Two new options for the midlife-crisis market.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE Small Business Magazine) - The Mazda MX-5 (formerly known as the Miata) has been tops on my list of affordable sports cars since it arrived in 1989. Now serious competition has emerged in the swaggering Pontiac Solstice.
Does Mazda still reign supreme? I'll give you my opinion in a minute. Really, though, any driver who craves more fun probably won't go wrong with either car. Both are easy to get to know yet provide the excitement of far more exotic machines.
The new Solstice delivers a shot of adrenaline for the Pontiac brand just when General Motors (Research) needs it most. Borrowing design elements from 1950s European racecars, such as twin mesh grilles and torpedo-shaped headrests, the Solstice looks fast even when parked.
Climb into the driver's seat, just inches off the pavement, and you'll feel as if you're in a vintage roadster. All you need are goggles and a leather helmet. The Solstice's 177-horsepower four-cylinder engine doesn't provide enough power to snap your head back, but gets you to 60 miles an hour in 7.2 seconds, making the car feel plenty fast. Its cornering ability is exceptional.
Mazda's new MX-5, the third-generation Miata, is a little larger than its predecessor, and faster (170 hp, zero to 60 in seven flat). Yet it retains the features that have made it Everyman's sports car, such as a trunk big enough to carry a weekend's worth of stuff.
If anything, the MX-5's design is a little too classic for me, and doesn't reflect its exquisite balance. You drive a Solstice, but you wear an MX-5 -- it feels like an extension of your limbs. Any input from the throttle, shift lever, or steering wheel produces an immediate reaction. The sensation happens so fast that it makes you want to giggle -- which I did on several occasions before an untimely snowstorm cut short my test drive.
The extroverted Solstice wins on scarcity -- it's back-ordered at dealers -- and on the "wow" factor, but by most other measures it runs second to the MX-5. My test cars bore nearly identical sticker prices (including options): $25,495 for the Grand Touring version MX-5, $25,000 for the Solstice.
But the Solstice was hurried to market after its debut at the 2003 Detroit auto show, and that shows in the execution: The cloth top is a bit more cumbersome, and there is practically no trunk space. Though the formula for the MX-5 hasn't changed much over the years, it has been subtly, flawlessly refined.
Americans are fortunate to have two such appealing sports cars arrive on the market at the same time, but only the MX-5 is seductive enough that I would consider moving to the suburbs merely to have the pleasure of driving one to work every day.
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