Birthing twins is no easy feat. Surprise or shock, perhaps both, might follow a doctor’s announcement to a couple that suddenly twice the expected number of fresh entrants to the world will soon be crying, spewing and definitely not sleeping.
This cynical take on the finale of the procreation process might also reflect that of a selfish two-door sports car owner, focused on looks and driving but little else. Only a half-decade ago the number of affordable sub-$40,000 models that fit that bill numbered nought. Today there are two sets of near-twins to embrace in our arms.
The Subaru BRZ is an identical twin to the Toyota 86, both of which launched locally in 2012 but have been given a mid-life facelift for the new year. The rear-wheel drive two-door coupes could be purchased for $29,990 plus on-road costs, or just above.
Then came the Mazda MX-5 in 2015 that dropped entry to two-door roadster ownership to $31,990 (plus orc), down $10,470 over the previous model. And last year its non-identical twin from Italy via Japan, the Abarth 124 Spider, followed.
What we have here is sibling rivalry at its finest. The 86 and MX-5 are known as the firstborns and – as it turns out – the most popular pair, but we’ve gathered the facelifted BRZ and new 124 Spider to see if the twins can actually oust the originals.
Abarth 124 Spider ($41,990 plus on-road costs)
Subaru BRZ ($32,990 plus on-road costs)
Of the above quartet, the $30,790 (plus orc) 86 GT remains the cheapest option.
The single-specification $32,990 (plus orc) BRZ adds over the Toyota, however, larger 17-inch alloy wheels (versus 16s), foglights, keyless auto-entry, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning, a newer touchscreen audio with colour trip computer screen, and steering wheel-mounted audio controls, plus more premium cabin trim bits. Leather/Alcantara front seats with heating is the only $1500 optional extra.
All of the above comes standard in the 86 GTS, but it costs $36,490 (plus orc) and only further adds a very tacky satellite navigation unit unavailable at all in the Subaru. Both utilise a tweaked 2.0-litre non-turbo four-cylinder engine and suspension tune.
Fiat’s Abarth performance offshoot doesn’t both duelling with lower-end MX-5s. Its single-spec $41,990 (plus orc) model grade instead squares up against Mazda’s flagship $40,340 (plus orc) 2.0-litre non-turbo GT. Being a non-identical twin, the 124 Spider gets its own more powerful, and Italian-made 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder, plus stiffer Bilstein suspension, meatier Brembo brakes and a sports exhaust.
Both soft-top models are Japanese built, but the 124 Spider seems to offer a few performance extras for only $1650 over the MX-5. It’s an interesting parallel, given that the BRZ looks to have an early lead for value over the 86. Clearly, it’s game on.
Fiat’s Abarth division may have changed every single exterior body panel over an MX-5 – and the oddly rounded front and squared-up rear styling arguably works better in the flesh – but the same isn’t so inside the 124 Spider.
There are tweaks, however. The dashboard remains identical in design, although hard dash-top plastics have been replaced by a nicer soft-touch variety. Gone is the tacky faux-carbonfibre trim Mazda uses around its power window switchgear, while proper vertical doorgrabs are a welcome addition. A Sport toggle is also added to manual models just below the redesigned, square-topped gearlever.
Finally, a racier, perforated-leather steering wheel cover lies just ahead of a reconfigured cluster of gauges with the world’s least legible speedometer – the increments of which rise in 30km/h notches, without a digital readout to be found.
The 124 Spider may only seem a bit more expensive than its near-twin, but the MX-5 GT gets full leather trim that was a $490 option fitted to our test car. The Abarth counters with a standard reverse-view camera, but it asks a hefty $2490 for several other features that are standard in the Mazda – including LED headlights, blind-spot monitor, daytime running lights and rear cross-traffic alert.
All were included on our test car that tallied a heady $44,970 (plus orc), or by now $4640 more than its Japanese-badged equivalent.
By contrast, even picking leather seats with heating as an option on the BRZ brings it to $34,490 (plus orc), creating a $10K-plus divide between coupe and soft-top roadster in this two-door sports car comparison test.
Inside the Subaru only lacks sat-nav and premium audio, which left our co-driver – a bloke who owns a Renault Sport Megane and is interested in cars, without being nerdy about them – stunned at the five-figure price difference between these two. To be fair, the BRZ lacks blind-spot/rear sensors/cross-traffic alert even as an option.
The coupe does, however, score a digital speedometer and reach adjustable steering that leverages its driving position well beyond that of its roadster rival. The ‘Toyobaru’ twins had their front seat mounting points benchmarked on a Porsche Cayman, and it shows. The low-slung, legs-forward driving position is backed by broad yet snug buckets and a steering wheel and gearlever that fall ideally to hand.
The shared front seats of the ‘Mazbarth’ are narrow and they perch occupants on what feels like the top of a sponge cake, rather than down inside the car. The gearlever falls equally neatly to hand, but the tilt-only steering wheel won’t suit all.
At least the 124 Spider feels much smaller than its rival. It is, after all, 186mm shorter from tip to toe (4054mm versus 4240mm), 260mm shorter between the wheels (2310mm plays 2570mm) and 87mm shorter from ground to roof (1233mm against 1320mm), although the roadster is only 35mm narrower (1740mm to 1775mm).
The BRZ has a broader dashboard with similar soft-touch plastics but reduced visibility, although it more clearly leads in terms of practicality with two rear seats (for children) and a 230-litre boot capacity almost twice the size of its rival’s 140L pocket.
