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2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata Review
Real World Shifter-Kart
By Eric Eikenberry, Jun. 23, 2009

Few things are as enjoyable for a driving enthusiast as complete and utter vehicle control. No obstructions to vision. No handling detriments to overcome with tuning and trick parts. No assaults on the undiluted thrill of driving. If you count yourself among the ranks of the pure enthusiasts, to whom a Sunday drive means “mountain curves” then the Mazda MX-5 is for you.

FAST FACTS

1. The MX-5 Miata is priced from $22,420, with a Power Retractable Hard Top (PRHT) model stating at $26,060

2. Just one engine is offered, a 167hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder.

3. Fuel economy is good for a sportscar at 22/28 mpg (city/hwy) for the 5-speed or 21/28 mpg for the 6-speed.

4. MazdaSpeed springs, shocks, strut bars and interior accessories are available to help personalize your MX-5.

PRECISION STEERING

It is somewhat surprising that companies still have issues with proper steering geometry. There’s a near-magical combination of camber, caster, and toe which, when combined with an appropriately sized tire, results in remarkable steering precision. The MX-5 evidently incorporates this magic.

The nicely-sized steering wheel transmits accurate and intelligent feedback directly to your fingertips. Toss in 245/45/17 tires, which resist instability and the “nervousness” typical on grooved concrete freeways, and the result is a chassis which goes where it’s pointed.

The available “torque-sensing super limited-slip” (Mazda’s words, not ours) rear differential applies power to both wheels evenly when cornering. This pushes the nose slightly, but just a touch on the steering corrects it instantly. Mazda turned to Bilstein for the shocks for their “sport suspension” package with terrific results. It is undoubtedly biased more to the “sport” side of the equation, with the short wheelbase creating a bit of hop over freeway joints, but when the road is twisty, the shocks are stellar. Body motion is perfectly controlled, enabling 8/10ths drivers to accurately place the car anywhere in the road. Hard cornering does produce noticeable body roll, but it moves slowly and smoothly; very confidence-enhancing in demeanor.

The MX-5 is small compared to nearly everything else on the road. And with only cloth separating you from the elements (a hard-top model is also offered), road noise is always present. If you’re seeking freedom from the dreaded NVH demon, a convertible won’t be your cup of tea. With the top up, the engine’s exhaust note is muted, leaving only a bit of buzzy resonance from the front echoing inside. Toss it down at a stop light (one button, one pull on a latch and hello sunshine) and the audible character changes completely. A deeper, fuller note helps to cancel the buzzy sound, filling in the “holes.” It’ll make you believe you really are in a sports car.

PRECISION CONSTRUCTION

There’s only a touch of cowl shake, visible in a slight side-to-side movement in the rear view mirror when the top’s down, but overall, the chassis feels very stiff. The fit and finish of the interior panels is tight. Gaps are small, even where plastic panels meet. Front and rear overhangs are short, and, when driving, you can really tell that Mazda paid more than just lip service to the placement of the car’s mass near the center. It feels as if the car rotates around you. In fact, it’s possible to turn the car so quickly and so fast that the G force will give you a touch of vertigo. This is very much in line with the feel of a “shifter kart,” except the MX-5 is a full-size, street-legal automobile.

And when it comes to shifting the MX-5 has one of the best sticks in the business. While a five-speed manual is standard, every trim level but the base comes with a six-speed manual to really help the 167hp four-cylinder feel much more potent. There is also an optional six-speed automatic.

PRECISION SIZE

The price for spunky performance and superlative handling is a decided lack of interior or trunk space. You can get two small suitcases, a guitar-packed gig bag (forget a hard shell case), a laptop case, and a dinky cooler full of soft drinks inside the MX-5, but forget about bringing a passenger. If you have a “family vehicle” and want something fun as a “decompression chamber” for yourself or the missus, this is about the best device ever invented. It’s a weekender that can be used as a commuter vehicle even in the worst metropolitan congestion. We suppose a motorcycle might offer superior freedom, but the exposure to the elements would seem like riding horseback compared to the heated leather seats, all-glass side and rear windows, and foot-warming automatic climate control the Grand Touring model offers. There are cup cubbies, wallet cubbies, a locking “purse hole” between the seats, and a sizeable glove box, but no under seat room at all.

With two normal folks in the car, elbows might rub on the narrow armrest over the center tunnel. And the Bose audio system is indecipherable at freeway speeds with the top down. Still, having the in-dash six-CD changer and Sirius satellite radio would be useful for moments stuck in traffic during a commute.

THE VERDICT

Does it offer the speed and refinement of a Porsche 911 or Boxster? Does it offer the aural essence of a Ferrari? No, and no again. Does it cost tens of thousands of dollars less? Yes. Does it capture the spectacular thrill that driving a performance car can and should personify? Undoubtedly!

No vehicle is perfect of course, nor will one ever be. This MX-5, however, at an affordable price point for the Sport model, and a few beans more for the leather-appointed Grand Touring, offers an undiluted opportunity for an owner to have everything a driver needs at just a flick of the wheel, a stab at the gas or a touch of the brake away. Stellar driving dynamics, good fuel efficiency and ULEV emissions status wrapped in an attractively-proportioned top-down al fresca environ. It’s the best-selling convertible (series) ever made and a serious contender in its class. Mazda must be on to something.

PLUS
  • The MX-5 goes where it's pointed. Period.
  • Remarkable agility draws comparisons to shifter karts.
  • Surprisingly fast for a 167hp.
MINUS
  • With small size comes… well, nothing. And not a lot of room to carry it either.
  • Lackadaisical acceleration above 6200 rpm ruins some of the thrashing fun.
  • Bose system astoundingly incapable of any clarity at freeway speeds