The ever-fabulous Mazda MX-5 Miata is almost a category of one, reigning virtually unchallenged since its arrival in 1989. That's what happens when you're disciplined (and have first mover advantage in a category too small to support a second mover.)
But I received the inevitable email from a viewer who isn't sure he wants to follow the well-worn Miata path, but also doesn't want want step into a different form factor like a Mustang, Camaro, 3 Series, WRX, etc.
So here is my personal list of Miata alternatives, all little cars with true sporting ability, two seats, rear wheel drive and affordability:
- Porsche Boxster S 986 (2003-2004) A lot of people in the market for a Miata never think of a Porsche because the brand's prices have gone berzerk. But this specific Boxster is a great blend of performance, mid-engine handling, affordability, and creature comforts (glovebox and glass rear window that were lacking before 2003.) As long as you buy a car that has had the dreaded IMS bearing issue addressed, you should find operation costs are not extreme.
- Fiat 124 is basically a Miata with a more powerful Fiat turbo 4 engine, more refined ride, and Italianate body. But most of the rest, especially the interior, is straight Miata. These are assembled by Mazda in Japan, not by Fiat in Italy, so you are staying close to Miata roots in that sense as well. I really liked this beauty, especially since I think the latest Miata is sort of ugly, but I might buy one sooner than later as it sells at a pace 1/3 that of the Miata and may not always make sense to FCA.
- Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 go into a single group as they are even more similar than the Miata/124 twins. The Subie can be had with a slightly more aggressive performance package than the 86, though there was an 860 Special Edition of the Toyota that was interesting. I love both of these cars for the buyer who isn't interested in an open top and loves their long nose/short deck appeal. Like the Miata, these can and often must driven at 8/10ths, which is a joy in itself in a world full of steroidal cars that you spend most of your time reigning in.
- Honda S2000 is saving my best for last. Already a modern classic, this is somewhat like the Boxster pick in that you need to educate yourself about which model year you want (specs evolved quite a bit from 1999-2009) and shop hard for a well maintained one. But a clean 2004 with 80,000 miles should cost about $14k and you'll have a car with one of the most remarkable engines and suspensions ever aimed at the real world buyer.
You can shop any of these cars used at this point (though it will be harder with the newish Fiat). For all cars on this list, look for an example with a short or single title history by owners(s) who didn't track or modify it and, ideally, didn't even realize what they had - too many of the cars on this list get modded, which is a deal killer for me. My car, my mods.