Comparison Test: 2016 Mazda MX-5 vs 2015 Scion FR-S vs 2015 Ford Mustang

Review by Jacob Black, Jeff Wilson and Ronnie Fung

Photos by Jeff Wilson and Ronnie Fung

Introduction

It seems like it was just last month we compared the current crop of affordable, rear-wheel-drive sports cars… because it was.

This time, our focus is on the size of our grin, not our baggage.

In a four-way-shoot out between the newest and best RWD manuals we could gather up for around $35,000 we ranked a base-model V6 Mustang in second place, right behind the yellow Scion you see again here in this test. They beat out the Hyundai Genesis Coupe and the re-priced and reprised Nissan 370Z.

We thought the more-powerful, better-handling Mustang might have a better shot at price parity with this special edition FRS, so we invited Ford back for a re-shoot with a better matched car. Ford obliged with an Ecoboost Mustang with Performance Pack.

But then something happened on the way to the meet point – an interloper showed its very pretty face. A car not available for the previous test, and one we thought wouldn’t be available for a while yet, suddenly made itself available. We couldn’t resist.

And so, muscling in on this rematch at the last minute Wrestlemania style, we have the all-new 2016 Mazda MX-5.

Practicality would play against it, perhaps, but this test is about fun. We’ve put practicality on the board but more in deference to its past service to the cause than anything else. This time, our focus is on the size of our grin, not our baggage.

Packing less horsepower than the other two but with a larger price tag, we thought the Mazda might still have an uphill battle on its hands. Then again, we thought that about the FR-S last time.

And this Mazda has a neat party trick – it’ll whip its top off more quickly and easily now than ever before. That’s always worth a point or two.

But is it enough? And will the more sport-focused ’Stang score redemption against the FR-S?

You asked.

We answered.

Third Place: 2015 Mustang EcoBoost, by Jeff Wilson

We surmised that a mid-level EcoBoost Mustang with the $3,000 Performance Package would still be a veritable bargain, but stand a much greater chance against the feisty little Scion, so we booked one to find out for sure. Now this better performing, better-looking Mustang manages no better than third place. What the… ?

With ten more horsepower (up to 310) and 40 more lb-ft of torque over the V6 ’Stang, our EcoBoost machine packs a punch that doubles the MX-5’s and is more than 100 ponies greater than the Scion’s output. That’s not just a little bit, that’s a whopping, super-size-me-plus-a-third-dessert kind of extra power helping over the other cars here. And yet, while providing more usable grunt in daily driving than the other two without resorting to stratospheric revs, the EcoBoost never really feels that quick.

While it might be the most powerful, the Mustang nevertheless has a disconnect between the driver and machine when compared to the other two cars.

At one point, turning onto a straight and open two-lane highway, I applied a heavy boot of throttle and snapped off a couple of pretty quick gear changes, expecting to look into the rearview and see that angry little anime face of the MX-5 behind me shrinking rapidly in size. Surprisingly, what I saw was Jacob Black’s face, grinning maniacally and much closer than the Mazda’s power deficit should have enabled. Yes, the Mustang is quicker, but in the real world, not as much as you might want to believe.

At around 1,600 kg, the EcoBoost tips the scales more than 500 kg (we’re talkin’ 1,100 lb!) heavier than the MX-5, and although the EcoBoost Performance Package includes the 3.55 gearing, the throttle response in the Ford is subdued compared to the other two cars, making it feel less lively. Ronnie Fung noticed it too, claiming, “The steed just never feels connected to the driver. The several hundred-kilogram weight difference is immediately noticeable, both in a straight line and in corners. Put the pedal down in the Mustang and you don't really feel the sort of excitement that the other two provide.”

The turbo Mustang’s brakes are strong and the 19-inch wheels shod in sticky summer Pirellis mean the EcoBoost is a capable performer, and the grippy Recaro seats do a great job of locking the driver in place, but it’s just not as much fun achieving its elevated limits as its more engaging competitors.

In isolation, the Mustang EcoBoost is a fun performance car. Justin Pritchard’s recent Mustang Ecoboost review had him simply gushing over what a great driver’s car it is, with tremendous immediacy and feel to its steering. As I said, in isolation, that’s true, and certainly compared to the V6 Mustang, this car is far more engaging to drive, but in this test, the direct and immediate back-to-back comparisons immediately show the dynamic deficiencies dictated by size and mass.

Jacob “Do-A-Skid” Black elaborates our discontent with the Mustang: “The steering has a weird springy-fakery to simulate driving feel, but it just makes it more fake. So fake.”

