Apparently Mazda’s MX-5 Miata is the friendliest car in the world, because everywhere I went in it people were asking me questions about it.
|1. Base “Sport” trim has soft top, five-speed manual for $24,515.
2. “Club” model brings six-speed manual, costs $27,700.
3. “Grand Touring” model with retractable hard top costs $30,245 (also with manual).
4. Automatic costs between $600 and $1,100 depending on model.
5. Officially rated at 21 MPG City, 28 highway, 24 combined with 6-speed stick.
I stopped at the local pool supply store, put the retractable hardtop up so nobody would steal my $5 travel mug, and some random dude loading pool chemicals into his beat up F150 looked over and said, “Nice car, brother. Looks like fun!” I nodded and said, “Yeah, it really is.”
Later that same day, I was picking up lunch for my wife and I and an 75-year old man in a John Deer cap stopped me as I was heading into the restaurant to ask how many revs it pulls at 70 mph, because his first generation Miata pulled 4,000 rpm on the highway and that was a bit high for his taste. I explained that this one has a 6-speed transmission and only pulls a bit over 3,000 rpm on the highway, which appeared to blow his mind. Or he had a stroke.
The next day I was running around town taking some photographs of the MX-5 and found a quiet side road I thought would be perfect for a shot or two. Turns out the house at the end of the street was having some renovations done, meaning there was a constant stream of contractors driving by in their big, manly cargo vans and diesel dually trucks. On three different occasions, these hard working blue-collar types who you’d expect to be more into Mustangs than Miatas, stopped to ask about the car while I was setting up my camera gear. And not one of them asked if I was a hairdresser.
All of which has led me to conclude that only snarky “car guys” take issue with the MX-5’s cheerful disposition and label it a “girly car.” Real driving enthusiasts and racers know how awesome these little roadster are at dodging cones and turning hot laps, a truth driven home by the fact that there are more Mazdas raced in the United States than any other brand, thanks in large part to the popularity of Spec Miata and the Playboy MX-5 Cup. Add to that all the spontaneous discussions this attractive little drop-top generated during my week with it, and it became abundantly clear to me that that John Q Public absolutely loves it.
NOT A RACE CAR, BUT A DAMN FINE ROAD CAR
The last time I drove a MX-5 was during the 25 Hours of Thunderhill endurance race, in a fully prepped Cup car. In fact, I don’t think I’ve driven a current generation Miata until this test drive, so although I knew that in race-prepped condition it’s an immensely capable machine that generates huge cornering grip and has a bulletproof engine, I really wasn’t too sure what to expect from the street-going version.
What I discovered is that the MX-5 is tuned more with driving pleasure in mind, rather than pursuing cornering power at the expense of ride quality. Instead of punishing me with a stiff and jarring ride, the MX-5’s suspension tuning is surprisingly supple, soaking up the bumps on the winding country roads I often found myself on. This meant I was able to relax and enjoy the top-down views, rather than having to hold on tight like I would in a more stiffly sprung machine.
It would be very easy for a small, lightweight and relatively short wheelbase roadster like the MX-5 to feel very busy on the road if it was damped and sprung more aggressively, so my suspicion is that Mazda has kept the MX-5 a bit on the soft side in order to deliver a civilized ride quality on the kinds of fun but rough country roads its owners likely gravitate towards (or at least I did). And in this environment, the MX-5’s suspension tuning is spot on.
The MX-5 also proved to be a truly enjoyable runabout around town. Every parking spot is instantly bigger. With the top down there’s no blind spots, and the panoramic view makes for excellent cougar watching. Or if eavesdropping on teenagers waiting at the crosswalk is more your speed, I did overhear quite a lot of interesting chatter and only once heard the word “Bieber.”
And because you’re exposed to the elements and the rest of the road-going public in a small, low-slung and friendly-looking convertible like the Miata, I found myself replying to “Hellos” from cyclists and hikers that I would otherwise have had zero contact with. You really do experience the world in a different way in a drop-top sports car. I’ve never ridden a motorbike on public roads, but I’d imagine it’s a similar feeling, except without the constant threat of death or dismemberment.
The MX-5 is also highly efficient at dispatching lazy road-goers, thanks to its light and nimble character combined with a punchy 2.0-liter four-banger that pumps out a respectable 167 hp. It’s quick if not outright fast (0-60 mph is achieved in 6.1-seconds), but I actually found myself driving slower than I normally do, because with the top down and the sun shining, I was taking in all the sights and sounds (and smells) that I’d normally miss out on. I even installed my two-year-old son’s seat in the passenger seat so he could experience the pleasures of open-air motoring with me.
CAPABLE TRACK DAY TOY
Although the MX-5 wasn’t as quick around our local test track as a Scion FR-S (over two seconds slower, in fact), it does deliver similar levels of driving enjoyment thanks to its classic front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout. With stability control turned off and the track soaked by a rainstorm, the Miata proved to be a full-on laugh-riot of easily controlled drifts, a testament to the chassis’s superb balance (51/49 weight distribution). And once the track dried up, it also produced impressive amounts of grip in the corners, despite having quite a lot of body roll.
The brakes held up well, providing predictable stopping power lap after lap, and the steering had Mazda’s trademark speed and precision. And as you’d expect from a lightweight (2598 lbs) and short wheelbase sports car, there was very little understeer to contend with. The MX-5 rotates happily and predictably with just a bit of trail braking. So even though there’s more body motion than you might expect, it somehow doesn’t detract from the car’s ability to respond to your input or carry speed through the corners.
THE VERDICT: FUN AT ANY SPEED
For me, the take-home isn’t about the Mazda MX-5 Miata’s at-the-limit handling balance or the advantages of low mass and rear-wheel drive. Because lets face it, not too many Miata owners (or owners of any other type of sports car, for that matter) are going to drive their car at the limit around a racetrack. And frankly, although the MX-5 is a lot of fun around the track, it wouldn’t be my first pick as a weekend track toy priced over $30,000.
No, I fell in love with the MX-5 because it’s such a wonderful little road car. I’ll admit that sunny skies and mild temperatures contributed to my sense of enjoyment, but even on the cold and cloudy days I had it, I still found it to be a compelling package. It’s fast and fun around town when you want it to be, but it’s equally happy cruising lazily down a quiet country road. Sure, you can’t take the kids on a weekend getaway in it, but maybe that’s the point. The MX-5 is really the perfect escape for busy people who want to breathe a little fresh air and look at the world from a different and totally refreshing perspective.