Way back in the dark ages (1971), I was a sophomore in college looking for my first new car. All my buddies were into the cars like Mustangs, Barracudas and Camaros. I, on the other hand, was not into straight line performance. I wanted a car that could handle turns and had m heart set on a small, rag top, British sports car, like a Triumph TR-6, or an MGB.
|1. Power Retractable Hard Top models start at $26,850.
2. All MX-5 Miata’s are powered by the same 2.0-liter engine which makes 167-hp with the six-seed manual and slightly less with the auto-box.
3. Along with incredible cornering abilities, the MX-5 gets 21/28 mpg (city/hwy) and can hit 60 mph in 6.9 seconds.
Unfortunately, this was to be a “matching funds” deal, with my father kicking in the other 50 percent of the purchase price. He absolutely forbade me from buying a car that had a proven track record for being mechanically unreliable, and that would be impractical for hauling my stuff back and forth from college.
My brain told me that he was right, but who the hell wants to buy their first new car based on logic instead of emotion? In the interest of fairness, however, he did say that I could take my half of the money and buy as much of an MGB or TR-6 as I could afford.
But several years later, when I was on my own, I got back at him buy buying a new Jaguar XJ-12. And karma got back at me as I got my full share of British Lucas electronic glitches, like having the wipers go on every time I switched on the headlights, and having the radio station change whenever I used the horn.
In the first 6 months of ownership, I put more miles on the dealer’s loaner than the Jag. Fortunately, after parking it in the lot at work one day, something in the engine compartment spontaneously burst into flames, and by the time the fire department arrived, the car was totaled. To his credit, my Dad never mentioned the incident to me.
Soon after my brush with buying a small British sportscar, both MG and Triumph faded into automotive history, leaving a void in that niche of the marketplace. Then in 1988 the little Japanese car company, Mazda, introduced the Miata, and the tradition of the small, nimble, British roadster was reborn. This time, however, the car would have all the outstanding attributes of the old MG’s and Triumphs, but without the nagging problems of reliability. In short, a star was born.
KNOWN FOR ITS HANDLING, THE MX-5 IS NO STRAIGHT-LINE SLOUCH
The Miata has undergone many changes and updates in the last 21 years, and recently I had the chance to spend a week with the current top of the line PRHT (Power Retractable Hard Top) model in Grand Touring trim.
Despite a fancy lineup of press testers as of late, I have to say it was hard to give this little fun machine back at week’s end. It has everything you want in a small, relatively inexpensive roadster.
The Miata is powered by a peaky 2.0-liter, inline-4 engine that puts out 167-hp and 150 ft-lbs of torque. That may not sound like very much, but the engine only has to push around 2,593 pounds, so acceleration is brisk all the way up to the 7200 rpm redline, especially when mated to the outstanding 6-speed manual transmission.
The clutch action is light and the short throw gearbox is as precise as a Seiko watch.
Together, they make it easy to tackle a set of twisties so that you can keep the engine in the right gear and rev range for powering through each turn. And the Miata feels even quicker than the 6.9 seconds to 60 from a standing stop.
One complaint is that the exhaust note is too muted even under hard acceleration. For 2010 Mazda has implemented a new Induction Sound Enhancer (ISE) to accentuate the air intake sound, and while that improvement is a step in the right direction, I’d still like to hear a little more character dialed into the exhaust side.
TIGHT SUSPENSION AND CHASSIS, BUT STILL A COMFORTABLE RIDE
Steering is light, direct and responsive, thanks in part to the revised shock and spring rates. With a nearly perfect 50/50 front to rear weight distribution, the Miata rails around tight turns like a go-kart, with very little lean or pitch. The test car also came with the $500 optional Suspension Package including the Bilstein shocks and limited slip differential. A set of 17-inch aluminum wheels shod with low profile 205/45/17 tires provide excellent grip, and there’s always the Dynamic Stability Control in case you get in over your head in reduced traction conditions. And you can switch off that feature for those times when you want to let the rear end slip out. The ABS brakes work well to stop the car, and with excellent feedback from the pedal, as a good sports car should have.
The ride quality is firm but never harsh and is comfortable enough to drive all day if you’re so inclined. And one thing that really impressed me is how solid it feels. There is virtually no cowl shake over even the worst potholes or railroad crossings. I couldn’t say the same for the BMW 1-Series convertible.
FITTED AND WELL-LAID-OUT INTERIOR
One look at the Miata will tell you that the cabin won’t be spacious. If you played anything other than guard on your high school basketball team, this may not be the car for you. But for those of us of average height, (or below) you won’t find the interior claustrophobic. What you will find is one of the best laid out cabins in the industry.
All the center stack audio and heating controls are easy to see, use and understand. A redundant set of audio and phone controls are located on the left side of the leather wrapped, 3-spoke steering wheel, with the cruise controls on the right. The Grand Touring model comes with soft heated leather seats, which are comfortable and supportive, without being tight and confining. The gauges are well lit at night and easy to read. An LED screen provides trip information and average mileage numbers, which were accurate for 21 mpg city and 28 highway.
The Bose sound system was excellent, with an in-dash 6-CD changer, XM radio, and input jack for your iPod. And you needn’t crank up the volume, as the cabin remains fairly quiet with the top and windows down. There is a pop-up wind deflector between the seats but I could discern no difference with it up or down. With the windows up, there is very little windblast, so driving with the top down, and heated seats turned on will make it easy to enjoy top down driving on cooler days in the spring and fall. And the retractable hard top goes completely up or down in a mere 12 seconds, which I learned while getting caught in a sudden summer shower.
With the car being as small as it is, I don’t think the retractable hardtop takes up much more space in the trunk than the available soft top, but in either case, trunk space is small. Two people can pack enough for a long weekend, as long as one of those people isn’t my wife. (Did I say that out loud?)
CARTOONISH DESIGN APPEALING TO ALL
The exterior design looks like it might have been penned by the Pixar animation studios. The upturned front grill and flush mounted headlights gives the front end a smiley face look – not girly, but genial. The front wheel wells are flared out and there is a power bulge on the aluminum hood to butch it up a little. The Miata gives off a friendly vibe, and it seems everyone from little kids to senior citizens likes the styling – and more than a few people flashed a thumbs up at me when driving, or said, “nice car” to me in parking lots or at stop lights.
The Grand Touring model comes with a long list of standard safety features and amenities aside from what has been mentioned above, including power door locks and windows, keyless entry, heated leather seats, a leather shift knob and steering wheel, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with Homelink, foglamps, tire pressure monitors, dual front and side airbags and more.
All Miata’s share the same engine, but when equipped with automatic transmission, the power output is a bit less. The base Miata SV starts at $22,810 with a 5-speed manual tranny and soft manual cloth top. The top of the line Grand Touring PRHT (Power Retractable Hard Top) model I tested starts at $28,1250. Add on another $500 for the Suspension Package, and $1,550 for the Premium Package which includes a Bluetooth phone system, Advanced keyless entry, Xenon Headlights, Dynamic Stability Control, and Satellite radio and you’re looking #31,0000-plus
For over two decades the Mazda Miata has been winning awards and accolades from the automotive press, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an outstanding example of a simple, yet technologically advanced sports car, with enough power and excellent handling to give you more smiles per dollar than pretty much any other car on he market. It’s everything a British sports car should be, only with Japanese parentage.