“Artificial” was the word thrown around a lot by our evaluators when referring to the Ford. While it might be the most powerful, the Mustang nevertheless has a disconnect between the driver and machine when compared to the other two cars. Everything about the Mustang, from throttle response and steering, to the decidedly un-musical engine sounds artificially piped into the cabin through the speakers, is fabricated digitally.

Ronnie “Drift Driver” Fung continues, “It feels insulated, sterile and very electronic. Even with traction control and ESC turned off, at no point do I ever feel like I'm in complete control of the car.” What he means is: the car wouldn’t let him do naughty things to the tires. That made him sad.

Despite having more power and torque on paper, the Mustang failed to post a victory in any driving or dynamic category, instead earning a few wins in aspects like cargo capacity, ride comfort and rear seat space and access – not exactly the qualities we hold in high regard for a sports car.

Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony says it best, “While it [the EcoBoost] is better, it is still not best in this group, and the larger, heavier Mustang seemed more of a cruiser compared to the two smaller, more focused sports cars, and lacks the steering feel and handling precision of the FR-S and MX-5.”

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000 km roadside assistance

Pricing: 2016 Ford Mustang Ecoboost
Base Price: $27,999
Options: Ecoboost performance package (255/40 R19 rear tires, limited slip diff, 19 inch wheels) - $3,000, security package - $700, floor mats - $150, reverse park assist - $150, Recaro cloth seats - $1,500
A/C Tax: $100
Freight & PDI: $1,600
Price as tested: $35,399

Second Place: 2015 Scion FR-S Series 1.0, by Jacob Black

I don’t know who coined the phrase “mellow yellow”, but I can only assume they cry tears of laughter whenever someone uses it. Yellow, my friends is not mellow, especially not here. But it is the perfect colour for this Series 1.0 Scion FR-S.

How ironic that, over a Mustang and an MX-5 (nee Miata), the Toyota(!) is the most attention-seeking. It makes the pretty red MX-5 look like a wallflower, and is to the Mustang as Lady Gaga is to Susan Boyle.

But if you think the colour is loud, wait till you thumb the starter.

And yes, I know, it’s a Scion, not a Toyota – but it’s a Toyota really. Well, not really, because it’s also a Subaru. But I digress… Point is, the iconic American and the playful, youthful MX-5 are upstaged by this body-kit-clad citrus explosion.

But if you think the colour is loud, wait till you thumb the starter. “Phwoar!” was the reaction from one onlooker in the Tim’s carpark – the pipe fitted to this car is tough. Bulk tough. In the most obnoxious possible way. And it’s glorious. The engine note alone is a big kick in the points for “engagement”, and almost made up for the fact you had to hear it through a roof. The Mustang’s fake engine noise is no match. And the Mazda, which also enhances its engine sound via a resonance chamber in the intake ducts (but thankfully not via the car speakers a la Ford) is nothing next to the FR-S.

In isolation, the FR-S can be, and is, hammered for its piddling horsepower outputs. In fact, James is doing that in this week’s FR-S Day By Day Review – and rightly so. But next to the anemic 155 hp MX-5 and the grunty-but-bloated Mustang, the FR-S feels like a rocket. While Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony noticed a dead-spot in power and said it left him “hungry for more power”, the FR-S still surges forward better than both of the competitors, and sounds incredible doing it. Point: Scion.

The Scion also wins over the MX-5 for practicality, coming in second thanks to back seats you could maybe, possibly use, one day. Maybe. (Actually, Senior Editor Yarkony used it for his weekend family car…) But again, this test is about fun – practicality has a cameo at best. On this day, in this test, “practicality” is the friend you hoped your other friend wouldn’t bring. We’re polite to him, but he is otherwise ignored.

Not that the FR-S isn’t fun. It is. It really, really is. In fact, Jonathan and Jeff both said they’d take it over the MX-5, because it can take child seats. Jonathan was evangelical about the driver’s seat of the FR-S too. “Those seats! God, those seats,” he foamed. “They make the business of driving, even on track, so much easier as they grip you in place. The steering is sharp, it corners flat, and has amazing balance.”

I disagreed, citing the tiny, beautifully balanced and perfectly executed MX-5’s direct steering, solid transmission and better relationship to the driver.

The FR-S handles incredibly well, but it needs the tires of a roller skate to give the Scion the liveliness that’s readily apparent in the Mazda. It gets muted when you add grip via better tires, and the FR-S isn’t quite the visceral experience of the MX-5 – even with that ludicrous exhaust and body kit.

