Mazda Miata Review


Mazda Miata ReviewA long time ago from a country far, far away came open-top two-seat sports cars bearing now-forgotten names like MG, Triumph, and Lotus. They were frisky, affordable, and fetching, save for one minor detail: they shed parts like tabby cats shed hair. Not the most profitable, either. Few expected this segment to be revived (least of all by Mazda), but just before the sun set on 1989, along came this rolling Tylenol gelcap with made-in-Japan quality and a roadgoing personality so vivacious that it became "an extension of your body." It called itself Miata, a name that came to redefine "affordable sports car" and earn an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.

But 16 years is a little long for any car to stick around, and anyway, Mazda just invested a billion or two in that new RX-8 a couple years ago. So taking advantage of that, Mazda used its significantly newer and stiffer platform, fiddled with the parts a bit, chopped the top, and gave us a normal piston engine. Here we are with a newly modernized Miata - though its official new name is MX-5, much to the chagrin of the faithful.

Road TestMazda Miata Review
Yet Mazda has remained faithful to the car underneath. No matter how great a basis the RX-8 might make, engineers went to great lengths to preserve the Miata factor. Length, width, height, and wheelbase of 157.3, 67.7, 49, and 91.7 inches mark raises of only 2, 1.6, 0.7, and 2.5, ensuring the Miata remains short, squat, and skinny. Mazda also instated a glass ceiling of 2,500 pounds above all MX-5s' heads (they all made it), then sent in an army of OCD-infected engineers in to terrorize every possible ounce out of the equation. There were the major steps, like the new aluminum engine that cut 42 pounds, and the minor ones like turning the suspension's control arms to aluminum to save 5 pounds, hollowing out the stabilizer bar to save 5.3 pounds, thinning up the rearview mirror to save 0.2 pounds, etc. We're talking obsessive here.

But obsession applied properly can yield great results. First of all, nothing - I repeat, nothing - beats a topless, rear-drive minicar in the curves; it takes but one corner to sell you on the MX-5's natural agility. Wiggle the wheel any which way and the chassis keeps up, following every hand movement a microsecond later, rotating happily around its axis, never losing control and always keeping you informed of the road's subtleties. The new six-speed stick feels firm and definitive, and while Mazda's clutches range from horribly vague on the 6 to good-but-tricky on the RX-8, the third pedal on this MX-5 feels as stellar as the other two. Top it off with strong, short-stopping brakes and you've got a full array of controls that feel tight, light, and oh so right. Extension of your body? More like extension of your mind.

What's fun can also be practical. Being longer than exactly five cars (Cooper, Aveo, Insight, and two Scions) and shorter than the other 200-something, you can dart in and out of traffic, slide right into any parking space, and make tidy 30.8-foot-diameter U-turns in a sea of lumbering SUVs. However, driving with your head at the same altitude as some drivers' feet reminds you where you stand should push ever come to shove. Just remember: do unto others as you'd do to yourself, especially since others may drive Hummers.

Old school Miata owners have heard all this before, so let's get to the new. After living with 1.6 and 1.8-liter engines its whole life, the 2006 MX-5 now gets its grunt from the Mazda 3's zestfully revving 2.0-liter 4, boosted way up to 170 horsepower and 140 pounds-feet of torque - 28 and 15 more than before. These figures were brought to you in part by variable valve timing and the number 10.8 (the lofty new compression ratio), both of which optimize efficiency and kick the MX-5 to 60 MPH in 6.5 scant seconds, slaughtering the previous car by 1.0. And delivery is linear, not peaky. Normally we could call this free power, but all the technology and pressurization bumped this engine up into the Premium Fuel Required society, slicing a bit from the Miata's "affordable fun" quotient. Then again, when a car this enjoyable gets 32 miles to the gallon (as our sample did), it can guzzle Vodka for all I care.

But that's the thing about this new MX-5: it's coming of age and having greater ambitions thrust upon it. Look at those tires: P205/45R17 on 17-by-7-inch wheels. Insane. Indeed, the new MX-5 clings to the road with 0.90g of force by one source's testing (same as the Acura NSX), letting you enter corners waaay fast with minimal consequence. This will further please those who subscribe to our nation's grippier-is-better mentality with sports cars, and further disappoint those who believe lightweight roadsters should be about easy-sliding fun at low speeds. Oversteer can still be induced with a stab of the brakes (lifting off the throttle doesn't do the trick as easily), but you'll probably be going at least 40 MPH by then, and then it comes suddenly, which is a bit scary. Does the MX-5 hold the road too well? Choose your camp and celebrate/mourn.

