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2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata Review [Video]
Mazda's sports car has all of the virtues and none of the vices of the original Miata
By Derek Kreindler, Photography by Chris Blanchette, Video by Michael Nardi, Jun. 30, 2011

It’s been a long time since a car has made us spontaneously giggle like an excited child, but the Mazda MX-5 managed to evoke that reaction within 15 seconds of climbing in the driver’s seat. Having spent time in previous iterations, we approached the newest MX-5 with some ambivalence.

FAST FACTS

1. Powered by a 2.0L 4-Cyl the MX-5 makes 167-hp, 51-hp more than the original.

2. The current MX-5 with a PRHT weighs 5,560 lbs, just 240 lbs more than a first-gen 1997 model.

3. MX-5 models start at $23,110 and jump to $27,150 for the hard-top. Compare that to the original, with an MSRP of under $14,000 back in 1989.

The first and second generation Miatas (as the MX-5 was previously known) are legendary for their nimble chassis, superlative shifters and no-frills open-air motoring. By modern standards, the previous cars are varying degrees of crude, with less-than-stellar highway manners, a compact cabin and a somewhat dated feel.

On the other hand, the Miata’s drawbacks undeniably lend it much of its charm, and the newest MX-5, with its power folding hardtop, relatively plush interior and torquey 2.0L engine is undeniably improved. The question is, does it come at the expense of the original car’s essence?

ALL THAT’S GOOD ABOUT THE ORIGINAL, PLUS SOME

If you ask us, we can unequivocally say that the MX-5 is a triumph, and is a rightful heir to the Miata’s lineage. Rather than being a diluted, super-sized caricature of its former self, the MX-5 takes all of the old car’s weaknesses and buttresses them. Gone is the rough, gutless economy car engine, replaced by a growling 2.0L four-banger making 167 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque.

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A 6-speed manual gearbox is an option on certain models (and fitted on our test car in place of a 5-speed stick or a 6-speed automatic gearbox). While the shifter retains the same tight, precise feel as the original car, the MX-5’s clutch is trickier to operate, owing to a much lighter flywheel that allows for rapid clutch engagement, quicker shifts and a much freer-revving feel than its humble roots would suggest.

We couldn’t verify the car’s claimed 0-60 time of roughly 7 seconds, but the MX-5 certainly feels much faster. It may not look impressive on paper, but for everyday situations, the MX-5’s grunt is more than adequate. Fuel economy for the MX-5 was less than impressive – although officially rated at 22 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, if you’re driving this car like it’s meant to be driven, it will be impossible to hit those numbers.

Straight-line performance isn’t the only leap forward that the MX-5 has made. With big 18-inch wheels, sticky tires, Bilstein dampers and a limited-slip differential, the MX-5 feels just as nimble as the original car, but the overall experience is markedly different. Rather than the low-down, flickable cornering style of the Miata (which also happened to be plagued with substantial body roll and insufficient grip from the stock tires) the MX-5 feels much more planted and stable, yet can hardly be called boring.

On the highway, the MX-5 feel much easier to manage, owing to its wider track and more relaxed engine (we were spinning about 3200 rpm in 6th gear at 75 mph versus over 4000 rpm in the old car).

If the Miata channeled British roadsters like the MGB and Lotus Elan, the MX-5 is much more in the vein of a BMW Z4 or Honda S2000. British journalist Jeremy Clarkson once remarked that the MX-5 “feels more alive at 30 mph than most cars do at 100” and we’d be hard pressed to come up with a better summary. While other cars concentrate on power, technology and luxury, the MX-5 delivers exactly what you need to get a thrill behind the wheel. It may not be the fastest sports car out there, but that’s exactly the point – you don’t need to break the law to enjoy yourself.

Amazingly, the MX-5 weighs just 240 lbs more than a 1997 MX-5 (a first generation car with flip-up headlights), for a total of 2560 lbs. For reference, today’s Honda Civic Si weighs in at roughly 3000 lbs, making the Miata one of the few lightweight sports cars available for sale today, and the lack of mass is one of the big factors behind its amazing handling.

How Mazda managed to achieve this is beyond our comprehension as our MX-5 has all the modern safety features and crash protection that the Miata doesn’t, plus equipment like leather seats, the aforementioned 18-inch wheels, a Bose sound system and the power folding hard top. Dubbed the PRHT (Power Retractable Hardtop) by Mazda, the PRHT weighs only 80 pounds more than the soft top (also available) and takes up no trunk space. Instead, the PRHT neatly folds onto a shelf aft of the two seats, although the folded structure is somewhat visible, rather than covered over like higher-end vehicles with retractable hardtops.

The top’s operation is refreshingly simple, with only one latch and one button needed to raise or lower the roof. We noticed a couple minor quirks, ranging from the mundane (the vehicle must be stationary for the top to be operational) to the pedantic (the vehicle can’t be in gear when raising or lowering the roof).

STILL ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

The MX-5’s interior isn’t what we’d call luxurious, but it’s far from cheap. Most of the materials are above average, and we found the leather seats a bit too plush for our liking. While they appear to be decently bolstered, we found they have little support and can become tiring on long drives – one trait that the MX-5 shares with the original car, albeit not a positive one. The Bose stereo is another letdown, sounding washed out and tinny despite the fancy brand name. A big part of top-down driving is being able to enjoy your favorite music, and the MX-5 failed us here.

Similarly, the MX-5’s styling is a little too goofy for a car with such driving prowess. The Miata has suffered from being labeled a chick car (and other unprintable epithets), and while the new version is larger and more muscular, those traits are diminished by Mazda’s signature “smiley face” front end. Besides, this kind of aesthetic is the opposite direction that Mazda should be taking, especially given the Miata’s classic, British-inspired lines.

THE VERDICT

Despite our superficial qualms, the MX-5 is just as good a drive as the original Miata that launched back in 1990, and represents a wonderful example of how a car can evolve with the times and not lose any of its magic. The current generation of the MX-5 isn’t slated to last long, and rumors surrounding the new version state that it will be lighter still, possibly lighter than the Miata of 20 years ago. For now, the MX-5 occupies a strange niche, not comparable to the Chevrolet Camaro or Ford Mustang Convertible and a much less hardcore than something like a Lotus Elise. The BMW Z4 or Mercedes-Benz SLK might measure up dynamically, but nobody would dream of cross-shopping a German luxury roadster with the MX-5.

Instead, the MX-5 occupies a singular niche as a new car that privileges driving pleasure above all else, and succeeds without any serious compromises. Sure, it would never suffice as a family car, but the MX-5 is perfectly livable as a daily driver, and at $31,720 for our fully loaded test vehicle, fairly reasonable for one of the all-time great sports cars.

On the other hand, the MX-5 is the kind of car that attracts a certain kind of buyer – one that has already made up their mind. Anyone dismissing this car due to prejudices about its supposedly less-than-macho demographic won’t be convinced no matter what. What a pity.

LOVE IT
  • You won’t find a sweeter handling car for under $50,000
  • Retractable hard-top is a gem
  • Just like the original, but greatly improved
LEAVE IT
  • Stupid looking front end
  • Mileage is subpar for a four cylinder
  • Stereo is dismal

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