2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata Review: Ooh-Ooh What a Feeling

Have you ever wondered why there are so many romantic comedies in the world?

Hollywood has a seemingly endless supply of money for movies that focus on beautiful people falling in love. There are, of course, a number of reasons why—we love to look at beautiful people, joy is a fun thing to observe, we’re all pretty literate in the tropes that make a good romantic comedy work, etc—but the one I want to cherry pick to make a point is that love is a feeling and feelings are really, really, really, very hard to describe but every time we try, we succeed at describing a minutely different part of the feeling, making other people feel the feeling in a fun way.

The same thing that makes love so fun to watch is what makes videos, stories, and media about sports and super cars fun to watch. And it’s why we never tire of seeing people try to explain their appeal. It’s an impossible task, but every time we try (if we do it well) then other people get to feel a spark of that joy. Let me tell you, few cars are as accomplished as the Mazda MX-5 at generating those feelings—the feeling of driving fast and flowingly and enjoyably—and the little bump in power it got for 2019 only makes it better.

Be Soft, Feel Feelings

The MX-5 is a soft car. Just like movies long told us that there’s only one way for love to happen—beautiful white people meet, butt heads, get put on a project together, give in to their mutual beauty—race cars have led us to believe that stiffer is better. The fact is, though, that stiff springs are best suited to high-downforce cars. With hundreds of pounds of rushing air pushing down on the car, you need stiff springs so that you aren’t hitting the bump stops constantly. Needless to say, a car that was upgraded to make a dizzying 181 hp at 7,000 rpm in 2019 and on which there are no aero elements, dealing with downforce isn’t a priority. On cars that depend on mechanical grip, a bit of looseness can be better.

Naturally, there’s a limit to everything and you don’t want a car to be flopping around in chicanes, feeling like it’s going to fall over. But there are times when a soft suspension can be charming. Of course, you’re expecting me to mention on real roads, with bumpy tarmac. And you’re not wrong. The MX-5 excels on the real road. This one is as base as they come. The only option box that was ticked was the Soul Red paint, which costs an extra $595 ($450 CAD). That means you don’t get the fancy strut tower bar, no sport suspension with Bilstein shocks, and no limited slip differential. And even though that stuff would be nice to have, even as a base model, the MX-5 is great. On a twisty bit of regular, ice-pocked, gravel-strewn, well-worn road, it’s just perfect. It turns in eagerly, hangs on tenaciously, and thanks to its lack of weight (it weighs just 2,341 lb, don’chano) it dances through corners.

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And it doesn’t abuse you. I can imagine driving it aggressively for hours and feeling just as excited for the last turn as I did for the first.

But the advantages of a softer suspension go farther than that. It means that you can feel what little weight there is to transfer, transferring. That adds to the experience of driving. It feels heroic and if you get into a good rhythm, through a long corner you can pitch the car in and let the weight pin the outermost wheel to the road. A lot of talk is dedicated to how the MX-5 is inspired by old British sports cars, and old British sports had soft suspensions. Just think of all those videos you’ve seen of front wheels cocked up in the air. Those cars were designed by racing engineers, and they weren’t idiots. They were working to get the most grip out of the technology they had at the time. Before downforce and huge power outputs (what does that remind you of?) cars had to be designed differently.

People talk about weight transfer like it’s something that should be avoided at all costs. You get the impression that engineers would prefer it if you drove a plank of wood, rather than a car. But really, the reason engineers want that is because they’re obsessive nerds who want their math to be cleaner and more repeatable. Weight transfer happens irrespective of whether or not you have a suspension, so better to let drivers feel it so that they can play with it. Tap the brake, let the nose dip and the front wheels weight up, feel the grip and in turn sweep into the corner, follow it around to the apex, tip into the throttle, feel the weight roll backwards over to the rear wheels, and slide into the torque curve, letting the rear, weighted wheels, drive you to the exit. It’s a dance, and a playful one at that.

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Finally, the car also breaks traction really predictably, not that that’s something I tested if any police officers or Mazda representatives are reading this… (You have to tell me before you read this, otherwise that’s entrapment.) I won’t pretend to know if that’s all down to suspension or thin tires, or the location of the engine, or the torque peaking at 4,000 rpm and the horsepower peaking at 7,000  rpm rather than waiting for you like a trap way down low in the rev range, but the result is an eminently approachable car.

Actually, Poster on the Office Wall, Limits Weren’t Made to Be Pushed

But if we’re being honest, “testing the limit” is like faking an orgasm in a diner—something that happens in the movies, but shouldn’t happen in real life. Even when you aren’t being a hooligan, even when you’re playing well within the limits or even just tootling around town, there’s something special about the MX-5.

One of my most memorable moments in my time with the Miata was when I wasn’t even moving at all. With the top down, the sun warming my shoulders, I sat at a light and a 5-year-old loudly said “Wowwwww, a race car!” to his dad. And you know what? I was right there with him. There’s something special about having the top down, about a car that just whisks you away quietly, calmly, gently when you want it to. A car that can make you feel lucky to be able to drive around town, soaking up bumps for you along the way. A car whose twin-cam inline four sounds nice, but isn’t loud about it. You start to feel like you’re in that car that you saw on billboard for that fashion brand, except that this one starts every time.

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My only real hesitation about it is my dad. The bugger went out and bought himself a 2004 BMW Z4. Now, the MX-5 is cheap, but an early aughts Z4 can be had in pretty good shape for less than ten grand. Sure, it weighs a little more (3,020 lbs) and the ride isn’t quite as soft, but it pulls on the highway a little better, and it has a manual, and the top goes down just as far, giving you that special feeling. I admit, the Z4’s interior looks a little bare these days, the MX-5’s interior is nothing to write home about and even with the top up it’s very loud on the highway. Sure, if something goes wrong, it’ll undoubtedly cost more to fix than the MX-5, but how often will that happen? How many miles does a roadster see in a year, really? Mostly they sit in a garage and fail to get rusty, while our SUVs and hatchbacks brave the really wearing stuff.

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Verdict: 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Really, though, what this question reveals is that there’s really nothing wrong with the MX-5, it’s just that there are options. It knows what it wants to be and isn’t trying to be anything else, just like that manic pixie dream girl from that movie that definitely isn’t problematic. (Oh no, does this metaphor play into exactly what’s problematic with the MPDG trope? Am I part of the problem?).

When I was in the MX-5, I truly couldn’t imagine wanting anything more. I was fully and wholly satisfied. If you want more, go for it. More power to you. But the MX-5 is so good that you should consider it whether your budget is $30,000 or $300,000 because those are numbers and sports cars aren’t about numbers. They’re about feelings. Just like that scrappy guy whose apartment is a mess—unlike that rich guy your family wants you to marry—the MX-5 just feels right. And if romantic comedies have taught me anything, it’s always go with the one who feels right, not the one numbers tell you is right.

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