Spring has sprung. The roads are clear of snow and ice—perfect conditions for Canadian driving enthusiasts to start to think about taking a new sports car for a drive. The trouble is, there aren't many sports cars on the market these days. What with the majority of consumers favouring trucks and SUVs.
But for those in the minority looking for a small, lightweight, 2-door, rear-wheel-drive (RWD) fun machine with a manual gearbox—and at a price that's more in line with the average family sedan or SUV—there is still a handful of choices.
The question we're asking is: Which one of these low-cost, four-season sports cars is the one we'd recommend?
2020 BMW 230i Coupe
While BMW Canada is selling 2021 models, some 2020 BMW 230i Coupes remain available. Manufacturer Suggested Retail Prices start at $39,950 CDN with a 6-speed manual transmission and a 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine producing 248 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.
Taut, without being too firm, eager in its direction changes, quick and responsive, the compact BMW 2+2-passenger coupe is an enthusiast’s joy. The 2.0-litre engine still has the power to create thrills in a car of this size. The 230i Coupe feels more muscular than BMW’s horsepower rating might suggest, enough to make a prospective buyer think long and hard about spending considerably more for the $48,700 CDN M240i with 335 horsepower (although wanting maximum fun is no bad thing).
2021 Mazda MX-5 Soft Top
What affordable sports car list would be complete without an MX-5? Choose between the $33,200 CDN 2-passenger roadster's manual fabric Soft Top model or the $40,200 CDN retractable hardtop RF version. Either way, the 181 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque 2.0-litre 4-cylinder engine revs willingly, at which point it's time to grab the next gear. The short-throw 6-speed, incidentally, remains one of the best manuals on the market, while a 6-speed automatic is optional.
The 2021 Mazda MX-5 is at its best when the road twists and turns, revealing just how good and beautifully balanced the chassis is. A couple of years ago, Mazda tweaked the MX-5's suspension, manual transmission, and engine, improving what was already a fantastic driver's car. Many Mazda engineers have an MX-5 for weekend fun, which is quite an explicit endorsement.
2020 Subaru BRZ
Along with the Toyota 86—the other fruit of this Toyota-Subaru affordable sports car collaboration—a redesigned Subaru BRZ is coming this fall for the 2022 model year. Until then, both Subaru and Toyota still have some 2020 models for sale if you can't wait. Starting at $27,995 CDN, the 2+2 passenger 2020 Subaru BRZ is real driving fun in the real world.
Although the Subaru BRZ only comes with a 2.0-litre 4-cylinder engine that makes a relatively modest 205 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque, its balance, immediacy and rawness still have a way of tackling the senses. Plus, the BRZ's steering is spot-on, its brakes dependable, and the engine revs freely right up to the 7,000-rpm redline. The ideal transmission is the standard 6-speed manual with rev-matching on the downshifts, but a 6-speed automatic is optional.
2020 Toyota 86
The 2020 Toyota 86 (named after a cult version of the Corolla made in the 1980s) shares the same layout, down to the engine, as the Subaru BRZ. Beyond a higher starting price for the Toyota ($30,150 CDN), the main difference between these nearly identical sports cars is their suspension setups.
Where the BRZ is a little more balanced and predictable, the 86 is better tuned if you are a driver who likes to slide a car's rear end. The Toyota's Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) system allows more leeway before kicking in and cutting power. By pressing the Track button for one second, the driver can then exploit the chassis with some wheelspin and lateral movement. There's also a fully Off mode where the VSC is disabled completely.
All four of these affordable sports car contenders would be a breath of fresh spring air for those who like to drive. But not all of our contenders are equal when it comes to balancing driving excitement, day-to-day practicality, and the ability to be driven during all four Canadian driving seasons.
As much as the 2021 Mazda MX-5 is held in high esteem as a low-cost sports car legend, in this group, it's the most softly sprung vehicle that feels better suited for tooling around town than hardcore back road driving. The Mazda is also hindered as a 2-passenger-only deal and a relatively high price if you want the RF model's four-season protection.
Arguably the most mature contender here, the 2021 BMW 230i Coupe offers legitimate four-season capability, the most rear passenger room, and a higher level of interior refinement that its luxury badge (and price) promise.
Which leaves us with the Toyota-Subaru twins.
From their ultra-low centre of gravity to highly communicative steering to agile and responsive handling, both the 2020 Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 offer a more engaging driving experience than either the 230i Coupe or MX-5. Plus, their hardtops, 2+2 seating, and fold-down rear seats provide real-world practicality. Of the pair, we'd recommend the Subaru. It's cheaper to buy, while its handling is easier to digest for daily driving. All of which bodes well for the next-generation BRZ and 86 successors coming later in 2021.
If you’re in the market for a new vehicle and have a unique buying request, please contact KBB.ca at KBBSupport@coxautoinc.com.