The vehicles we have assembled for comparison here have all been freshened up recently to ensure they still appeal to the style conscious, and include the evergreen Mazda MX-5 in range-topping 1.8i Sport trim, the MG TF 1.8i 135 and the entry-level Toyota MR2.
The Mazda turns out to be the most expensive on list price, but boasts the most power in our trio (144bhp) and the most standard equipment, including leather seats.
Each car, according to CAP Monitor, will retain 40% of its list price after three years/ 60,000 miles. Our depreciation costs rank the cars in step with their list prices, with the Mazda losing 17.05 pence per mile, compared with 16.91ppm for the MG TF and 16.04ppm for the Toyota MR2.
The tables are turned when comparing costs for servicing, maintenance and repairs, with the MX-5 on 2.50ppm, with the MG TF on 2.62ppm and the Toyota playing catch-up on 3.08ppm.
However, the contract hire rates quoted by HSBC Vehicle Finance show that the MG TF could be the least expensive of the three to lease, on £337 per month, compared with £351 for the Toyota and £360 for the Mazda. This is perhaps indicative of a higher level of support for the car from MG Rover.
The Mazda MX-5 is shown up when it comes to fuel consumption, an area where its two rivals perform exceptionally well.
The six-speed Sport model reaches 31.7mpg on the combined cycle while the MG TF is rated at 35.6mpg and the Toyota at 38.2mpg.
It translates into a fuel cost of 12.81ppm for the MX-5, compared with 10.72ppm for the TF, while the MR2 just sneaks below the 10p barrier at 9.99ppm.
Totting up all the figures gives the MR2 a clear advantage at 29.11ppm, with the MG TF second at 30.25ppm and the MX-5 looking pricey at 32.36.
However, it is possible to choose a less expensive MX-5 with similar performance, but without the six-speed gearbox and some of the toys. The differences in each car's P11d price is emphasised when it comes to working out benefit-in-kind tax liability, with the costliest car performing poorly.
A 22% tax-payer could expect to pay £88 per month for the rest of this tax year in the Mazda, compared with £67 for a similar driver in the MG TF, and £59 for a driver in the Toyota.
After a convincing victory in the running costs battle, it comes down to deciding if the MR2 is as easy to live with on a day-to-day basis as its two rivals.
Still going strong after 13 years, the cute MX-5 rekindled interest in affordable roadsters. Perhaps the easiest to live with of our trio on a daily basis
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £17,815
CO2 emissions (g/km): 215
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 27%
Graduated VED rate: £160
Insurance group: 13
Combined mpg: 31.7
CAP Monitor residual value: £7,075/40%
Depreciation (17.05 pence per mile x 60,000): £10,230
Maintenance (2.50 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,500
Fuel (12.81 pence per mile x 60,000): £7,686
Wholelife cost (32.36 pence per mile x 60,000): £19,416
Typical contract hire rate: £360 per month
Following on from the sector's top seller, the MGF, the TF is more rewarding to drive. Mid-engined layout and rear-wheel drive ensures excellent road holding
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £17,325
CO2 emissions (g/km): 184
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 20%
Graduated VED rate: £160
Insurance group: 12
Combined mpg: 35.6
CAP Monitor residual value: £6,850/40%
Depreciation (16.91 pence per mile x 60,000): £10,146
Maintenance (2.62 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,572
Fuel (10.72 pence per mile x 60,000): £6,432
Wholelife cost (30.25 pence per mile x 60,000): £18,150
Typical contract hire rate: £337 per month
You may not like the way it looks but you can't deny the fact that this car is a blast to drive. Revvy engine and fantastic gearbox, although not the most practical to live with
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £16,830
CO2 emissions (g/km): 178
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 19%
Graduated VED rate: £145
Insurance group: 13
Combined mpg: 38.2
CAP Monitor residual value: £6,800/40%
Depreciation (16.04 pence per mile x 60,000): £9,624
Maintenance (3.08 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,848
Fuel (9.99 pence per mile x 60,000): £5,994
Wholelife cost (29.11 pence per mile x 60,000): £17,466
Typical contract hire rate: £351 per month
Mazda MX-5 1.8i Sport
MAZDA certainly hit the nail right on the head when it launched the MX-5 back in 1990, blending pretty styling with a fairly practical offering and fault-free Japanese mechanicals.
The recipe obviously works because the MX-5 is still going strong and the 1.8i Sport version tested has everything that a driver would want.
