“Why do you drive such a small car?” is a question I’ve received countless times since purchasing a 2016 Mazda MX-5. My typical retort: “Why do you have such a big car?” The question often causes clumsy scrambling of justification on the part of my questioner(s); meanwhile, I’m thinking, “You might as well get a license plate that reads ‘ZRO FUN.’”
Weight and size in a car are the enemies of all things exciting. Newton postulated that force equals mass times acceleration, so the more mass involved, the more force that’s required to accelerate a car in any direction. Keep things trim, and the act of driving becomes an engaging treat for the senses. Unfortunately, modern lifestyles and dreadful traffic situations have convinced most folks that driving is a chore not to be enjoyed. I believe, however, that there are two types of people: those who love driving and those who haven’t yet realized they love driving. Here, we look at three cars rich in the ability to awaken the driver in us all.
The Mazda MX-5 has been my personal everyday driver for the last two years and is now at just over 25,000 miles. Its case for being fun is obvious, but the case for practicality is less so. But I’ve averaged more than 35 mpg (highway and city combined), it has no problem holding all my groceries in the trunk, and the cup holders work just fine. At 6 foot 2 inches, I wear the car like a tailored suit – a comfortable suit. Filling the role of mundane to-and-fro driving tasks, the MX-5 has serviced me admirably without a single inconvenience during its two years.
Time together has shown the MX-5 is more than just a fun second car, but admittedly, the fun factor is what sold me in the beginning. Looking at the other cars on this list, I’d expect car-savvy readers to expect the MX-5 can’t compete. And truthfully, in stock trim, it doesn’t. Off the showroom floor, it has an anemic exhaust note more akin to a clogged Shop-Vac than a sports car, power delivery that gives in the midrange but then takes away just as revs get into the higher range, and a suspension that lets the car roll and dive far too much in twisty bits. All of these “issues” are forgivable considering its price point of around $30,000, but they do also take away from the experience. Although worthy of being on this comparison list, one of its greatest points of comparison is definitely its more affordable price point.
Thankfully, they’re all issues easily remedied. Throughout the first few months of ownership, my MX-5 was transformed with just a few simple aftermarket additions. Tubular headers and a more aggressive ECU, or electronic control unit, tune bumped horsepower from 155 to 185, new exhaust gave it a demanding voice, and cornering is greatly improved with coilover shocks and sway bars from St. Louis-based James Barone Racing. All told, these upgraded bits cost well under $3,000 and transformed the MX-5 from toy to contender status. Not only is the car greatly improved in every metric of absolute performance, but also the hard-to-quantify fun factor is multiplied.
Alfa Romeo 4C Spider
I’ve gushed about the Alfa Romeo 4C in the past, having driven and reviewed the coupe version in these pages. So when the opportunity to drive a rare Spider arrived, I didn’t hesitate. The 4C makes no effort to be and sets no expectations of being an everyday car. The carbon fiber monocoque chassis feels about like the name implies on entry and exit, and there’s about as much interior storage as the pocket on your cargo shorts. But on the bright side, the 4C is rated at 34 mpg highway!
No, the 4C isn’t going to sell anyone on its potential day-to-day livability. This is a car that’s all about raising your heart rate. You know that look a cat gets when you’re about to throw its favorite toy, when its booty shakes and its eyes dilate into coal-black pie plates? Yeah, driving the 4C is like that. Even more so in the topless Spider version, the audible whoosh and hiss from the turbocharger are amplified, the spits and crackles from the exhaust can be heard, and because the chassis owes its stiffness to the carbon-fiber tub, there’s no compromising shake over bumps. That final point also means no weight gain in the Spider – in short, no downside. When you’re trying to stretch the legs of a 237-horsepower, 1.7-liter turbocharged engine as far as possible, adding weight would be a no-no.
Driving both the hard-top and topless 4C confirms something I’ve always believed: Not having a lid only magnifies all the sensations that make driving enjoyable. All my prior impressions of the 4C coupe being one of the pure driver’s cars available today, if not the best, are strengthened by driving the 4C Spider. With a price of entry roughly double that of the MX-5, it’s also easy to make a case that the 4C is a bargain in today’s market.
Lotus Evora 400
Although the Lotus Evora 400 is currently available only with a fixed roof, it’s been teasing us with promises of a topless Roadster version for years. The Lotus tips the scales at a portly 3,075 pounds (whereas the 4C and MX-5 both barely top 2,300 pounds). The Evora even has a back seat, although clearly not intended for human occupancy. But the Evora’s intent is the same as the others – to generate an intense feeling of euphoria.
You might not know much about Lotus, which is understandable. Mazda and Alfa Romeo aren’t exactly behemoths of the automotive industry, but compared to Lotus, they invite a David-and-Goliaths comparison. The Evora is the only car in its U.S. lineup, and as such, Lotus has focused heavily on its development. Lotus builds only sports cars, and the people who seek them know Lotus does them very well. Starting from a blueprint similar to the 4C – midengine with a tub chassis (bonded aluminum in this case) – one might think it provides a similar experience. But no: Where the 4C is raw and unbridled, the Evora adds a layer of polish and refinement. Its cabin is full of Alcantara and leather, and sound-deadening treatment muffles a lot of the noises that you might want to hear.
Of the three cars here, the Evora has the most power by far. Sourcing a 3.5-liter V6 engine from Toyota, Lotus significantly modifies its internals and adds an Edelbrock supercharger boosting output to 400 horsepower. Although faster than the 4C or MX-5, in the six-speed manual, second gear feels a bit too tall, and it’s not until the latter half of third gear that you mumble, “Damn!” to yourself. By then, you’re touching 90 mph, and it’s time to rein things in a bit. Plus, the gear ratios just feel off for carving up twisty road. Where the 4C jumps out of corners, and even the modified MX-5 does, the Evora doesn’t seem to wind up until you’re almost to the next bend, and then it’s hard on the brakes again.
However, steering is sharp and precise. The interior makes a great first impression. It’s the fastest car here but perhaps not the most exciting. By choosing to make the Evora a more upscale Porsche competitor, Lotus removed the rawness and left us with a curious choice. There’s also the price to consider, at a 50 percent-again premium over the 4C.
Let’s get this out of the way: These are all incredible cars. Any of them will stir your soul and awaken the giggling child within. The MX-5 sells many times over the other two for a reason, with its easy-to-swallow price, negligible cost of ownership and heavy dose of fun. To hold serve against these two heavy hitters, however, you must be willing to tinker with the available aftermarket options. The 4C is almost a cautionary tale of being too good at just one thing. Its sales are dismal, and indications are it will be gone after the ’19 model year. Knowing that makes me sad because we might never see as well executed a pure sports car again. And the Evora is a dose of fun at heart that maybe forgot its roots and is trying to blend with the hip crowd. I feel that if the Evora would give us a chop-top option and forget trying to lure Porsche cross-shoppers, we could have another reason to not be sad for the future.
But I could just as easily turn things around and make a different case for any of these cars if I had a different perspective. With some federal grant money, I could prove they all cause massive endorphin releases, which is the whole point of them existing. Time in any of these cars could make anyone remember how much fun driving can be.
Bommarito Mazda West County, bommaritomazdawest.com
Jim Butler Alfa Romeo, jimbutleralfaromeousa.com
St. Louis Motorcars, stl.cars