At the ripe age of 19, I feel some sense of pride to be able to say that I have driven and own(ed) two of the most common enthusiast cars in this price range. I am of course, talking about the Porsche 944 and the Mazda Miata MX-5 (NA/NB). I recently sold my Porsche 944, a nice example of an 1987 with under 100k miles, to make way for my Miata that I purchased second-hand from a family member.
Driving both of these cars (sometimes back to back, I had them both simultaneously at one point before the 944 sold), you really realize the differences between these two popular and affordable enthusiast cars. I am going to pit these two RWD, 4-bangers against each other in some categories that I hope resonate with the audience. I don't really want to declare a "winner" because I don't think there is a clear one between these two cars, but if anything I'd like to focus on the advantages and disadvantages of each car when viewed against each other.
No one will look twice when you're driving a miata. Let's be honest, nobody really cares about a Miata apart from it's driver and other Miata enthusiasts. However… with a 944, you will regularly get longing stares, questions, and general interest about your car. In my few months of ownership of my 1987 944 just parking it on the streets of NYC would often times result in people taking pictures of my car and me later finding them on instagram via #944. Besides, the 944 is a much more emotional and unique design, while the miata is sort of… blah.
I really believe that the Mazda is much more "fun" as a car. It doesn't really take itself seriously and loves to have a good time. It's the kind of pal that'll laugh about you spinning out on track. There's a feeling with the 944 that I sort of attribute to it living it's life in the shadow of pretty much every other Porsche ever made that it's trying to punch above it's weight. The 944 feels like a much more "emotional" car but that can go either way, so I'm going to let the Mazda take this one, besides, the 944 isn't a convertible, and in warm weather that really kicks up the "fun" factor for me.
I'm going to tie the cars here, because there is such a large aftermarket for both of them. The Miata may have a slight edge because of Spec-Miata, but I feel that the quality of aftermarket 944 support is generally of higher quality than some of the "JDM BRO!" stuff out for the Miata.
The 944 uses a big 2.5L I-4 in it's base form, while the NB Miata uses a 1.8L (or 1.6L) I-4. Between the two engines the 944's really feels like a much more interesting motor, much more emotional and just sounds better. The BP engine in the Mazda is rather uninspired, buzzy, and doesn't really "reward" you. However, a downside to the 944 is that it's an interference motor, which means that a snapped Timing belt usually equals a new motor. The Miata on the other hand is not an interference motor and lacks a balance shaft which greatly simplifies a rebuild and maintenance, and it doesn't require a timing belt change every 30-60k miles.
This is a tough one. On the one hand, I really, really love the Miata's shifter and (stock) short, rifle-bolt like throws. On the other hand, I love the rear transaxle placement of the 944's transmission. I especially loved that my 944 had an LSD which was really noticeable as compared to my Miata's open differential (I lust for a torsen…). However, with most 944's the shifter is vague, loose, and really not informative. A decent amount of money has to be spent to get the 944 shifter anywhere near the league of the Mazda. But not all is well in the Miata either, the gearing is so high that cruising at 80mph on a highway lands you somewhere near 4000 RPMs. Reluctantly as I stare at the screen of my computer, I'm going to award the win to the Miata.
Side Note: Clutches. Neither of these cars really has a stellar clutch. At least the two examples I drove, the 944 was a bit mushy, and the Miata is very vague. I'm sure these issues can be fixed with a better clutch disc.
The old adage goes, buy the best 944 you can afford. With the Miata you can easily swoop up a project and get her up to snuff with little effort. With a 944, that is generally not so. Prices on base 944's and higher mileage Miatas are pretty much aligned. For example, the previous owner of my Miata paid $3000 (I paid $2000) and I paid $2600 for my 944, both about a year ago, in similar condition. However, I've learned that you get more bang for your buck with the Mazda, since number one, parts are cheaper. Number two, the Mazda is more reliable with the kind of budget a jalop like you and I has. And number three, a Miata is a better base for modifications in the future, with turbo kits making it super easy to change up your car completely for not that much money. Therefore I really think a Miata delivers more smiles per dollar than a 944, in pretty much every aspect.
The 944 wins this one no doubt about it. 944's are incredibly solid and well built, and well… they have a roof. Let's just say I witnessed one go flying into a ditch and it's occupants were unharmed.
As a daily driver/Practicality:
Let's face it. You're most likely like me and near broke. Your car(s) eat all of your money. You might run some events in this car (AutoX or RallyX or a track day bro or two…) but it's most likely going to be your daily. I am 6 feet tall. I barely fit in my Miata. I like to carry a full tool box, jack, and electric impact wrench with me in any car I am driving because I have been in one too many situations where having all these excessive tools in my actual daily (My 1999 ML320) has saved my ass, or a friends. You really can't do this in a Miata. My trunk is literally full and I have to slam the trunk shut hard to fit all of this in a Miata. A 944 however, will eat all of this up with ease, including groceries, a passenger, etc, with ease. You can fit a spare set of wheels with tires in a 944. You can barely fit one wheel in a Miata. As a daily driver a 944 basically wins every time.
I mean this in a very broad general sense. I mean this is obviously going to be a tough one for the Porsche to win when pitted up against a Japanese competitor. The Miata is more affordable in pretty much every aspect. Fuel economy, replacement parts, labor hours (either at a shop or how many hours a repair will take out of your life if you're a DIY'er like me, the Miata is a very easy car to work on, meanwhile the same cannot be said for the 944) and insurance costs. However, I will say this, if you can afford the extra cost of a 944, the final product will be of a higher caliber than the same amount of money put into a Miata.
So, here you have my point of view of both of these really fun and great cars. As for me, I am currently enjoying my Miata (but secretly missing my 944... just a little bit). One important side note (that I only mention because I discovered this on my Miata) is that a 944 is galvanized which means it's actual body will last a lot longer than a Miata's. Unfortunately it looks as if my Miata will be needing some rust repair in the near future because it has a couple of nasty rust spots. Check those sills if you're buying a Miata! 944's are fairly rust-proof. I look forward to hearing your personal experiences with these two fun cars.