Old-School Sports Car Fun

Future automotive tech hews toward electric propulsion and crossover SUVs. But the past is still with us in piston-driven sports cars that put fun above all else.

The two we’ll examine here—the BMW Z4 sDrive30i and Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring—are different answers to the two-seat question. The BMW is larger, more powerful, and more expensive, while the Mazda holds closer to its flyweight roots.

Pricing reflects the gap between them: the MX-5 Miata starts in the mid-$20,000s, while the Z4’s entry fee is nearly double, at $49,700. Both offer the personalization options that you’d expect of pleasure vehicles; the tested Z4 kicks things off with a blazing finish that BMW calls “San Francisco Red Metallic.”

That $550 paint option is truly the first time I’ve seen our hilly city called out on an automotive options list. Legendary performer Donna Sachet, seen elsewhere on the San Francisco Bay Times’ pages, picks red as her signature color and would surely approve.

Also tantalizing are the shades available on the Z4’s insides; specifying Magma Red or Cognac brings alive the diamond-stitched contours of the tall-backed bucket seats. The tester had a more sober black interior, but was laden with $9,500 worth of packages: M Sport, Premium, Executive, and Track Handling. With other options, this Z4 totaled just less than $64,000.

At $32,650, the MX-5 Miata Grand Touring that I drove maintained its status of just-about-half of the Z4, though it still included niceties like rain-sensing wipers and Smart City Brake Support, which uses a windshield-mounted laser to sense the car in front and engage the brakes to avoid low-speed collisions. I didn’t get a reaction out of it while driving in the city, but it was nice to know it was there.

OK, so drop the tops—it’s easy-peasy on both—and hit the road. Which is more fun? Hard to say, because each generates its own kinds of smiles.

The BMW is a stormer. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is the same size as the Miata’s, but it thumps out 255 horsepower to the Miata’s rating of 181, thanks to its immediately responsive twin turbochargers. (That number jumps to 382 horsepower in the Z4 M40i and its larger inline-six engine.) This power was easily harnessed, thanks in part to the $700 Adaptive M Suspension and the M Sport brakes and differential, which comprise the $2,450 Track Handling Package.

True to form, the Miata’s simpler chassis bypasses the Z4’s burliness for a supremely nimble feel. The Miata never got fat, and this is the best one yet.

Though they share the same basic configuration, it’s unlikely that the BMW and Mazda will be cross-shopped against each other. It’s funny that the tested Miata has Grand Touring in its name, because that’s actually the Z4’s forte. Both feel smooth and balanced overall, and they each can be deeply satisfying to drive.

Electrics and crossovers are on the march, but judging from this Z4 and Miata, the old-school choices are still robust.