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Driven: These rockstar sports cars are fast, furious — and affordable

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For the 20th anniversary of its TT Roadster, Audi produced 999 special-edition 2019 TTs (Roadster version, above). Of the 100 allotted to U.S. dealers, all have been spoken for. Luckily, “regular” TTs are available (and cheaper).
(Audi)

Close your eyes and imagine two shiny, two-seater convertibles arriving in your driveway, each screaming to be played with. Such was my luck recently, when a 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF and a 2019 Audi TT Roadster were dropped at my door.

Why these two toys? Because at a time when the white noise of automotive choices has never been louder — EVs, hybrids, semi-autonomous systems, hypercars — I wanted to step back into the realm of purity, simplicity and fun, and pay homage to a couple of four-cylinder heroes. Among so many new-car contenders, few achieve this trifecta: reasonably priced (Miatas start at $25,730 and TTs at $44,900), bulletproof to own and thrilling to drive.

Both cars have received enough adulation from owners and media to persuade their parent companies to continue to produce them: The Miata is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and the TT Roadster its 20th (the TT Coupe launched in 1998). Mazda has sold more than 1 million Miatas worldwide, and Audi more than 600,000 TTs. They are proof points of constant engineering and design refinement; the Miata alone has won 281 awards. (The Porsche 911 is perhaps the gold standard of sports car longevity and evolutionary improvement — and far less attainable at a $100,000 minimum cost of entry.)

I remember the much-anticipated “birth” of each car. In 1999, I was invited by Audi to the launch of the TT Roadster in Umbria, Italy (I covered the automotive industry for Fortune at the time). I raced around, top down, devouring the area’s curvaceous roads and speed-blurring through fields of sunflowers. The whole time, I couldn’t help but admire the car’s seemingly endless clever details, from the baseball-glove-colored leather seats to its smooth, capable performance. I was hooked: a beautifully engineered piece of German Bauhaus-inspired design that isn’t so powerful or expensive as to scare you, just enthrall you — every time you climb inside. (A side note on Umbria: There is a hotel in the town of Piedicolle called Miataland. The owners are avid Miata collectors, and guests are invited to drive some of the 40-plus cars housed in the property’s converted 17th century buildings.)

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As for the Mazda, on July 1, 1989, my brother Dave took delivery of one of the first Miatas in the country, in Massachusetts. He bought it sight unseen based on early media coverage, stuffed his 6-foot-2-inch frame into the little red beast and drove it home to Washington, D.C. The next day, he parked it in front of the White House, which you could still do at that point. Women vied for rides and Japanese tourists, among others, swarmed the car (Mazda had not yet released it in Japan). And so a celebrity car was born.

Back to the present. The nimbus gray metallic TT Roadster in front of my house beckoned, so I jumped in. (Both cars were lent to me for a weekend test drive by their respective manufacturers.) From the clean digital instrument panel and the flat-bottomed sports steering wheel to vents with the temperature and air controls built into the center knobs, the latest TT is awash in intelligent details. I pushed the start button and smiled as all 228 horses under the hood growled to life. I opted for the manual mode to be able to fast-flick the paddle shifters and test the TT’s performance mettle.

Through some of Malibu’s better canyons and along Mulholland, the Audi’s quick reflexes made pushing the car feel as effortless as playing a video game. Everything worked exactly right: power when my right foot asked for it, progressive and smooth steering, all-wheel drive to keep my exuberance in check. After a few hours of spirited frolicking, I suddenly thought to look at the time and caught myself grinning like a kid.

Next up: The Miata.

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Mine was an RF — the particularly handsome retractable-roof version. I slid into the fairly bare-bones cockpit and immediately all senses fired: This is about driving and only driving. Dropping the user-friendly manual gearbox into first (an automatic version is available too), I took off, immediately feeling the car’s innate jinba ittai, a Japanese term that originally meant a natural extension of horse and rider that Mazda has taken to automotive levels. To that point, the Miata fit me like a glove, and as I revved and downshifted, the car and I became one in a partnership of throttle, brakes and balance. Despite its 181-horsepower (add a zero for the output some hypercars claim these days), every stoplight felt like the starting line of a race, and every curve an opportunity to explore the car’s nimble handling. Apparently, “Miata” is derived from the Old German word “miete” meaning “reward”—and the adrenaline-infused joy it inspired in me is proof of a name well chosen.

All too soon, it was pumpkin time: The real owners of “my” cars wanted them back. I stood in the street as the Miata and TT disappeared from view. The fun was sadly over.

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When the author took the 2019 MX-5 Miata RF for a test drive, “the car and I became one in a partnership of throttle, brakes and balance.”
(James Halfacre / Mazda, USA)

I know what some of you are thinking: How impractical to have a sports car! It’s not a choice for everyone, but consider these truths. We live in a sunny, warm part of the world that most people view as a prime vacation destination. SoCal is home to some of the finest roads to enjoy in a topless two-seater. For the quality, performance and heritage you’re getting, cost of entry for either car is real-world (don’t rule out used versions, as there are many great bargains to be had). Applaud these two manufacturers for keeping small sports cars alive in the face of sedans and wagons getting pulled from production left and right to make room for the evermore ubiquitous crossovers.

For me, the TT ended up being my go-to. From a Ralphs run to traffic jams, the Audi, technically a luxury vehicle, is easy on the eyes as well as the user with many up-to-the-minute creature comforts, including Apple CarPlay and vents in the headrests to whisper warm air on your neck during cold morning jaunts.

For purists, though, the Miata is the real deal. It’s mechanical, straightforward and purpose-built, which is why so many owners also race their Miatas in amateur and semipro series around the world.

Either way, you’re getting what is, simply put, an icon. These relatively green gas-powered delights may one day be extinct, so if you’re inclined, enjoy them now. They’ve never been better.

@szcallaway


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