2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF vs. 2022 Subaru BRZ: Beginner-Friendly Track Car Battle

2022 Subaru BRZ vs. 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF track comparison highlights:

  • I drove a manual 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF and an automatic 2022 Subaru BRZ Premium around Road America
  • The 2021 Miata RF is an excellent update on a solid, beginner-friendly sports car, but is more expensive, slower, and less practical than the Subaru
  • The 2022 BRZ Premium doesn’t have quite as many features, but its stiffer chassis and lower center of gravity gave it the edge on the track

If you want a modern affordable, rear-wheel-drive sports car, the Mazda MX-5 Miata and Subaru BRZ should top your shopping list. The Miata has been an enthusiast favorite for decades, and the current-gen model more than lives up to that heritage. Case in point, the hardtop 2021 Mazda Miata RF just won the inaugural MotorBiscuit Car of the Year. However, the 2022 model year gives the Subaru BRZ a host of crucial updates. As a result, choosing between them is harder than ever.

Still, it’s a question that enterprising autocrossers and corner-carving commuters want answered. So, if you’re gearing up for a track day, which one of these sports cars should you bring along? I took both around Road America to find out.

2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF2022 Subaru BRZ Premium
Price Range$33,045 (base)
$38,660 (as tested)
$27,995 (base)
$30,555 (as tested)
Engine2.0-liter four-cylinder2.4-liter boxer-four
Horsepower181 hp228 hp
Torque151 lb-ft184 lb-ft
TransmissionsSix-speed manual
Six-speed automatic
Six-speed manual
Six-speed automatic
Curb Weight2452 lbs (manual)
2496 lbs (automatic)
2815 lbs (manual)
2864 lbs (automatic)
0-60 MPH Time5.8 seconds (manual, Car and Driver)5.4 seconds (automatic, Car and Driver)
MPG Rating26 mpg city/34 mpg highway (manual)
26 mpg city/35 mpg highway (automatic)
20 mpg city/27 mpg highway (manual)
21 mpg city/30 mpg highway (automatic)

2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF

A gray 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF with Brembo BBS Recaro Package at Road America
2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF with Brembo BBS Recaro Package | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit
  • Pros: Lighter, more efficient, you can drop the top, more standard safety features, optional Brembos and heated Recaro seats
  • Cons: Slower, not as stiff, less powerful, more expensive, less practical

Although it never strayed far from its lightweight origins, the fourth-gen ND Miata truly returned the iconic roadster to its roots. And while the RF trim’s roof comes with a roughly-100-pound penalty, it makes the 2021 Mazda Miata into a true all-year sports car. Plus, that stylish roof with an impressively-low curb weight makes the hard-top convertible “more exotic than most supercars,” MotorTrend says.

Overall, the 2021 Mazda Miata RF is virtually identical to the 2020 model. Apart from a new optional white Nappa-leather interior, the only changes are newly-standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. And as before, Mazda only offers the Miata RF in Club and Grand Touring form. However, with how good the 2021 Miata RF is, it’s not like Mazda needed to change much.

And no, despite some worrying rumors, Mazda isn’t discontinuing the Miata or the hardtop Miata RF after 2021. But it is making the automatic available only on Grand Touring models, adding a body-roll-reducing braking feature, and shuffling some options around, Car and Driver says.  

2022 Subaru BRZ Premium

The side 3/4 view of a silver 2022 Subaru BRZ at Road America
2022 Subaru BRZ side 3/4 | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit
  • Pros: More powerful, faster, cheaper, stiffer platform, more seats and cargo space
  • Cons: Fewer standard safety features with the manual, worse fuel economy, not as many performance options

The outgoing Subaru BRZ and Toyota GR86 were right up there with the Mazda Miata RF when it came to making drivers smile, but they had some problems. Most notably, the 2.0-liter boxer engine’s torque dip and rough exhaust note. The 2022 BRZ solves those problems and then some.

For one, the 2022 Subaru BRZ’s engine is more powerful, torquier, and sounds better. And rejoice, the torque dip is history. But Subaru did more than just give its RWD sports car a bigger engine.

Like the 2022 GR86, the BRZ has a stiffer chassis with a lower center of gravity. However, the 2022 Subaru BRZ has different suspension tuning than the Toyota, MotorTrend reports. The two cars have different spring rates, anti-roll bars, and even steering knuckles.

Elsewhere, though, the 2022 Subaru BRZ gets the same upgrades as the GR86. For example, it has an upgraded interior with a bigger center touchscreen, a new digital gauge cluster, keyless entry, heated mirrors, and LED headlights. Outside, you can get grippier optional tires. And even with these upgrades, you can still get a base 2022 BRZ for under $30,000.

2021 Mazda Miata RF vs. 2022 Subaru BRZ: Trim levels and features

The black Recaro seats and black dashboard of a manual 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF with Brembo BBS Recaro Package
2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF with Brembo BBS Recaro Package interior | Matthew Skwarcek, MotorBiscuit

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As noted earlier, the 2021 Mazda Miata RF is only available in Club and Grand Touring trims; the Sport trim is soft-top-only. Though to be fair, the Club is arguably the best trim, particularly for the performance-minded, Car and Driver muses. It comes standard with Bilstein shocks, a strut-tower brace, and on manual models, a limited-slip differential. And it’s the only trim that offers the $4670 Brembo BBS Recaro Package, which my test car had. Incidentally, this package is standard on the 2022 Club.

