterJulia LaPalmePhotographer

The sky is falling for car enthusiasts, or so the doomsayers would have you believe. There are plenty of warning signs. Tighter emissions laws are killing big-displacement engines; speed cameras and radar guns threaten our proclivity for driving quickly; fewer young­sters today learn to drive or even buy cars; and self-driving vehicles are real.

But it isn't time to panic just yet, because Mazda's MX-5 Miata and Volkswagen's Golf GTI are alive and better than ever. No other vehicles have exemplified our "No Boring Cars" mantra as consistently during the past three decades, earning spots as some of Automobile's most-awarded, best-reviewed cars in our history.

Their story arcs are simple: Mazda wanted to revive the best parts of classic British roadsters, and the Miata became an enthusiast darling upon its 1989 debut for its responsive rear-wheel-drive chassis and top-down experience. The formula remains uncorrupted, with this version keeping the naturally aspirated engine, manual gearbox, and simple fabric roof that made us fall for the original.

Volkswagen's Golf GTI, born overseas decades ago, immigrated to the U.S. in 1983 as the Rabbit GTI. Other sport compacts we enjoy owe their legacy to the success of VW's innovative recipe: Take an ordinary family hatchback, make it sportier, and sell it at a reasonable price. Voilà, you have a car that does it all.

Keeping the Flame

Built in 1957, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca boasts a far more storied past than the Miata and GTI. Editor-in-chief Mike Floyd hops into the Four Seasons 2015 GTI fitted with the performance package upgrade, I grab the keys to our Four Seasons 2016 MX-5 Miata Club, flip open the top, and roll down the pit lane. The fourth-generation Miata retains all of the original's eagerness and charm. Its rev-happy engine jumps to attention and pulls harder than in any previous incarnation. Every millimeter of the tachometer gets a workout as the Mazda climbs up Rahal Straight toward the
famous Corkscrew.

Upgraded Club suspension and Brembo brakes notwithstanding, this car isn't fast—as evidenced when senior editor Chris Nelson passes the Miata repeatedly in an Alfa Romeo 4C Spider. Yet I have so much fun on each lap that I don't care. The Miata is a darling playmate that never surprises me, no matter how clumsy my corner entries.

Meanwhile, back in the paddock, Floyd has only praise for the GTI.

"It's just great," he gushes. "It's fast, and you can even get a little drift going through Turn 3."

Lapping the GTI after a stint in the Miata is a night-and-day difference. There's much more torque available from its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, and a tendency to understeer forces patience in slow corners. But just like the Mazda, the Volkswagen beats most in the smiles-generated department.

Call it track driving for dummies. The car chides rather than punishes when you accelerate too early or brake too late, shrieking its tires in warning but never getting out of sorts. The steering loads up to indicate what the front tires are doing, the manual transmission's throws are light enough for two-fingered shifting, and the brake pedal reassures with its heft.

Our on-track thrashing continues all afternoon, and neither engines nor brakes overheat. The durability impresses us: Capable as they are, these are first and foremost road cars designed to take the long way home.

The Real World

A day later, we follow a Monterey-to-Los Angeles route with as few straight lines as possible. Cars roll as daylight's first fingers stretch over the horizon, dashing down U.S. Highway 101 toward the sinewy Route 198 farther inland. Neither the Mazda nor VW contorts us into uncomfortable seats, punishes us over bumps, or gives us tinnitus with droning engines. Everything just works. We drive all day long and emerge from cockpits unruffled, marveling at how much fun these cars provide on the deserted roads we encounter. During this particular flirtation we chased each other with the enthusiasm of Labrador puppies—and because both cars communicate with their drivers so clearly at any speed, we didn't need to do 100 mph or even 70 mph to find thrills.

Other gold standards, including BMW's M3 and Porsche's 911, are beyond most drivers' budgets. Stalwarts such as Chevrolet's Corvette have struggled through occasional eras of malaise. But the Miata and GTI have never let us down. They force few compromises upon their owners. The Miata won hearts and minds by requiring just a fraction of the maintenance of high-strung European sports cars and by making long journeys easy with its supportive seats and fine ride. The GTI excels at everything, whether commuting, schlepping families,  performing daylong road trips, or ripping through back roads with abandon. (To be fair, we concede that the GTI hasn't exactly been maintenance free for some owners.)

