2022 Best Performance Car Under $50K: Mazda MX-5

If you still need proof that big power and big speed are not the only paths to driving joy, look no further than the fact that the 2022 Mazda MX-5 roadster, which has been voted as AutoTrader’s Best Performance Car Under $50K once again. Commonly known as the Miata, the lightweight Japanese roadster scores a win in this category for the third year in a row, beating out an entire field of other more powerful performance rides.

AutoTrader award winners are chosen based on votes from our jury of more than 20 automotive experts across the country and the MX-5 came out on top this year over every other vehicle in this segment including the finalists, the Volkswagen Golf GTI/Golf R, and Hyundai Veloster N hot hatchbacks, the venerable Ford Mustang, as well as the new Toyota GR 86 and Subaru BRZ twins – the latter arguably being the MX-5’s most direct competitors.

Cars are evaluated over a wide criteria set including value, innovation, tech, user-friendliness, performance, design, safety, quality, and efficiency. And while the extremely compact, two-seat MX-5 isn’t quite as practical as the aforementioned VWs and Hyundais or seem like as good a value as the bigger and more powerful Mustang and Toyobaru twins, the droptop Mazda has always been, and continues to be, a standout when it comes to driver satisfaction and engineering excellence, providing a uniquely joyful experience behind the wheel.

Power comes from a naturally-aspirated 2.0L four-cylinder making 181 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. This isn’t a set of specs that’ll get your pulse racing on its own, but when paired to the MX-5’s impossibly light 1,066-kg chassis and a short, satisfying six-speed manual transmission, it all adds up to one of the most fun driving experiences available today at any price point.

When AutoTrader Road Test Editor Dan Ilika reviewed the 2021 model, he wrote, “You don’t simply drive this car – you control every bit of it. It’s one you become deeply in tune with the moment you climb inside, with an immediate and innate understanding of each other that normally takes all kinds of drive time to develop. There’s no get-to-know-you period, just unadulterated fun from the moment you depress the clutch and tap the start button next to the steering wheel.”

The steering itself, by the way, is first-rate. That humble 2.0-litre engine revs to 7,500 rpm, the manual shift is as light and crisp as a fresh Pringle, and the whole car operates and carves corners with a delicious and almost magical deftness that its competitors just can’t match. “Steering, suspension, brakes, and powertrain are all mere extensions of your own being when you’re behind the wheel,” wrote Ilika.

And even though the newly more powerful Toyota GR 86 and its Subaru BRZ badge sibling are vastly improved over their predecessors and come awfully close to the MX-5 in terms of driving enjoyment, they still aren’t as light, don’t feel as playful, and feature boxer engines which, to my ears, still do not sound as good as the Mazda’s inline-four.

Beyond that, the MX-5 is also pretty darn well thought out and put together as a car meant to accomplish regular car tasks. A relatively soft suspension means a comfortable ride over pockmarked pavement, a small engine and little weight means great fuel efficiency (official ratings of 8.1 L/100 km combined for the manual, 7.9 for the automatic), and active safety features such as blind spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, and low-speed automatic emergency braking are all standard.

The base, soft-top Mazda MX-5 GS starts at $33,200 and comes with a decent amount of standard equipment including 17-inch wheels, a seven-inch infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and speakers in the headrests (especially useful when making top-down phone calls). Stepping up to the goldilocks $37,200 GS-P adds premium audio, heated seats and mirrors, a noise-isolating windshield, as well as a handful of manual gearbox-exclusive performance enhancements such as a strut tower bar, sport Bilstein suspension, a limited-slip differential, and an induction sound enhancer. The top GT trim, meanwhile, costs $40,300 and throws in gunmetal painted wheels, body-color mirror caps, leather seats, built-in navigation, wireless Apple CarPlay, satellite radio, auto-dimming mirrors, and scuff plates.

Miata fans looking for a more isolated cabin can go for the MX-5 RF, which features a power-retractable hardtop, starts at $40,200 for the base GS-P and costs $43,300 in GT form.

On paper, $40,000 for just 181 hp and two seats may seem like a raw deal, but cars aren’t driven on paper and after a single real-life drive on a good road, Mazda’s roadster proves its worth in spades. “There is nothing like it at its price point,” wrote AutoTrader contributor Benjamin Hunting. Hence, the Mazda MX-5 has, once again, been voted as AutoTrader’s Best Performance Car Under $50K.

And, unless something completely new and unexpected (like a new $49,999 Porsche 914 or a revived Honda S2000) arrives on the scene and absolutely hits it out of the park within the next 12 months, I’d be willing to bet that it’ll snag the award again next year.