The styling is cute without being too much of a pastiche of 1960s roadsters while the interior is well put together and well packaged. There's even a fairly decent sized boot to stow away enough soft luggage for a weekend away.
Behind the wheel the simple formula continues: a chunky three-spoke steering wheel, chrome-rimmed instruments, four old-fashioned circular air vents and a neat binnacle housing the stereo and climate control functions, although the indicator stalks are oddly placed quite a way from the steering wheel, leaving you to reach for them. It's all very nice and accessible, much like the performance on offer. The 1.8-litre model delivers 144bhp and its easy revving nature means getting the most out of the MX-5 is simple.
Plant your right foot, use the tiny gearlever to go up through the six forward gears and that's about it. No fuss, just easy performance.
In isolation the Mazda is a fun car to drive but compared with its two rivals it lacks driver involvement. But for many people that is ideal. The MX-5 is a sports car that takes away any doubts you may have about choosing such a vehicle. It's as easy to drive as a Mazda2 and a driver will not have to lose as many of the practical touches.
However, a word of warning: if you are more than six foot tall, driving the Mazda could be an uncomfortable affair as my rather tall colleague found. To get 'comfortable' his knees were almost touching the dashboard and he had to take his shoes off to free up legroom.
MG TF 135
LAST year Fleet News ran an MG TF as a long-term test car and throughout the summer months it was a car very much in demand for sunny weekends. With the roof down it was ideal and in 160bhp trim it had the power to go with its muscular looks.
So when the 135bhp version of the MG TF arrived, I wasn't expecting it to be as much fun to drive at its higher-powered stablemate.
But it is, and there is not much difference in performance between the two. Both have the same heavy feel, meaning the driver has to work at driving: the clutch pedal is fairly heavy, the steering weighted to offer plenty of feedback and the gearbox needs a positive effort to get it into the next ratio.
But once you get the 1.8-litre engine spinning up towards its red line it really starts to shift. This is old school roadster motoring and is the polar opposite of the easy-to-access Mazda.
And being mid-engined and rear-wheel drive, the MG sticks like a limpet to the Tarmac and only extreme provocation will get the rear end out of line. But while the MG scores highly for driver satisfaction, the interior doesn't, feeling dated and something of an afterthought.
Granted, this is an old car now and MG Rover is directing its investment to more core volume-selling models, but some of the minor irritations would surely be easy to fix.
For example, the stereo system is an aftermarket unit with buttons the size of a Tic Tac, making using it incredibly fiddly. Also, the key and fob are bulky and dated. The cabin as a whole is also cramped, both in terms of leg and shoulder room. These irritations aside, the MG offers a real driver's car for a reasonable price, although ABS brakes should be standard equipment at this level.
Toyota MR2 1.8 VVT-I
SOMETIMES figures can be deceiving. Glancing through the press packs that accompanied out test car trio, the Toyota gave no indication of how quick it would be. But once on the open road those figures were soon forgotten because the MR2 is a fantastic car to drive.
Its lightweight, rev-happy VVTi engine and a six-speed gearbox (the best unit I have encountered this side of a Honda S2000) come together to offer what can best be described as a grown-up go-kart.
You instantly feel part of the Toyota from the moment you dip the nicely weighted clutch to the time you first stir the cogs in that fine six-speed gearbox. Floor the throttle and the engine barks into life and carries on singing until the rev counter needle is buried deep into 7,000rpm territory. Then it's simply a case of a flick of the wrist and you have changed up a gear and can repeat the process all over again.
The driving experience in the Toyota is first rate and it also performs well in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and fuel economy.
But the Toyota has a few downsides. Our test car's hood proved unwilling to latch back up into place, although this may have been due to it being squashed down for a time beneath the optional hard top which was fitted.
While we're on minus points, the interior is also a disappointment. Some of the plastics used on the dashboard feel incredibly flimsy and I would question their longevity. And the general layout of the cabin is messy in comparison with the neat design of the Mazda, with buttons dotted around the fascia.
As for boot space, forget it. The MR2 has the tiniest boot of our test trio with room for perhaps one soft bag only. But on the plus side, interior space is the best of the bunch and our tallest two road testers managed to get comfortable behind the wheel.
WITH a clear victory in running costs, allied to being the best car of this trio to drive, the Toyota MR2 wins this contest. However, even in this sector it suffers in terms of practicality with very little luggage space. The MG takes second place, combining a fun drive with a good wholelife cost performance. The MX-5 is too thirsty and too expensive to win here, although a lower-spec model might have made a better challenge.