On The Road Review: Mazda Miata

In 1989, a small Japanese car company went to the Chicago Auto Show with a diminutive roadster, a little speedster that set enthusiast drivers’ hearts aflutter. After years of rumors and spy photos, the Mazda MX-5 Miata was on full display and ready for sale.

Unlike other small cars of the time, the Miata was a rear-drive vehicle — a compact two-seater with an economical four-cylinder engine mounted up front. But unlike the small roadsters that the marketplace was used to, cars such as the Triumph Spitfire, MG Midget, Lotus Elan and Fiat Spyder, the Miata was solidly built, economical to buy and vastly more reliable. The buying public embraced the Miata with glee, while aggressive dealers added extra profit margin onto waiting lists of purchasers.

Fast forward 22 years and the Miata has outlasted all of its small rivals. Look around the landscape. There is no Toyota offering like the Miata, nothing from Honda, nothing from Ford or Chevy, and nothing in this price range from any other automaker. Some shoppers might consider a VW Beetle convertible or a Mini Cooper fine niche products themselves, but dynamically not at all like the Miata.

You will have to visit an Audi, Nissan, BMW or Porsche dealer to find another sports car that has similar characteristics to the Miata — plus pay thousands more to find the same level of competence that Mazda has continuously endowed on the Miata.

From the beginning the Miata has been much more than a spiritual successor to the British sports cars it is modeled after. With much of the Miata’s initial development taking place in California, the Miata had to be a lightweight car that was both easy to drive but ultra-responsive. The first models tipped the scale at just over 2,100 pounds — a featherweight compared to today’s sports cars.

Today, the Miata is still one of the lightest cars sold at only 2,447 pounds in standard trim. Safety features, stiffer body structures and a larger engine have slightly increased the car’s weight, yet its road manners and handling remain just as adroit as ever.

This is the Miata’s strong suit. Delivering outstanding responsiveness from a fully independent chassis and direct-feeling steering, the Miata is a joy to hustle down the road — even if the speed limit is a meager 45 mph. A light clutch and the snick-snick nature of the close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox only add to the pleasure of zinging the 2.0-liter engine to redline. The steering is so quick in your hands; just a little effort initiates most turns. At low speeds, the Miata’s tiny 31-foot turning radius further reinforces the car’s agility.

Let the horses loose and the Miata can generate some serious speed, so any naysayers who think the Mazda isn’t a serious sports car should step aside. Chase a competent driver around a race track in the Miata and you’ll be amazed at how graceful, and how quick, this little two-seater can be.

Most Miata owners aren’t aiming to be Mario Andretti, but they like knowing that their little roadster is plenty capable when the itch strikes them. I dare say that the majority of Miata drivers are quite content with the top-down motoring aspect of their car.

For many of the Miata’s sales years it has been the best-selling convertible in America. While that number has waned over the past few years, (Mazda has sold almost 1 million Miatas worldwide since 1990) there is no escaping the allure of the top-down Miata on a summer night.

True to its roots, early Miatas came only with a quick release cloth top that you could literally throw over your shoulder in mere seconds. Currently, that well-engineered and space-efficient design (no trunk space is robbed by the roof when lowered) is still standard, while a power hard-top (our test car) is also available. Adding only 77 pounds, the three-piece hard-top scissors its way into the rear boot after you release one latch on the windshield header. In about 12 seconds the top is stored and you’re ready for fresh air, as no tonneau cover is necessary.

When in place, the lined hard-top makes the cabin quieter. The color-matched roof panels also give the car’s sleek lines a distinctive presence that isn’t necessarily better — just different — from the normal contrasting color cloth top.

The Miata is probably the best of all convertibles at limiting in-cabin air turbulence. A small windbreak between the headrests certainly helps control wind flow around your shoulders, but the car’s size most likely contributes to this success, too. For devoted owners, this virtue most definitely extends your top-down driving season.

As you might expect the Miata’s cabin is snug. There is some small article storage in the doors and console, and the seats readily accept 6-foot-tall occupants without stress, yet the cabin is narrow and some might view their Miata experience more as “wearing the car” than riding in it. Instrumentation is crisply displayed, plus Mazda has made more features standard in recent years.

My wish list for changes is short. The manually adjustable driver’s seat could be a bit larger and offer more lateral support, but I suppose in the name of value and price, the current edition has served most buyers well enough. I liked the Miata’s Sirius satellite radio-equipped stereo (the Sirius signal is so much stronger here than XM), but you must twist the knob face 10 revolutions to get meaningful volume changes.

I have always felt that Mazda needed to offer a second, optional powerplant for the Miata. I doubt most buyers need more power a d the car does very well with its available power now b t after you have bought your Miata, or owned two or three, what do you aspire to? A different color paint scheme, a commemorative badge edition? How about a boost in power, say another 40-50-horsepower with a like-minded boost in torque? Wouldn’t that make for a more exciting Miata, a real hot-rod roadster that could challenge Audi TTs, Nissan 370-Zs and BMW Z-4s? Mazda already makes an excellent force fed 2.3-liter Mazdaspeed 3 package that features a whopping 263 p. Hitched to the Mazda’s adroit chassis, that would be a seriously fun package.

Maybe Mazda’s engineers are reluctant to exploit this added power. Maybe they don’t want to upset the almost perfect 50/50 weight balance of the Miata. Maybe they just need the green light to make more money for a car company that has been neglecting its halo car.

Despite having a ball exercising the Miata for a week, I was just as impressed by the Mazda’s fuel efficiency as any other attribute. The faster I used the Miata, the better its mileage got, returning a weeklong average of 29 mpg. That’s one mile per gallon better than the EPA estimate. Unfortunately, Mazda recommends premium fuel for best results.

The Miata may be the industry’s purest product. It has never wavered from its intentions and continues to bring smiles to people’s faces. It is excellence personified.

Just the Facts: Mazda Miata

Mazda Miata pricing starts at $23,110 for the base Sport model with a five-speed manual gearbox. With an automatic, and some other features, the price rises to $25,370. The popular Touring model with six-speed manual starts at $25,450 while a Grand Touring begins at $27,810. PHRT special edition w/manual (tested) lists for $31,720.

Miata measures 157.3 inches long on a tiny 91.7-inch wheelbase. Base weight is 2,447 pounds and the low-speed turning radius is one of the smallest of all cars: 30.8-feet. The Miata is built in Hiroshima, Japan.

Power comes from a 2.0-liter inline four with variable valve timing. Output is 167 hp @ 7,000 rpms and 158 pound/feet of peak torque produced @ 5,000 rpms.

Physically, the original BMW Z3 is closest dimensionally to the Miata.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.