Our scoresheets gave the FR-S wins in engine power and engagement, exhaust note and driver seat comfort, but seconds in almost every other aspect. The result was controversial, to say the least.

“Numbers on a scoresheet be damned, at the end of the day, the driving enjoyment of the FR-S is close enough to the MX-5 that knowing I could buy one for several thousand bucks less AND have space for both my wife AND my son means that this is the car that best suits me,” Jeff raged.

I had to admit. The man made a good point. But he didn’t stop there.

“Throw on a set of better tires and some more aggressive brake pads and I'd be having just as much fun at track days as the MX-5 owners.”

In response I walked calmly over to the Mazda… and put the top down.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/60,000 km roadside assistance

Pricing: 2015 Scion FR-S Release Series 1.0
Base Price (Release Series 1.0): $32,565
Options: $0
A/C Tax: $100
Freight & PDI: $1,695
Price as tested: $34,360

First Place: 2016 Mazda MX-5 GS, by Ronnie Fung

I suppose it’s not a huge surprise to see the gorgeous, brand-new MX-5 wearing the crown in this particular shootout. As far as criteria for sports cars go, it hits every single one and more: lightweight, sexy, nimble, extremely capable in the corners, fun to drive, communicative, and as a bonus, according to Jeff Wilson, it’s even “more fuel efficient, while also being better equipped and cheaper than last year's model” (in GS trim). The fact that the 2016 MX-5 is down on horsepower from last year’s model is a paltry, inconsequential and trifling matter – the new car is better than the last one in every respect – also according to Jeff Wilson. Anyone that remains hung up on the horsepower may as well stop reading now!

“Yes, yes, yes.”

The design of the new MX-5 is undeniably modern with its sharp lines, angles and profile. Gone are any traces of the rounded and bubbly-look that characterized the Miata since its launch 25 years ago. While there are purists that bemoan the new angular and muscular look, I find myself having to pick up jaws off the floor everywhere I go with the car. The laser beam headlights frame a front end that would look at home in a school of sharks, while the new taillight design obliterates any idea that the MX-5 is a soft and bubbly car meant for soft and bubbly people - yes, they’re F-Type-esque, but how is that a bad thing? The new design is aggressive, modern, and sexy as hell, and while it’s a big departure from any previous generation in regards to shape and design, the wizards at Mazda have somehow managed to make it still instantly recognizable as a Miata.

Standing in the parking lot of a Tim Horton’s, as we do, it came down to Jacob and myself staring at the back end of the MX-5 with lust in our eyes and the words “yes, yes, yes” plastered across our faces while Jeff shakes his head and tells us that there’s just something about the taillights that doesn’t work for him. There will be purists that do not approve of the new MX-5’s design but for most people, the new MX-5 is one sexy machine.

As I wasn’t on the drive launch for the ND MX-5, this would be my first experience with it. As soon as I engaged the clutch, I knew this was a special car. I’m a big fan of all the previous generation Miatas, but the ND really elevates the experience to another level. By the time I hit fourth gear, I was grinning from ear-to-ear. It felt almost as small, light and nimble as the first-gen NA Miata, but even more planted and stable than the NC Miata. This is truly a remarkable accomplishment. Braking for the first on-ramp, the MX-5 slowed down in a very rapid manner and Senior Editor Yarkony says, “Also noteworthy was the Mazda’s excellent brake feel and response, which bite as soon as you dab the brakes and allow later braking before turn-in.” I can say I fully agree with him there – I felt like I could enter a corner way faster than I would in most other cars and trust that the MX-5 would be right there, eager for more.

As I was bopping down along in third gear, Jacob, with a cheeky grin plastered across his face from the passenger seat, quickly reached up, undid the roof latch and had the top down and stowed before I could even utter a protest. This is a neat touch and he told me that in his previous drive with it, the feat could be accomplished at even higher speeds. Roof up or down, driving – I should say – piloting, as that’s what it feels like, the MX-5 is an absolute riot. But with the roof down, you really experience the car.

With the wind sailing through my luscious locks, the engine eagerly climbing up to redline (without having to worry about an immediate seizure of license and vehicle should there be local law enforcement in the vicinity), the sublime feeling of an almost perfect gearbox with a nice, tight, short throw, the simplistic and well-finished interior encapsulating me in a secure cocoon of driver-oriented bliss, the communicative three-spoke steering wheel letting me know exactly what the car is doing, the eager-to-please throttle response, and the feeling of ultimate control over a small, easy-to-place machine, it’s hard to imagine how the answer would be anything but Miata.

