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Mazda MX5 vs. MGF vs. BMW Z3 vs Lotus Elan vs. Toyota MR2

Today’s modern sports cars can be used all year round as this headless handful demonstrate. What’s the best one for you? Published: 5th Apr 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

Special contributor Rob Hawkins has owned all bar the Z3 and sees several advantages and disadvantages in them. His first was a 1988 Mk1 MR2. Powered by a 122bhp 1.6-litre Toyota 4AGE engine, its performance was surprisingly better than expected, possibly due to its variable induction system. However, the main selling point was its mid-engine handling – there seemed to be no limit to how far it could be pushed when cornering.

The MR2 was replaced with a 1996 Mk1 MGF 1.8i. Performance was a little lower at 118bhp, but unnoticeable from the free-revving K-Series that felt fast and responsive. Sadly, the MGF’s poor build quality let it down in ride refinement, but Rob didn’t give up, fitting Gaz adjustable dampers, Powerflex bushes and soundproofing, yet it was never a match for the MR2. He changed the MGF for an early 140bhp 1.8-litre 1998 Mk2 MX-5, which strangely didn’t feel like the fastest of the three (ride refinement may be better), but it offered impeccable handling and balance, making it the most controllable of the three.

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Do you remember when winter was considered the best time to snap up a sports car bargain because as the mercury plummeted fair weather enthusiasts got fed up with their cold, leaky, draughty roadsters and so sold them off cheaply?

That’s hardly the case today thanks to their snug fi tting roofs (some metal), air conditioning, and furnace-like heaters. No – these days, roadsters can be used and enjoyed rather than endured, irrespective of the weather, resulting in reliable residuals whatever the seasons bring.

Yet, old habits die hard and you can still pick up a social sports car for less before spring-time. With this in mind, here’s a handful of topless tempters – two rear wheel driven, two mid-engined and one FWD – that provide all the fun without loss of civility, all for £1000 or less.

Which to buy

1st MX-5 | 2nd MGF | 3rd Z3 | = 4th ELAN | = 4th MR2

The MX-5 stands head and shoulders above the rest for no other reason that this 30 year old is still alive and thriving in its fourth incarnation. There’s a model to suit all tastes and pockets and with, at least half sold to women, has an appeal like no other sports car before it. And to Mazda’s credit, the MX-5 still retains a special ‘serious’ sports car character even though they are no harder than a Golf to drive.

The Mk1 holds the most classic appeal as this Elan clone is in its purist form, although the replacement is the better all rounder with the 1.8 Sport being a cracker. The Mk3 initially rather lost its way a bit, pandering increasingly to non enthusiasts more interested in owning a nice, pretty, easy driving palatial sports car but the current model has, thankfully, gone back to its roots.

At launch, such was the popularity of the MGF that long waiting lists soon had buyers paying over ‘book’ to jump the queue where at one point, nearly new models were selling over brand new prices! That seems an age ago because now MGFs are worth shirt buttons… The Brit amazed us all when it was launched in 1995, boasting a spec and layout that no MG before or since has bettered. With its K-Series engine, mounted mid ships, and suspension by Metro, it was a car the company could and should have come up with decades before. Nicely styled and bang up to date, it’s cute but by no means ‘girly’ shape has also stood the test of time well as has the cabin, although not in terms of stamina.

There’s only been two engine choices – 1.6 and 1.8-litre – but up to 160bhp is available plus there’s the option of two-types of automatic (only grey import MX-5s have this option), including one with F1-style shift paddles.

When the MGF morphed into the TF, it gained a new chassis now running on conventional springing although hints of a 2+2 GT and a hardcore speedster never came to fruition. But there was a forest of special editions with better appointments and some, such as Wedgewood, 75 Anniversary, Trophy and the TF’s Sprint, are becoming quite sought after.

Despite the Z3 being nothing more than a clever reskin of the agreeable 3 Series Compact, the entry level BMW of the mid 90s, this rag top never gained the popularity you’d expect from the marque. It was utterly orthodox and in many ways just what you’d expect a modern MGB to be…

In terms of choice, the German boasts a good spread with engines starting from an easy going 1.9-litres right up to a 231bhp 3.2 straight six – the modern MGC, surely? What’s more, with its long muscular bonnet and short tail, there’s a real classical Healey-like look about the Z3 that has aged nicely.

Launched around the same time as the MX-5, the Lotus Elan M100 was poles apart from the Mazda, being not a pastiche but, as you’d expect from Colin Chapman’s company, forward thinking. So, the M100 was the first front-wheel drive sports car, with a transverse-mounted engine and five-speed gearbox, plus (on the majority) power steering, all wrapped in a slippery wedge-shaped body. The interior was just as contemporary, relying on the parts bin of General Motors for dials, switches, and so on. There’s no doubt that the Elan was the right recipe for the 1990s and, whether you like the car’s rather over-wide bloated look or not, you have to admit that it still looks refreshingly different.

