Shootout: Miata vs. Slingshot

If you like to get your kicks while exposed to the elements, one of these might just be the machine for you. The other one almost certainly isn't.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
5 min read
Watch this: Shootout: Miata vs. Slingshot for budget, open-top performance

There's simple joy in open-top motoring, cruising through the countryside with the wind in your hair, a smile on your face and blissful calm in your mind. That experience is even better when you're enjoying a car that isn't breaking the bank, and while there are plenty of ridiculously expensive drop-top roadsters out there, finding cheap thrills in a new one is a challenge.

Thank goodness for the Miata. Since none of the car's three generations have been bad, you can't really call Mazda's fourth MX-5 a return to form. Still, it is something of a reboot. It's more than four inches shorter than the outgoing model, which was far from a land yacht, and has somehow lost over 200 pounds. With a starting price of just over $25,000, it's affordable.

But, with 155 horsepower and roly-poly suspension, it's perhaps not the sharpest tool for trackday antics. There you'd want something a little more focused -- something perhaps like an Ariel Atom. That open-cockpit machine is about as purposeful as it gets, but with a starting price of around $50,000, it's hardly accessible.

Thankfully, there are alternatives. Enter the Slingshot. It's open-cockpit, like the Atom, and is similarly minimalist in construction. In fact, it's so pared-down that Polaris, creator of the thing, only gave it one rear wheel. Yes, it's a three-wheeled two-seater weighing just over 1,700 pounds and starting at $21,000.

Opt for the higher-spec Slingshot SL (bigger wheels, infotainment system, and a few other tweaks) and you're looking at $25,199. That's just a couple Benjamins away from your local friendly Miata, which led us to ask the following question: which is the better buy?


The 2016 Mazda Miata.

Marc Ganley/Roadshow

Rarely is a cliché more apt than when using the phrase "like a glove" to describe what slotting into the driver's seat in the new Miata feels like. The MX-5 in its various permutations has never offered much in the way of shoulder room or creature comforts, but this latest model, the ND, feels like it's inhaled just a little more.

But that isn't a bad thing. It's tight, yes, but not necessarily cramped, and when you feel the direct action of the stubby shift lever and wrap your hands around the saucer-sized steering wheel, you immediately feel connected in a way that's incredibly rare.

Especially at this price point.

Fire up the motor and... well, okay, "fire" is perhaps putting it a little too strongly. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder has 155 horses to offer the asphalt, a modest sum by today's calculations, but that actually has some advantages. Most importantly: you can use all of them all the time.

Yes, this is a car whose limits you can explore on the way home from work while risking neither life nor license. That's helped by that suspension, which has you pitching and cambering the wrong way through the turns. In most sports cars that'd be a critical flaw. When the rest of the package is this good, such problems can be classified as "character."

Yes, our Miata as-tested featured a suite of options that priced it up over $30,000, but with this car keep it simple, don't tick any unnecessary boxes, and you'll get yourself a great, inexpensive car that you can exploit every day.


The 2015 Polaris Slingshot

Marc Ganley/Roadshow

Despite the Polaris Slingshot being a rather diminutive thing, clocking at roughly three-quarters a Miata, it's difficult to know where to begin when writing about it. That's because there's frankly so much to dislike.

First there are the looks. Never have I piloted a thing that looks anything like this and nobody around you will have ever seen someone piloting something like this. While being at the center of attention is a desirable thing for some, the incessant pointing and questions can be a bit overwhelming, and the occasional bits of laughter thrown in your direction may prove damaging to even the most resilient of egos. Thankfully, in most states you'll need to wear a helmet, since this is technically a motorcycle.

Where the Miata seems to embrace you, the Slingshot punishes you. Everything in the cockpit is rough and angular, the shifter oddly huge and blocky. Materials are as basic as you can get, and while you can hose down the full interior if you like, that capability introduces some unfortunate consequences. The seats are waterproof, for example, which means they don't breathe. At all. After an hour in the cockpit be prepared for an Everglades-sized case of swamp ass.

And then there are the brakes. Given the car has only three tires you might expect three-quarters the braking power of the Miata. It's actually far worse than that. Hit the pedal once and virtually nothing happens. Hit it again and you start to get a little feel. On the third pump the machine finally slows. This could make you feel like an endurance racer, tapping on the middle pedal ahead of the turns to check that the brakes are still there. On the road, though, it's a miserable experience, one that I'm hoping was just a flaw in this particular car. But, with only some 900 miles on the clock, it's not exactly a good sign.

Even all this could be forgiven were the driving characteristics truly good. Sadly they are not. That single rear wheel is simply inadequate for putting down the engine's 173 horsepower, tire spinning like mad through the first two gears even with traction control enabled. Power out of a tight turn and you will lose grip at the rear. This is great fun at low speeds. Pick up the pace and it quickly becomes terrifying. Even after three days of pushing this thing on the road and the track I didn't come close to feeling comfortable cornering hard when there was a tree anywhere in sight.

An easy choice

I wanted to like the Slingshot. I really, really wanted to like the Slingshot. I covet an Ariel Atom, and the thought of a North American-made, street-legal alternative at one-third the price was tantalizing to say the least. But, it's impossible to recommend this car... motorcycle... thing. It's simply not fun to drive, and so what's the point?

The Miata is. It's a lot of fun. It's also a little soft and a little under-powered, but it still works. It's a great package, and there's absolutely no question which is the better of these two cars. Just get the Miata, and don't look back.