It’s summer, and that means weekend cruise nights, road trips and hot, sweaty vinyl seats.…
7 Miata alternatives for top-down summer fun
The arrival of the Mazda Miata some 30 years ago was a seminal event, one that reaffirmed the joy of the simple two-seat roadster, an automotive genre that automakers had all but abandoned. Mazda did more than just breathe new life into the segment; their designers and engineers built a great car. Vintage Miatas still possess all the same characteristics that made them a sensation when new, and their popularity as a collectible is bolstered by the fact that they’re cheap, plentiful, low-maintenance, and tunable. For buyers seeking a modern-classic roadster, that makes them an obvious choice—too obvious for some. For those for whom Miata isn’t always the answer, we’ve recapped some of the alternatives to Mazda’s excellent if seemingly ubiquitous roadster.
The Honda S2000 is arguably the closest doppelganger to a Miata, being a compact, two-seat, rear-drive, four-cylinder Japanese roadster. The Honda was a more sophisticated offering when new, however, and was sold as mono-spec with leather, a zippy power top, and a VTEC four-cylinder engine that revs and revs. A delightful six-speed manual was the only transmission ever offered.
Early cars (the AP1 generation, built from 1999 to 2003) had a 2.0-liter version that made 240 horsepower at a lofty 8300 rpm and 153 lb-ft of torque at 7500 revs. In later models (the 2004–09 AP2 generation) displacement grew to 2.2 liters, the redline was reduced slightly, the power peak arrived 500 rpm earlier, and torque was bolstered to 162 lb-ft at 6500 rpm. Later cars also got stability control (in 2006) and revised rear suspension geometry, providing more secure handling. The 2008–09 S2000 CR (Club Racer) was a hardcore limited edition. It replaced the convertible top with a removable hardtop, A/C and the radio moved to the options list, and a body kit and chassis mods were added. If you’re considering an S2000, learn more with Hagerty’s S2000 buyer’s guide.
Pricing: With only 625 built, values of the CR can reach $40k in #2 Excellent condition, but even the regular S2000 is worth around $15,000.
Pros: The thrill of a high-revving VTEC engine, near-perfect shifter, lively handling, taller drivers fit.
Cons: The noise of a high-revving VTEC engine, unmolested examples can be hard to find, having to pack light.
Porsche’s mid-engine Boxster was on a higher plane than the humble Miata when it was new (as the current Boxster is today) but the miracle of depreciation has brought the price of first-generation Boxsters down to where they can be considered a Miata alternative.
Mounted behind the driver was a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated flat-six—an engine configuration fast disappearing at Porsche. It made a modest 201 horsepower but sounded great doing so. The 2000 model year brought a slight increase in engine displacement, to 2.7 liters, and 217 horses, along with the more significant arrival of the S model, which had a 3.2-liter engine good for 250 horsepower. Unfortunately, all versions of this flat-six are subject to the dreaded intermediate shaft bearing (IMS) failure, which can ruin the engine. Preventative fixes are available, however, so look for an example where this has been addressed. Then relax and enjoy the ride, which is enjoyable indeed in this sharp-handling Porsche.
Clever packaging made room for a deep front trunk and a shallow rear trunk aft of the engine, making the Boxster well-suited to an extended getaway. A standard power top has a finished appearance when retracted, eliminating the need to fuss with a boot, and a clear plastic wind deflector that nestles between the headrests effectively quells buffeting. The Boxster is thrilling and livable in equal measure.
Pricing: This is a lot of car for the money, that money being $15,200 for ’97-to-’01 base models in #2 condition, or $16,500 for the 2002–04 cars. An ’01 or ’02 Boxster S commands $17,600, with the later S cars slightly dearer at $18,700. This Porsche might not be such a bargain for long, though, as the first-gen Boxster was named to Hagerty’s 2019 Bull Market List.
Pros: Mid-engine chassis balance, sublime steering, the wail of a naturally aspirated flat-six, road-trip ready with two trunks, original owners likely didn’t skimp on maintenance.
Cons: Expensive parts and service, very expensive IMS bearing failures, somewhat plasticky interior.