The 2022 Subaru BRZ also only offers two trims: Premium and Limited. Both have standard limited-slip differentials and strut-tower braces, though. Also, the BRZ’s center touchscreen is slightly bigger: 8” instead of 7”. And it has more cargo space and seats than any Mazda Miata, RF or soft-top. In addition, while both cars have equally-excellent forward visibility, the RF has a smaller rear window.

It’s here, though, where the Miata’s higher price tag starts paying dividends. As standard, the 2021 Mazda Miata Club RF has a nine-speaker Bose audio system, while the BRZ only has eight speakers. And because my test car had the Brembo BBS Recaro Package, it had heated Recaro seats, lighter-than-stock BBS wheels, and Brembo brakes. The 2022 Subaru BRZ offers heated sport seats, but they’re only available on the Limited, and they’re not Recaros. In addition, while the BRZ Limited offers a wheel-and-tire upgrade package, those wheels aren’t lightweight BBS units.

2021 Mazda Miata Club RF vs. 2022 Subaru BRZ Premium: Trim levels and features

The black front seats and dashboard of a 2022 Subaru BRZ
2022 Subaru BRZ interior | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

Although not all safety features are necessary on the racetrack, the beauty of these two sports cars is their ability to handle street and track duty. And the 2021 Mazda Miata RF has more standard ones: blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, automatic emergency braking, and rear cross-traffic alert.

Blind-spot monitoring is only standard on the BRZ Limited. Furthermore, because Subaru’s EyeSight suite can bring the car to a full stop, it’s only available on automatic BRZs, Car and Driver explains.

Around Road America, the 2021 Mazda Miata Club RF felt like an old friend

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In full disclosure, until a few months ago, I owned a Miata, a 1999 10th Anniversary Edition. And like the 2021 Mazda Miata Club RF I drove at Road America, my NB had Bilstein shocks, an LSD, and a six-speed manual. So, I was eager to find out just how much had changed between 1999 and 2021.

Admittedly, my time at the 14-turn, 4-ish-mile Elkhart Lake facility was my first time on a racetrack. And I only had one lap to test both the RF and the BRZ, so I can’t speak to either’s on-street or multi-lap behavior. But my one lap was enough to get familiar with both cars.

There are some notable differences between my NB and the ND I drove. Besides more horsepower and technology, the 2021 Miata has electric power steering, not hydraulic. So, it doesn’t offer quite as much road information. The 2021 model’s shifter is lighter, too, and has shorter throws, while the clutch has a more immediate bite. Though admittedly, that could be because my clutch was due for replacement. And the 2021 RF rolled and leaned a bit more than I expected.

But the 2021 Mazda Miata RF is still a Miata. Revving out that smooth, growly 2.0-liter engine and shifting through the gears felt like shaking hands with an old friend. It has less steering feedback than the NB, but more than any other car I drove that day. The steering wheel is the right size and turns with the right amount of heft. Yes, it rolled and leaned more in the corners than, say, a Toyota Supra, but that level of communication also made it easier to gauge the car’s behavior. And regardless, the Miata RF felt stable and fun around the track.

The BRZ, though, won me over

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Because the 2022 Subaru BRZ Premium I drove at Road America was an automatic model, I can’t compare its manual to the Miata’s manual. But I can say that, as fun as driving a Mazda Miata again was, I didn’t want one more lap in the RF. What I did want is more time in the BRZ.

Admittedly, the Miata has more talkative steering than the BRZ. But because of its roof, the RF carries more weight higher than the soft-top Miata, MotorTrend says. That might explain why my test car felt a bit top-heavy and pitched more than expected.

In comparison, the 2022 Subaru BRZ cornered flatter and felt even more planted. That’s thanks not just to its stiffer suspension, but also its new aluminum roof, which lowers its center of gravity. That, along with well-weighted, accurate steering, means the BRZ is just as responsive and nimble as the Miata. And taken altogether, these aspects make it feel faster.

Also, while its engine is more powerful, you still have to work it and watch the RPMs. But then, that’s what makes it involving to drive—just as involving as the Miata. And thanks to the upgrades, unlike in years past, you want to work the 2022 Subaru BRZ’s engine.

My final impression might’ve been different if I drove a soft-top 2021 Mazda Miata, rather than an RF. But at the end of the day, while the Miata made me smile, the BRZ made me grin.

Which beginner-friendly RWD sports car should you take to the track?

In the end, you can’t go wrong with either of these cars. Both are affordable, reliable sports cars that serve up smiles on tracks and normal roads.

If I was spending my money on a brand-new track car, though, I’d get a manual Subaru BRZ. Yes, the Miata has more features, better fuel economy, and the ability to drop its roof. But the BRZ is cheaper and more practical than the equivalent Miata but just as fun to toss around. And $8000 could buy me a lot of driving lessons.

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