What is it about rear-drive cars that excites us? From a physics standpoint, they're inherently advantageous over front-drive vehicles for performance driving — splitting the responsibilities of steering and accelerative forces between front and rear wheels. Compared to all-wheel-drive cars in the same scenario, they're mechanically simpler, generally weigh less and are naturally better balanced.

Emotionally, rear-drive cars — from the accessible to the exotic — assume forms that prioritize passion over packaging efficiency. But this comes at a cost — a smaller market niche with fewer sales — which is why manufacturers either shy away from them entirely or struggle to produce them at affordable prices.

Hyundai, Mazda and now Subaru (and Toyota) prevail against the odds to provide us with three genuine sports-car options at under $30,000. The MX-5 Miata, on one side of the spectrum, has enjoyed great success with its lightweight Jinba ittai approach (rider and horse as one), spawning multiple spec race series, not to mention being a force to fear in numerous autocross classes.

At the other extreme is Hyundai's 2013 Genesis Coupe, pulling no punches as it pushes the output of its turbocharged 2.0-liter engine to a stout 274 bhp and 275 lb.-ft. of torque — and it'll even run on regular-grade pump gasoline if you're feeling stingy.

Right in the middle of the fray is the newcomer — in this case the Subaru BRZ — a joint effort between Subaru and Toyota (Toyobaru?) to revive the soul of the fun, affordable, rear-drive sports coupe. There have been proclamations, rumors, and speculation, and now we are about to see exactly what the engineers at Subaru have wrought.

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2012 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring

The Miata's wheelhouse is where the road never straightens, which is where we appreciate it most.

Since 1989, few cars have embodied affordable, quintessential sports-car elements better than the Mazda Miata. Taking cues from the minimalistic British roadster, Mazda hit its mark with remarkable accuracy, producing a sprightly little roadster with a 1.6-liter engine and driving character that would plaster a smile across your face for hours. That design has evolved to what we know currently as the third-generation (NC) MX-5 Miata. It's still a featherweight by modern day standards (2555 lb.) and is powered by a racy inline-4 that now displaces 2.0 liters, revs to 7200 rpm and makes 167 bhp and 140 lb.-ft. of torque. Equipping this agile 2-seater with the optional Suspension Package gains you sport-tuned Bilstein shocks and a Torsen limited-slip differential — nice upgrades for $650. But while the Grand Touring trim does its best to deliver creature comforts like automatic climate control, heated leather seats, cruise control and a 7-speaker Bose audio system, the Miata's cozy cabin doesn't exactly lend itself to long, comfortable stints of highway cruising.

Its wheelhouse instead is where the road never straightens, which is where we appreciate it most. Rowing through the close ratios of the Miata's excellent gearbox (the best of this group), we make good use of the available torque as the engine spins willingly in concert to its own music. The steering is light, precise and communicative, and the brakes offer plenty of stopping power with the highest resolution.

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What the Miata lacks, however, becomes readily apparent once driven with purpose against these other cars. Following a lapping session around our local Buttonwillow Raceway track, Associate Engineering Editor Shaun Bailey remarked: "It's got good bones, but needs some work to make it great. In stock form, the suspension is soft, and the seats don't have enough bolstering. Having driven an STR-prepped Miata in SCCA Solo, I know how good it can be. I love and hate this car at the same time." Assistant Road Test Editor Calvin Kim added to this point: "The Miata clearly demonstrates the benefits of lightweight construction, but it's beginning to show its age. While the suspension attempts to compensate for comfort with a short wheelbase, it allows for near endless body roll that begets outer tire wear."

The three of us agreed, however, that never a dull moment was had in the saddle. The sensation of speed produced from a symphony of audible feedback, tactile sensitivity and a tiny cockpit is amplified by the chassis' superb balance, especially in high-speed sweepers. Its 205-mm-wide Bridgestone tires, while skinnier than the BRZ's Michelins, inspired more confidence with a greater level of perceived lateral grip, although our skidpad test numbers say otherwise.

The Miata will never be discounted, for it's still one of the purest, unadulterated sports cars money can buy. But with this third generation already in its sixth year of production, it's inevitable that Mazda will soon need a younger, quicker horse to stay in the race.

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