Certainly each has grown up over the decades: The Miata now offers navigation and blind-spot warnings, and the GTI's trip computer displays patronizing eco tips like, "Do not depress accelerator when stationary." In terms of practicality, these are easily the best GTI and Miata yet: safer, better-equipped, faster, roomier, and filled with more features than ever.

Still, the roadster and hot hatch entice as much now as they did so many years ago. We applaud them time and again for their essential goodness and back-to-basics fun. Those people who hate driving or speak with animated anticipation about the eventual arrival of fully autonomous vehicles? They haven't piloted a GTI or Miata. We'll savor driving them ourselves for as long as we can.

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI S with Performance Pack Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $27,700/$28,895
(base/as tested)
Engine: 2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/220 hp @ 4,500 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine,
FWD hatchback
EPA Mileage: 25/34 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 168 x 70.8 x 56.8 in
Wheelbase: 103.6 in
Weight: 3,031 lb
0-60 MPH: 5.8 sec
Top Speed: 155 mph

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $29,420/$32,820 (base/as tested)
Engine: 2.0L
DOHC 16-valve I-4/
155 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 148 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
EPA Mileage: 27/34 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 154.1 x 68.3 x 48.8 in
Wheelbase: 90.9 in
Weight: 2,312 lb
0-60 MPH: 6.0 sec
Top Speed: 128 mph (est)

 

30 Years of Love

Automobile has showered the GTI and Miata with awards and glowing Four Seasons test reviews. A quick chronology:

December 1987: 1986 GTI scores 75/100
We said: "Our Four Seasons car did everything we asked of it, and we drive it flat out, all the time, on the worst roads and in the worst weather imaginable."

January 1990: Miata named inaugural Automobile of the Year
We said: "Considering what a minimalist exercise the Miata is supposed to be, it has a healthy veneer of quality laid into its various devices. … All the same, the Miata is not pure frivolity; it's a seriously considered entity."

January 1991: 1990 Miata scores 90/100
We said: "The Miata may not have the most isolated ride, the strongest engine, or the most comfortable interior, but when judged as a whole, it is the most exciting automobile built in years."

1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997: Miata named Automobile All-Star
We said: "The driving experience in the Miata is still basic and vital." -January 1992
"To our intense relief, Mazda has deliberately kept the Miata simple, resisting the inevitable temptation to make it longer, lower, and wider. So despite the passage of time, this roadster's unflappable character remains unaffected." -February 1996

August 1999: Miata scores 4.5 out of 5 stars in a Four Seasons test
We said: "The Miata is so fun to drive you forget about the rough engine, the cramped interior, your migraine headache, and the overdue mortgage payment."

1999, 2001, 2002: Miata named Automobile All-Star
We said: "What makes the new car more remarkable still is that not one squib, jot, or tittle of design purity or fundamental engineering excellence has been lost." -February 1999

January 2007: GTI named Automobile of the Year
We said: "This GTI feels like it has more build quality than anything within miles of its price point. It exudes substance in ways that worthy, sometimes faster speed machines from the Far East—the Subaru Impreza WRX, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and the Mazdaspeed3, for instance—just don't."

2008, 2009: GTI named Automobile All-Star
We said: "The GTI eclipses even the class-clown Mini Cooper for sheer spark and verve, it makes sense for real people who actually have to lead real lives, and it does it all without breaking the bank." -January 2008

August 2008: GTI scores 4 stars in a Four Seasons test
We said: "You'd have a hard time matching the GTI's combination of useful packaging, cheerful personality, and outright speed at any price—and especially for less than $27,000."

January 2010: GTI named Automobile of the Year
We said: "The Volkswagen GTI continues to burn the affordable-enthusiast-car flame like no other vehicle in the world. Because the new Mark 6 GTI, although only a mild update to the Mark 5 GTI, made a good thing even better."

2011, 2012, 2013: GTI named Automobile All-Star
We said: "The enduring appeal stems from passionate performance, subtle restraint, and detailed execution. … This is a vehicle that often feels like more than it is." -February 2011

May 2011: GTI scores 4.5 stars in Four Seasons test
We said: "Yes, this car has become more refined, more economical, and more reliable, but its underlying character is unchanged."

January 2015: GTI named Automobile All-Star
We said: "Above all, the 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI makes us want to drive. … The GTI is quick and rewarding on narrow two-lane roads, with urgent acceleration from the turbo-four, eager turn-in, and a planted feel no matter how pockmarked the pavement."

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