Two models were marketed, the basic Elan and the SE, the latter having a turbocharger stuck on the Isuzu 1.6-litre engine for 165bhp. The S2 for 1992 was a singleton revise of the SE (with a catalyst) before it was killed off, just as the MGF came along. Finally, there’s the MR2 (Mid-ship Runabout 2-seater in Toyota-speak) which really took over from Fiat’s delightful X1/9 as the epitome of how a modern sports car should be and yet both struggle to gain classic status.

The Toyota was stretched across three generations and each one was different. The first had a origami shark-nosed look, the second had a touch of the Ferrari Dino 246 GT about it (so much so that there are half convincing clone kit cars based on the Toyota) the third and last variants do a passable resemblance of a Porsche Boxster! It’s the only model with a proper fabric roof, the earlier variants relying on a Targa top.

The MX-5 will always be the default choice for the vast majority as there’s so many around in wide range of variants and all are so civilised and super easy to maintain. The fabric roof is so easy to manage that power assistance would be a hindrance although the metal-roof option of the Mk3 is excellent. The rest are harder to place in ascending order but the good looking MGF just gets it on value, model choice and the usual MG specialist back up making them safe bets for those after their first MG while the fact that the Z3 wears a BMW badge will seal it for many after their first sports car.


What’s the best to drive

1st MX-5 | 2nd ELAN | = 3rd MR2 | = 3rd MGF | 5th Z3

Being a traditional rear wheel drive sportster, few will quarrel over judging that the MX-5 is the best and most fun of this bunch of fi ves. It’s said that Mazda used the original Lotus Elan as its yardstick, both for looks and driver appeal and skilfully caught the spirit of that classic roadster with a best-ofall- world’s fl avour that the model still enjoys. Admittedly, early Mk3s (where the changeover to the RX-8 chassis fi rst occurred) felt a but numb, but unless you’ve driven the earlier generations you probably won’t notice this.

With the MX-5 you genuinely feel that you’re in a traditional sports car but without the old car hang ups. They can be pushed as hard as you like with great confi dence (although Mk1s could be tricky in the wet) yet are docile and easy to tootle around in when demanded. Apart from base 1.6 (88bhp) Mk1’s performance is more than good enough; fast without being too fierce and overtax the chassis or driver.

Making a front-wheel drive sports car sounds sacrilege to some but Lotus pulled it off thanks to Hethel’s typical attention to detail. Dubbed the ‘90 per center’ by its engineers, this related to Lotus’ wish to make its all new Elan utterly drivable at 90 per cent of its ultra high limits, for 90 per cent of drivers, at 90 per cent of the time.

Certainly, after a quarter of a century, the Elan still feels one of the safest and most confi dence-inspiring sports cars ever made although in some quarters it was criticised for being too much like a soft top GTi in character as a result. Power from the 1.6-litre Isuzu is better than it sounds; while this 1600 twin cam isn’t the most charismatic of engines, in 165bhp SE Turbo guise (the one to have) it gives the M100 (old) Elan Sprint beating pace and 30mpg is no problem.

The MR2 was a revelation when launched, taking all the good points about Fiat’s X1/9 but adding potent performance, durability and build quality. Why these Toyotas aren’t held in the esteem they deserve baffes us as they possess a clutch of winning factors, the key ones being superb weight distribution, great agility, thanks to a low kerb weight, and a brilliantly rev-happy (1.6, 1.8 or 2-litre depending on the model) upon twin-cam engines.
The Mk1 set some high standards, slightly let down by the Mk2, but the Porsche Boxster-style replacement has been likened to a Lotus Elise with more civility at much less cost. Try one, you’ll be frankly amazed and for so little money.

After the slow painful death of the MGB and Midget in 1980, MG was out of the sports car game for nigh on 20 years yet it kept abreast with the times and for a company that had recently reissued the MGB in modernised V8 form (RV8), the state-of-theart design of the mid-engine gas-suspended MGF was a shocking contrast. Its Metro suspension and subframes were brilliantly re-engineered to give this sports car surprisingly forgiving handling (not easy with a mid-ship layout) coupled with a compliant ride that Lotus would have been proud of; sadly spoiled when ditched in favour of a conventional suspension for the TF replacement, which, despite revising, never recaptured the same quality.

Thanks to their sharp K-Series engines of 1.6 or 1.8 capacity all MGFs feel as keen as mustard and especially rapid in higher tuned 160bhp VVC/ Trophy guises and would be zestier still if it wasn’t for uncharacteristically high gearing for a sports car to aid touring and economy. Where the MG is let down is a sloppy gearchange which wears badly and indifferent durability causing the gas suspension to leak away. Add chassis geometry settings which are usually well out of kilter from the factory, MGF/TFs can widely vary when out on the road so drive a few to set a datum.

