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Payne: Fab 4-cylinder face-off, Mustang vs. BRZ vs. Miata

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

This summer, Detroit flexed its muscles: $70,000 Corvette V-8s rattled Ferndale windows; $60,000 Hellcats turned Woodward’s asphalt black with Roadkill Night burnouts; $60,000 Mustang GT350s pounded down Waterford Hills’ back straight.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne found the 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF beat out the Ecoboost Ford Mustang and Subaru BRZ for the best of the Fab Four-cylinder sports cars.

But for half the price and half the cylinders, you can have just as much fun. Maybe more.

For under $40,000 there is a buffet of treats for the casual motorhead — tiny sports cars, hot hatches and four-banger pony cars that are not only easy on the wallet, but can be rowed hard on local byways without waking every cop in town.

I sampled three of these feisty fours this summer: the $38,970 turbo-4 Ford Mustang convertible, $38,335 Mazda Miata MX-5 RS and $34,455 winged Subaru BRZ tS.

As regular readers of this column know, my favorite budget performers are hot hatches with pep, utility and grins: VW Golf GTI, Honda Civic Type R, Hyundai Veloster N, Ford Focus ST and Fiesta ST. But these rowdy pocket rockets lack one thing — rear-wheel drive.

Our contestants for this test are all rear-wheel drive manuals, so they can be drifted, tossed and smoked out of stoplights just like their more expensive V-8 brethren. Beyond RWD their DNA is all over the map from the original pony-car ‘Stang to the iconic Miata to the new-kid-on-the-block, flat-four Subie.

I flogged them all over Metro Detroit to determine the best of the Fab Fours.

Ford Mustang EcoBoost

Mustang and EcoBoost don’t seem to belong in the same sentence, but Ford is determined to make its EcoBoost engines an international brand. It won the 2016 LeMans 24-Hour with the EcoBoost twin-turbo, V6-powered Ford GT supercar and began exporting 2015 Mustang fours to foreign continents choking on strict government emissions regulations.

For 2018, Mustang shelved its 6-cylinder engine to rely entirely on the inline-4 and V-8.

My red 2018 convertible is easy on the eyes. Ford’s designers got it right with an updated design that maintains signature touches like athletic haunches and a modern Focus-style nose.

The Mustang Convertible cuts a dashing figure. But a four-banger under the hood doesn't fit the iconic muscle car. Wish I had a V-8.

Alas, the EcoBoost Mustang also sounds like a Focus. Which is say, it feels like it’s lost its voice. Like Mike Tyson, the Ford’s vocals don’t match its muscled bod. REV IT UP! bystanders urged at the Woodward Dream Cruise, expecting a V-8 roar. I would sheepishly rev it to disappointed looks.

“It just doesn’t sound like a Mustang,” colleagues said after handing back the keys.

I’ve driven the turbo-4 in anger on country roads, and without the big V-8 boat anchor up front it rotates more easily into corners, its independent-rear suspension proving more nimble than previous generations. Nailing the four-holer out of a corner, I think of the $41,000 Focus RS hot hatch with which the Mustang shares its 310 horse 2.3-liter mill. But the bad-boy RS engine is tuned for more emotion than the stealthy 'Stang.

Worse, the RS and its ST stablemates are being axed in the U.S. market as Ford abandons small cars, meaning the only 300-plus-horsepower four you’ll find will be buried under the hood of a Mustang. These are dark days for Ford motorheads. At least you can still get a Mustang V-8.

Subaru BRZ tS

Since I first drove them in 2015, the BRZ and its Toyota 89 twin brother have been on my short list of sports-car favorites. With its low profile and flat-4 boxer engine, it has the lowest center-of-gravity of any production vehicle, along with the battery-powered Tesla Model S.

Combine that with a taut chassis and precise shifter, and the BRZ is Porsche-like (the Stuttgart legend also uses boxer engines) in its handling. Predictable, neutral, maneuverable on the limit.