BMW went fully traditional for its roadster entry, with the engine up front, rear-wheel drive, a soft top, and neo-classic styling with a long hood and a short deck. The model was the first BMW built exclusively in the U.S., at the company’s new factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
The roadster used a mix of 3 Series chassis bits from the E36 generation (front suspension) and E30 (rear suspension). The car launched with a 1.9-liter inline-four that bettered the Miata’s output with 138 horsepower, although that advantage was offset by the Z3’s greater curb weight. The Z3’s perceived power deficit was quickly addressed with the 1997 arrival of a 189-hp M52 2.8-liter inline-six. The base four was soon dropped in favor of a 2.5-liter six, and the 2.8 was replaced by a beefy 3.0-liter.
Visually, the six-cylinder cars got wider, curvier rear fenders that better balanced the long hood. The blistering M Roadster arrived for ’98 with a 240-hp (later 315-hp) 3.2-liter inline-six and comprehensive chassis upgrades. The fire-breathing M cars may be a long way from any Miata, but the Z3 otherwise makes for an alternative take on the affordable-roadster formula, one that mostly delivers on the promises of the propeller badge.
Pricing: Figure on around $10k for a low-mile condition #2 (Excellent) early Z3, with the 2.3 at $12,500 or so, the 2.5 at $15k, and the 2.8 around $17,500. If you want a driver, you can find these cars well-maintained for under $10k all day long—you might have to pony up a little more for the 3.0-liter, and expect the automatic-equipped cars to cost a bit less than the manuals. The M Roadster is in the upper $20s—which is still half the price of an M Coupe.
Pros: Classic proportions, smooth inline-six, mechanically robust, commonly equipped with leather and heated seats.
Cons: A bit softer and less immediate than a Boxster or Miata, BMW parts prices.
While the Miata ushered in the roadster revival, its first few years on the market overlapped with one of the last of the classic roadsters, the Alfa Romeo Spider. The Spider dated back to the late 1960s, and any of the first three generations has a far more classic vibe than a Miata. But the fourth and final generation Spider (the Series 4 or S4) was a Miata contemporary, even if it wasn’t quite contemporary in its day. Still, the S4 represented a comprehensive update when it arrived for 1991.
Smoothed front and rear styling by Pininfarina (which also assembled the Spider) finally integrated the impact bumpers in a handsome way. The interior became more luxurious, with seats in vinyl—or leather in the upmarket Veloce model—with Alcantara center sections. A driver’s airbag was fitted along with a knee bolster (long-legged drivers should take a test fit). Air conditioning was standard on the Veloce and commonly optioned on the base car, and all S4s had power windows and power mirrors.
Under the hood, the 2.0-liter engine used Bosch Motronic fuel injection and delivered 120 horsepower, a relatively modest sum considering the model’s weight gain compared to earlier versions. The five-speed manual transmission, still shifted via Alfa’s unusual console-mounted stick, is the best way to make the engine sing, although an automatic also was offered. With power steering and power disc brakes, this generation of Spider edged more toward grand touring, abetted by a well-designed top and a commodious trunk, yet is still retained Italian roadster flair.
Pricing: Prices for Excellent #2 condition examples stand at $18,800 for the base version and $20,900 for the Veloce. After remaining fairly static, prices may be due for an upswing, based on rising interest.
Pros: Brand pedigree and club support, fairly deluxe interior, well-designed manual top, less rust-prone than earlier models, fairly high spec.
Cons: An old design even when new, high-spec features are perhaps not the best idea on a vintage Alfa.
Toyota MR2 Spyder, 2000–07
The oft-forgotten MR2 roadster that arrived for 2000 seems to live in the shadow of the wedge-shaped original Mister Two and its more rounded follow-up—the third-gen car is more like Mister Who? But with its switch from a hardtop coupe/targa body style to a full-on convertible, the third-gen MR2 sits at the intersection of the exotic mid-engine convertible and the inexpensive Japanese sports car. The Spyder was about the same size as a Miata and was even lighter, at a shade under 2200 pounds.
