2019 Mazda Miata VS. 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI

The 2019 Mazda Miata takes an already-great, sharply styled tiny convertible and adds even more power. It’s a great buy. But the 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI sports an updated look, has even more power and is probably the best-driving hatchback on the road without even trying too hard—but it’s not a true sports car. So if you’re looking for something fun and new for around $26,000 bucks, which one should you get?

What Are We Working With, Here?

The Miata and GTI are both blue-collar heroes in their own right.

The Miata is a rear-wheel drive, two-seat convertible, often not taken seriously by select groups of enthusiasts and unfairly judged despite offering one of the most engaging and entertaining experiences that’s the stuff of memes and dreams, with a recent power boost from 155 horsepower to 181 HP and 151 lb-ft of torque.

The GTI is a totally different approach to affordable fun – a front-wheel drive hatchback with 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, with four doors and space for five who prefer a roof over their heads.

But both cars have some similarities. Both are available with a manual transmission, both have power-to-weight ratios close enough to be considered similar, both start around the same price—the 2018 Miata starts at $25,730 and the 2018 Golf GTI starts at $26,415—and so both always come up anytime someone asks us which car they should buy, for whoever refuses to spend some time finding a great deal on a used car. “Should I get a Miata or a GTI?” is a way more common question than you may think, and for good reason.

I’ve now driven the latest version of both, and I’m confident that I can answer this.

What’s So Good About These Cars?

The current ND generation of the Mazda Miata with 155 horsepower was great, but as we reported in our First Drive review of the refreshed one, 181 HP only makes a great thing better. The car is now vastly superior at highway cruising, without having to work nearly as hard to pass or keep up as it did last year. Zigzagging through foggy upstate New York roads on a cool Saturday morning feels like an ascension into heaven, if your standard for heaven is admittedly low.

For me, so many modern cars feel overly dampened and vague, just a series of mostly similarly boring and softened rides trying to be everything and ending up feeling like nothing. But I’m not the first person to say the Miata is exactly the opposite of all of that. It’s attractively simple, purposeful and confident in what it delivers, and it’s packaged as a finely-tuned raw experience designed to make you feel like you’re having fun. It’s something that most automakers have pretty much given up on delivering.

So Which One Should You Get?

All common sense would advise you to get the Golf GTI. This has nothing to do with the time a grown New Yorker Man in a Cadillac glared with disdain and shook his head at me while I was sitting in the Miata, I promise. What does that guy know, anyway?

A Miata could be your daily driver, for sure, just with tons of compromises. You can carry one other person and the trunk is good for a small number of groceries or overnight bags. It’s do-able, long as you have backup plans for a lot of situations.

If you are buying it as your only car, the GTI packs nearly as much fun as the Miata, but can also pack more than a weekend’s luggage and more than one additional living (or dead) being in addition to the driver. The only thing you give up over the Miata is the drop top and the ability to be a little silly with the rear end.

4 Comments

  1. It may be worth noting, not that it really matters, that the one person who for some odd reason I gets paid to give car buying advice…owns a GTI. I’m also fairly certain I’m the only person currently employed here that has bought and still owns a brand new car. Again I don’t know why that matters, but I still believe the GTI is the best daily driver for around 30k.

  2. Oh it’s practical all right! I just picked up a used 2015 GTI w/ the performance package (and it’s a shame they don’t offer that anymore). I needed one with the DSG since the wife flat out refuses to drive a stick. Yeah, it’s fun to ‘row yer own’ and all, but it’s also real nice to not have to take your hands off the wheel to change those gears. Between the ‘flappy paddles’, all the buttons on the wheel, the super aggressive brakes and the great acceleration… it’s the most practical solution for hauling some ass AND keeping your eyes on the apex of the bus stop corner (so noted because there’s a sign that says “Bus Stop”).

    Call it the most ‘practical’ car, sure. Yes, you will have the inevitable realization that you’re that much closer to your end of days… but only after you’ve had your right foot planted for a few seconds and the speedo is already reading 90. You will realize that maybe… no, most likely, this car will get you into a whole lotta’ trouble. Acting the part doesn’t help… the officer didn’t care.

  3. The GTI is really the perfect only car. Amazing to drive, and what you can’t fit in it you can put on the roof or tow behind it. Which is why I traded an M235i for one (‘17 Sport in white, with a stick) last year. The Miata is more fun, but that is all it’s really good for. The ideal would be to have one of each, and I might just do that.

    BTW – the only GTI that has more power for 2018 is the base S. The Sport and up got the 220hp upgrade last year. And the stickshift is standard, the autotragic is optional, and costs more.

  4. I don’t think anyone can really argue the potency of the latest gti as a dual purpose car. I’ve owned the understeer king (the wrx) and while it was a great straight line car, it was numb and boring compared to the gti around a track. With just a few simple mods for cooling, power, and suspension (all basic bolt ons) the gti becomes less city focused and more sports-car-y. It routinely makes a sea of corvettes and mustangs at track days scratch their heads when getting passed.

    I cross shopped the frs/brz, miata, gti, and others, and settled on the gti for the creature comforts and handling dynamics. Great little car, and a lot more fun to slide the rear end on it than the fwd status would have you believe.

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