It’s accurate to say that some buyers could purchase one of these models based on practicality and overhead material preference alone. However, on test there was something charming about the manual unlatch-then-pull-back roof mechanism of the soft-top model, which in concert with a superior nine-speaker Bose audio system and nav unit, balanced the ledger. This race will be won or lost not inside, but on-road.
ON THE ROAD
Swapping out the Mazda’s 2.0-litre non-turbo four for a Fiat-based 1.4-litre turbo brings significant on-paper reward. Power moves from 118kW to 125kW at 5500rpm, while torque leaps from 200Nm to 250Nm at a low and usable 2500rpm.
The differences to the Toyota/Subaru’s 2.0-litre non-turbo four are not quite as stark, but at what point each output arrives on the tachometer certainly is. A higher 152kW needs 7000rpm showing, but the needle must be pointing at 6400rpm (!) before the 212Nm arrives – two-and-a-half times the number of engine revs of the Abarth.
The 124 Spider’s 1100kg kerb weight also ducks 142kg beneath its portly hard-top rival, although it remains 67kg heavier than the equivalent MX-5.
The BRZ may have a sporty driving position, but it can leave you feeling more like a participant in a rowing competition. Thankfully the six-speed manual offers a lovely, slightly gritty but overtly mechanical shifter, although it’s so short geared that travelling from first, to third, then fifth, becomes habitual when cruising around town.
Nothing much happens in the Subaru below 5000rpm, and it can feel slow. When rowed along the engine makes a strident, grainy tune to match the greater performance on tap. But it only revs to 7800rpm; high by today’s standards, but it creates a narrow band in which to work, given the stratospheric torque-ing point.
Nothing much happens in the Abarth below 3000rpm, conversely. Sure, the claim is that peak torque activates 500rpm before then, but there’s obvious turbo lag right down low in the rev range and only tractable response thereafter.
With an equally delightful six-speed manual shifter, a nicer sounding engine, greater thrust earlier in the rev range and a surprisingly subtle, distantly crackling sports exhaust, however, the roadster runs away from its rival for urban response.
Notably stiffer suspension – compared with the MX-5 – creates some around town benefits as well. The steering, for example, feels notably tighter on-centre than the Mazda, and front-end response moves from sharp and agile to downright darty.
Funnily enough, Subaru and Toyota have gone in exactly the opposite direction with their facelifted model. The facelifted 86 and BRZ deliver greater body rigidity than before, which, according to each manufacturer, permits softer suspension settings to be used without impacting handling.
The last time we compared the 86 and MX-5, the former was slammed for its rough ride while the latter was praised for its silken progress. Now, the BRZ shines with a virtually flawless ride for its type, and one that shines a glaring light on the 124 Spider. While certainly in the realms of sports car acceptability, the Bilstein shocks can be abrupt enough to increase scuttle shake in a more delicate drop-top design.
Subaru’s steering also continues to be sublime – creamy, feelsome and mid-weighted – whereas its rival impresses just off the centre position but loses some linearity and consistency beyond it. The coupe nails it everywhere.
Beyond urban confines, some issues appear with the Italo-Japanese roadster. Its ride becomes less tolerable on country roads, with a blink of the electronic stability control (ESC) light reacting to vertical movement in a straight line at one point.
Although bodyroll is reduced, the point where the front wheels grip and the rear wheels power through the corner becomes less fluent. The 124’s engine fails to deliver the crisp throttle response of its near-twin, being at once slightly doughy then overly sudden as the engine finds its turbo boost. It requires a more nuanced driving style, to drive around its traits rather than grabbing it by the scruff of the neck.
Although both roadsters are shod with 205mm-wide, 45-aspect Bridgestone Potenza tyres, the Abarth gets a Sport ESC setting that doesn’t feel as finely calibrated as the Mazda’s single-mode ESC, probably due to the turbo traits.
We last criticised the 86 for its overly abrupt Sport ESC setting, but the facelifted 86 and BRZ introduce a superb Track ESC replacement. Even the regular setting is more fluent than the old ‘Sport’ and together
The 215mm-wide, 45-aspect Michelin Primacy tyres continue to let the side down, particularly in the wet, but thankfully there’s inherent communication, balance and tightness in this notably different (despite the samey exterior) sports coupe.
Whatever the road and surface, the BRZ displays an intrinsic wholeness to its throttle, steering, ESC and suspension settings. The 124 Spider is still very good, but it feels a fraction artificial and inconsistent by comparison.
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It would be churlish to deduct a half-point from either of these sports cars just to allow one rival to appear greater than the other. There is a winner, but it’s by a hair’s breadth. What’s clear is that neither matches the four-and-a-half-star Mazda MX-5.
If the city is only mostly where you drive, the 124 Spider is the most delightful pick not only compared with the MX-5, but also the BRZ and (by extension) 86.
It isn’t as bratty as expected, with a tasteful exhaust and neatly boosted thrust. It’s a fraction artificial compared with the Mazda, a case of Botox-shot vanity over sheer depth of ability, but in this world of stylised selfies for Instagram, it could gain more ‘likes’. The ride can be tiring without great handling benefit, however, all of which rounds this roadster out as only a good Italian job; no more but certainly no less.
In every way except performance, the BRZ is the more rounded option. Being cheaper helps, but the great seats and driving position, consistent steering, and top ride/handling blend all cement this Subaru as more than just a mid-life nip-and-tuck.
It also presents a more convincing value equation than the 86 GT or GTS, and despite lacking navigation the Subaru’s touchscreen is far beyond that of Toyota’s carry-over aftermarket looking units. It seems that these twins have become just a bit less identical, and in the battle of the brothers the blue-hue ‘baru wins out as well.
Abarth 124 Spider – 4.0 stars
Subaru BRZ – 4.0 stars