The MR2 was powered by a 1.8-liter aluminum-block four, making 138 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque paired with a five-speed stick or a six-speed automated manual, and was good for a 7.0-second sprint to 60 mph according to Toyota. A longer wheelbase than earlier MR2s made for less twitchy handling.
When new, the MR2 Spyder is the only car on this list that was as affordable as a Miata, so don’t look for plush accommodations. The interior is more Japanese economy car than exotic sports car, but the necessities are included, such as air conditioning, a CD stereo, and tilt steering wheel. The top is an easy-to-use manual unit with a glass rear window. The biggest challenge with MR2 Spyder is carrying anything in it. The front trunk is consumed with the radiator and spare tire, so effectively, the only stowage space is a compartment behind the seats.
Pricing: The MR2 Spyder was affordable when new and it’s affordable now. Hagerty doesn’t track prices of this model (we told you it gets no respect), but a perusal of online ads turns up what appear to be nice examples for under 10 grand.
Pros: Light weight, mid-engine chassis balance, Toyota reliability and parts pricing.
Cons: Small fan base, econo-box interior, near-total lack of stowage space.
The roadster rush of the late 1990s brought entrants from all corners of Germany, and it’s perhaps not surprising that the BMW and Mercedes-Benz offerings most closely shadowed each other, at least in layout. Mercedes, however, saw the SLK as a car very much in the mold of its storied sibling, the SL, and that meant it was more status symbol than sports car.
The SLK was comprehensively equipped, with dual airbags, A/C, power windows, and more. The leather-trimmed interior could be had in flashy two-tone color combinations and with carbon-fiber trim. The standard retractable hardtop provided the ultimate in noise isolation and weather protection, but the folded top all but wiped out the trunk space and was mechanically complex.
Known as the R170, the original SLK debuted in 1997 as the SLK230 Kompressor, with a supercharged 2.3-liter inline-four. Output was a stout 185 horses and 200 lb-ft of torque but the Kompressor doesn’t love to rev and doesn’t sound great if you force the issue. A five-speed manual was offered, but unsurprisingly most SLKs had a five-speed automatic. A SLK320 with a 3.2-liter V-6 joined the lineup in 2001 with the same transmission choices. In 2002, the 349-hp SLK32 AMG arrived as a late riposte to the BMW M Roadster.
Pricing: In #2 Excellent condition, the four-cylinder SLK is currently valued at $12,900, while the V-6 SLK320 commands $14,000. The AMG-fettled SLK32 is on another plane, at $21,500.
Pros: Ritzy cabin, cozy retractable hardtop.
Cons: Kompressor engine note, little luggage space with the top down, Mercedes-Benz maintenance costs.
Audi’s TT was born as a concept, the work of the talented team of J Mays and Freeman Thomas. The first show car was a coupe but a roadster quickly followed. Public demand pushed the duo into production, and they arrived looking barely changed from the show cars. The interior was equally stylish, with aluminum trim and available leather with stitching like a baseball glove. The car’s unadorned, rounded shape proved a bit too simple at first, drawing complaints of instability at autobahn speeds—Audi responded by tweaking the suspension and adding a trunk spoiler and stability control.
Without any rear-drive platforms in its stable, Audi used a front-drive architecture for the TT—that of the VW Golf. The car was offered with two turbocharged four-cylinder engines, 180 horsepower and 225 horses, the former with a choice of front-drive or quattro all-wheel drive, the latter with AWD only. Unsurprisingly, the 225-hp AWD version is the way to go, with the quattro system desirable not so much for its winter-weather capability but to aid handling and mitigate torque steer. Five-speed and six-speed manual transmissions were offered, as well as Audi’s first dual-clutch automatic. An excellent 3.2-liter VR6 arrived for 2013 but the TT never had the performance cred of its rivals. What it did have was style by the bucketload, so much so that the look proved hard to top in successive generations.
Pricing: Base-engine, front-drive versions are around $8500 in #2 condition, while the more desirable higher-horsepower quattro models are $10k to $12k.
Pros: Timeless Bauhaus design, upscale interior, available AWD.
Cons: Pedestrian handling, some turbo lag, standard FWD.