For 2018, Subaru engineers pushed the envelope for the Subaru BRZ with the limited-edition tS, the ultimate track-tuned BRZ. The tS gets a high rear wing for added downforce, stiffer suspension, and sticky Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires for added grip – but the BRZ's biggest issue is power, not grip.

For 2018, Subaru engineers pushed the envelope even further with the limited-edition tS, the ultimate, track-tuned BRZ. The tS gets a high rear wing for added downforce, stiffer suspension, and most significantly, sticky Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires for added grip — an improvement over the standard skinnies which may be fun for drifting, but take time away at a Waterford track day.

But better handling is not what the athletic 'Ru needs.

The 205-horsepower 2.0-liter four is the most anemic 200-horse engine I’ve driven. A 201-horse Honda Civic Si feels much more engaged. Floor the BRZ out of corners, and it has all the urgency of Heinz ketchup.

Full torque doesn’t come on until 6,200 rpms, meaning you’re rowing the box all the time to stay in the torque band. Maybe the peppy 260-horse Ascent SUV will lend its turbo-4 someday.

Mazda MX-5 Miata RF

Though its 2.0-liter four pumped out just 155 ponies, the 2018 Mazda beat the Subaru by nearly half a second: 5.9 seconds compared to 6.3 (courtesy of our friends at Car and Driver). Credit MX-5’s weight. At 2,453 pounds, it is by far the lightest in this test.

Yet, Mazda isn’t resting on its laurels. For 2019 it has increased horsepower by 17 percent to 181 by extending the rev range to 7,500 rpms. Mazda maniacs have pined for the carmaker's torquey 260-horse turbo-4 (stuffed into the Mazda 6 and CX-9). But corporate is insistent that its halo remain a purists' sports car — no forced induction allowed.

My 2019 RF will satisfy the purists, and the aesthetes as well. Its Targa roof and racy rear pillars make for the sexiest Miata ever. Looks will cost you: the RF starts $2,600 north of a regular, soft-top MX-5 roadster at $33,675. My RF manual was loaded with carbon-fiber trimmings and leather thrones to the tune of $38,335.

As with Mustang, I’m a fan of the Miata’s new, next-gen styling and the RF brings a touch of luxury as well. The hard top folds up automatically with the touch of a button — where the Mustang is only partially automatic.

Whether on an interstate cloverleaf, parking-lot autocross course or Waterford Hills track day, drivers can really explore the limits of the MX-5.

At 6-foot-5, I explore the limits — head in roof, knees in dash — of the Miata’s tiny cockpit compared to the more comfortable 'Stang and BRZ. But Mazda's recipe of styling, playfulness and power-to-weight ratio make it the best pure, under $40,000 4-banger on the market today.

All hail the Fab Four-banger MX-5. It’ll put a smile on your face as wide as its smiley front grille.

Next week: Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Ford Mustang Ecoboost

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four(ish)-passenger convertible/coupe

Price: $26,580 base ($38,970 convertible as tested)

Powerplant: 2.3-liter turbo-4 cylinder

Power: 310 horsepower, 350 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.3 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 123 mph

Weight: 3,676 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 20 city/29 highway/23 combined 

Report card

Highs: Most powerful car in comparo; more nimble handling than the V-8

Lows: Going topless still requires manual labor; 4-banger doesn't fit muscle car looks

Overall: 3 stars

2018 Subaru BRZ tS 

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four(ish)-passenger coupe

Price: $26,455 base ($34,355 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter "Boxer" flat-4 cylinder

Power: 205 horsepower, 156 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 135 mph 

Weight: 2,850 pounds (est.)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 20 city/27 highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: Best-handling car in comparo; roomier than the Miata

Lows: Lack of punch; smartphone apps, please

Overall: 3 stars

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF 

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger roadster/coupe

Price: $26,190 base ($38,335 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder

Power: 181 horsepower, 151 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 140 mph (est.)

Weight: 2,453 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 26 city/34 highway/29 combined

Report card

Highs: Most fun of the bunch; auto drop top

Lows: Six-footers need a shoehorn to get in; RF gets pricey

Overall: 4 stars