There just aren’t many other machines would provide me with the same experience for less than six figures. I went through a quick mental checklist and beyond the Toyobarus, I drew up a blank. [What? No love for the Boxster, Ronnie? –Ed.] Now don’t get me wrong, there’s what you feel in a car and there’s what a car is actually capable of. While the MX-5 makes you feel like a superstar that’s setting lap records everywhere it goes without breaking a sweat, the reality is different. The MX-5’s true domain is in the sub-140 km/h world and while it’s a champion at those speeds, don’t expect it to be passing a Porsche 911 GT3 around Mosport anytime soon.

But as a street car on public roads, you’re hard pressed to find a car that will respond to your inputs with as much zeal and fervour as the Miata does. Jeff Wilson says, “When driven hard, the MX-5 is eager and lively with a lightness to its reactions I can't recall experiencing in any other modern machine. It simply begs to be driven hard and yet won't insult the local constabulary with obscene disregard for the speed limits thanks to its modest power, and that won't make it any less thrilling to drive.”

I’m a track junkie and while I don’t expect a street car to behave like a track car, it’s always a pleasant surprise when I hop into a car that feels track-ready. I’d say it’s the “fastest” low-horsepower car out there. What I mean is that despite its lack of big power, the MX-5 is a champion. Yarkony sums it up well when he says, “It is fast! The amazingly tight gearbox and short gearing make it a thrill rowing through the gears and make the most of the MX-5’s meagre power.”

There are plenty of cars out there that would eat a Miata for a light snack when the speed stakes get raised. Comparing the new MX-5 to the Ecoboost Mustang is like comparing an Olympic-class gymnast to a UFC fighter. While the Mustang can outpace the MX-5 in a straight line under any conditions, the Miata is capable of corralling the Mustang and running circles around it at street speeds and around a tight set of twisties. As far as driving enjoyment goes, the Mustang isn’t a contender here at all. The only thing the Mustang shares with the MX-5 is the fact that they’re both RWD. Jacob Black says, “The Mustang feels artificial every which way you look at it – even has artificial engine sounds for crying out loud. But it’s practical, and a lot of people will buy it for that reason.” It’s essentially the anti-Miata. In the Miata and the FR-S, artificial is a word that does not enter your mind at all.

The FR-S manages to put up a really good fight against the Miata. It retains the same ethos – “less is enough” – lightweight, good looks, razor-sharp response and handling, combined with a powerplant that enables you to put your foot flat to the floor and row through all the gears without losing your licence in less than four seconds of full throttle hooliganism. All that, and it has back seats!

At the end of the day, though, the MX-5 is a roadster and the way I look at it is that no matter how closely matched the FR-S and the MX-5 are on paper and in feel, a roadster is in its own class.

You know: the two-seater, roofless, summertime class.

For the price of the MX-5 in any of its generations, there is nothing out there that has ever come close to it for bang for your buck, and this new generation is leaps and bounds cooler looking than the last generation. To me, this means there’s never been a better time to buy a “Miata” than now.

I’ll end by saying no matter who wins what on paper, the FR-S and the MX-5 are both superstars and every single time I drive either of those cars on or off the track, I toy with the idea of buying one of each. They’re that much fun.

Warranty:
3 years/unlimited distance; 5 years/unlimited distance powertrain; 7 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance

Pricing: 2016 Mazda MX-5 GS
Base Price: $35,300
Options: Soul Red Mica paint - $300
A/C Tax: $100
Freight & PDI: $1,795
Price as tested: $37,395

It seems like it was just last month we compared the current crop of affordable, rear-wheel-drive sports cars… because it was. In a... 8/20/2015 7:13:38 AM
2016 Ford Mustang Ecoboost 2015 Scion FR-S Release Series 1.0 2016 Mazda MX-5 GS
Base Price $27,999 Base Price $32,565 Base Price $35,300
Optional Equipment Ecoboost performance package (255/40 R19 rear tires, limited slip diff, 19 inch wheels) - $3,000, security package - $700, floor mats - $150, reverse park assist - $150, Recaro cloth seats - $1,500 Optional Equipment None Optional Equipment Soul Red Mica paint - $300
A/C Tax $100 A/C Tax $100 A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,600 Destination Fee $1,695 Destination Fee $1,795
Price as Tested $35,399 Price as Tested $34,360 Price as Tested $37,395
Optional Equipment