Best Sporty Car Under $50,000: Mazda MX-5

Will any car ever unseat the Mazda MX-5 as autoTRADER.ca’s Best Sporty Car Under $50,000?

Magic 8 Ball says: Don’t count on it.

The autoTRADER.ca panel of experts – which this year comprises more than 20 jurors across the country who voted for this over every single vehicle on sale in Canada within this segment – has consistently been wooed by the MX-5. This year, it bested four other finalists in the Ford Mustang, Honda Civic Si/Type R, Hyundai Veloster N, and Volkswagen Golf GTI/Golf R.

Yes, there are sporty cars out there that are more powerful or more practical. But precious few cars are so unapologetically dedicated purely to making the experience of a great drive as accessible as possible, and that’s without question where the MX-5 continues to excel.

“Its minimalist mass makes it oh-so-frisky in all its reactions, and the combination of free-revving engine, and sensational shift-and-clutch setup make it joyful to drive,” raved autoTRADER.ca’s Jeff Wilson when he drove a cross-section of MX-5s.

As though its driving manners and reputation weren’t enough, the MX-5 received an upgrade to its SkyActiv-G 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine for the 2019 model year, gaining nearly 20 percent in power at a peak of 181 hp and a slight torque bump of 7 lb-ft up a total of 151 lb-ft, which it reaches 600 rpm sooner at 4,000 rpm.

“The 2019 car is simply better,” Wilson said. “The aspects that needed no improvement are as good as they were, but now it’s just that little bit more exciting to drive thanks to its better soundtrack and increased power.”

Priced from $34,822 including destination and fees, value plays some role in determining which of the under-$50,000 sporty cars will claim the overall title, but much more of the weighting in this segment goes toward attributes such as performance, engineering excellence, and driver satisfaction, all of which are among the factors that keep the MX-5 floating toward the top of our jurors’ scoring sheets.

A less-discussed feature that can be very important to buyers in this category is design. To understand the MX-5’s potential in this regard, one need only look to the 30th Anniversary Edition released this year, which is available both with the cloth roof and the RF hardtop. Painted a vibrant racing orange that’s matched in the brake calipers and interior stitching and accents, layers of Alcantara and leather culminate in a pair of Recaro sport seats with orange piping and speakers embedded into the headrests. On the other hand, the Soul Red Crystal Metallic that’s available on every trim isn’t exactly hard on the eyes, either.

While an automatic transmission is available, enthusiasts remain drawn to the Mazda brand more broadly for its snappy and engaging six-speed manual transmission, which works perfectly in unison with the MX-5’s sharp-as-a-tack handling. Dealing with potholes on Canadian roads? Drop a satisfying downshift and steer your way around them. It’s like having a ready-made autocross course on your commute to work.

Technology is another key factor that our judges consider, and while the MX-5 has skated by in previous years, there’s hope on the horizon: the 30th Anniversary cars come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility built-in from the factory. (Other models can be delivered with this integrated as well, but it will have to be added by a dealer.) It took Mazda a while to offer these apps, but now that they’re starting to land and the functions are seamlessly built into Mazda’s dial-controller interface, drivers will be less tempted to pick up their phones and more apt to keep their eyes on the road.

Is it perfect? Not entirely – especially as Generation Xers like me nudge closer to their mid-life crises, where they may find that the low-slung body that makes the MX-5 as engaging as it is isn’t as easy for them to get into and out of as it was 20 years ago. Plus, getting volumes of stuff around isn’t its forte; this isn’t the car you want on your side for a run to the big-box bulk store.

But with the MX-5’s combination of its power to weight ratio, tight steering, entertaining handling, on-point transmissions, and overall affordable roadster appeal that nothing else in the industry can match – all topping out at an all-in price of well under $50,000 – Mazda’s fullest expression of driving enjoyment has won over our judges yet again.

A joy to drive 1/20/2020 12:00:00 AM