Being based on the Compact, a cheapened 3 Series, the Z3 is a highly pleasant roadster as opposed to being an out-an-out sports car because of its less than exciting, exacting handling. There’s nothing terribly wrong here and so long as you don’t push the Z3 hard is completely fine. Away from clipping apexes and emulating Lewis Hamilton, the BMW redeems itself with its delightfully smooth engines, a beautiful gearchange (that has six-speeds on top models) and controls, a first class driving environment and the unmistakable BMW feeling of quality; all this will mean more to some than the actual driving qualities.
With a choice of four and six pot engines, there’s a Z3 for all tastes and need for speed. Our pick is a ‘six’ (150bhp 2.0, 170bhp 2.2, 186bhp 2.5 and 192bhp 2.8 depending on year) for their sonorous sounds, creamy smoothness as well as swiftness, giving the German a Big Healey-like personality but there’s little wrong with the 1.8 and 1.9-litre ‘fours’ if performance isn’t a criteria and they are as easy to run as a 3 Series saloon.

Just because we pitched the Z3 last in a tightlycontested group doesn’t make owning one a booby prize. Our special contributor, the much respected writer/racer Jeremy Walton, traded his beloved Lotus Elise in for one (which regularly features in our running reports pages-ed) and is delighted with his cheap as chips purchase!

Owning and running

1st MX-5 | 2nd Z3 | 3rd MGF | 4th ELAN | 5th MR2

The fact that MG parts specialist David Manners hails the MX-5 as ‘the new MGB’ puts the Mazda at the top of the pile on this point alone. If main dealers can’t supply it then the emerging independents can. Pre Mk3 models are quite DIY friendly for a modern and – importantly – they are as trustworthy as a Golf GTi although significant rust is starting to affect the Mk1s and certain Mk2s.

The Z3 shouldn’t pose major worries for much the same reasons as above and as the car is 3 Series-based, parts swapping is a strong point although their complex electronics on later cars may cause expensive headaches. MGFs are becoming increasingly popular as a modern classic with many owners twinning them with their MGB, C etc and using them instead when the mood takes. Reliability and build quality remains an issue and that K-Series engine will let you down at some point. Parts supply is mostly good with much of the hardware Austin Rover derived but others patchy, especially Hydragas suspension components rending many cars only serviceable for salvage spares (always a sensible idea if you have the space just to keep yours on the road-ed) but the likes of David Manners, Brown & Gammons, Rimmer Bros, along with the MGOC, will always see you back on the road at minimal cost.

The M100 Elan doesn’t live up to the old L.O.T.U.S. acronym whatsoever. Indeed, apart from rotting rear suspension assemblies, tearing hoods and fraying seat belts, it’s one of the best built cars to come ever out of Hethel, while the Japanese mechanicals are unbelievably bullet-proof with strong spares obtainability in the United States (where some owners fi t a 1.8-litre Isuzu engine). Owners are now prepared to spend sizeable sums on keeping theirs in good shape and even fully restoring them.

The dependable MR2 isn’t difficult to keep sweet; a good percentage of the indestructible oily bits are Corolla and Carina-sourced. However, the Mk3 is different and the engine and transmission can give major problems (the former by catalysts breaking up) as can rusty subframes. In fact, rust is the bane of all MR2s of all ages, to varying degrees.

In terms of prices, all five are quite evenly matched, starting from under £1000 for something lemony that just about scrapes through an MoT to £6000+ for a peach of an example. The conundrum facing MX-5 buyers is that you can pay more for a Mk1/Mk2 as you can the later Mk3. If we were in the hunt for an MG we’d look at a specialist, such as Trophy Cars or Brown & Gammons, marketing refurbished turn-key cars that had the engine and suspension already sorted backed by a soothing warranty.

And The Winner Is...

1st MX-5 | 2nd MGF | 3rd ELAN | 4th Z3 | 5th MR2

Ok, we know it reads highly predictable but it’s hard not to place the MX-5 in the top slot because the Mazda has everything the vast majority of today’s sports car enthusiasts (meaning not simply classic fans!-ed) want. It really is the new MGB in many respects and one reason why a good percentage of classic car owners run them for daily transport, In fact, the only thing this crackerjap lacks is exclusivity plus the fact that not every owner is a fellow like-minded enthusiast – like us…

The rest of the pack is difficult to fi nalise but all are good: the MGF offers great value and a fun drive, if you get a good ‘un. The Elan M100, while no substitute for the original, is a highly efficient roadster which Chapman would have approved of even if it lacks that certain something – ditto the BMW.

Of the three generations of the MR2, the final incarnation offers a lot of Elise-like fun for MGF money but engine reliability is worrisome and there’s practically no luggage space. Why not sample this bunch of five to draw your own conclusions?

Classic Motoring

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