Steering is another new item. My verdict is basically the same as for the system on Mazda's RX-8: excellent for an electro-hydraulic rack, good overall. The satisfying feel, weighting, and speed are kept from perfection only by a slight numbness in the straight-ahead position.

The rear suspension is also a bit new, switching from double wishbones (still retained in front) to a multi-link design like on Mazda's other cars - a semantic difference to many people. More importantly, the MX-5 still knows how to deal with the road: mid-corner bumps don't unsettle the chassis, and ride quality is quite easy on the backside considering the factors of weight, wheelbase, and wheels all working in its disfavor. Even with our tester's sport package, I didn't mind the ride at all. Control of quivers and shakes were also tops for a droptop, no doubt thanks to bending and torsional rigidity being up a significant 22% and 47% this year.

Noise is another matter. What I described as "zestful" during top-down driving becomes shorthand for "borderline intolerable racket" with the top up. That's less of a reference to the buzzy-over-3,000-RPM engine than it is to the tire texture thundering throughout the cabin. 50 MPH in this car sounds like 150 in a BMW, and a daily freeway commute to work sounds like a recipe for pain.

But that's little pain for a lot of gain.

Inside & OutMazda Miata Review
Miata fans who cringe at the news of every generational weight gain should know that those pounds are going to a good cause. Dropping in and climbing out is still a gymnast's affair, but drivers will find the largest Miata cabin ever once seated. Fractions-of-an-inch gains in headroom and legroom, a 2-inch increase in backward seat travel, and a first-time-ever tilt steering wheel add up to reasonable room for two (50 cubic feet). The top of the windshield is less likely to bisect the view of tall drivers now. A cushion angle adjustment might be nice, but the driving position was otherwise impeccable.

Nearly every interior piece is different than in the last generation, yet the appearance is familiar and sporty. The new steering wheel feels as great as it looks, the parking brake was moved over to the right hand side (no more right leg stabbing), and every item snicks, clicks, or snaps through its motions with gratifying feedback. The cabin is a little airier than before but still cozy - think briefs to boxers. Visibility is perfect with the top down and still mostly fine when up; the view out the big glass rear window is as clear as any sedan's.

The MX-5's top remains the pinnacle of convertible user-friendliness: with the windows down just flip one lever, grab the handle, toss it backwards, and snap it into place. Done by the count of five; no need to step outside. We don't need no stinkin power tops adding weight, cost, complexity, and needing for the car to be stopped to operate. No. The MX-5's standard flip-up windblocker is also sturdy and effective, unlike some roadsters that have a clumsy contraption you have to pay for just so it can spend most of its functional life rattling behind your ears. Like the Porsche Boxster.

Top up or down, two passengers get a decent dose of entertainment with the 7-speaker Bose stereo. It's far from the best out there, but the soundstage is sufficiently full even when competing against all that wind rush, and Bose's AudioPilot feature adjusts the volume automatically. Too bad this setup comes only with Grand Touring models like ours; even worse that Mazda makes you buy a 6-disc changer to get MP3 playback.

Safety took a leap forward this year, with side airbags covering both the body and head. The key-activated switch to turn off the passenger's airbag is still present.

Complaints are few. Driving in certain directions can be blinding since the sun visors don't pivot outward to the side windows. Another point of improvement is the cupholders. First, what's a two-seat car doing with four drink holes? The ones in the doors bulge into the legs during hard driving while drinks in the center block your shifting arm. Doors or console - just pick one and improve it, please. Then use the saved space to give us a compartment where coins don't rattle and clang with every change of the car's direction.

But the MX-5 fares ok in the larger theme of storage. Between and behind the seats is a nice roomy box (containing the screwy string-operated fuel door release), and directly behind both seats are two more handy compartments. Aft of that, of course, is a trunk with 5.3 cubic feet of empty space - up 0.2 thanks to the deleted spare tire. If that sounds puny (it is), think of the last car that competed in this segment, the Toyota MR2. I'll take 5.3 over 0.0 any day.

Other Thoughts
With five models to choose from, MX-5 shopping just got a little more complicated. It starts with the Club Spec kicking off the line at $20,995, followed by the standard MX-5, Touring, Sport, and Grand Touring at $21,995, $22,995, $23,495, and $24,995. For the moment there's also a Limited Edition with Velocity Red Paint and unique wheels for $27,260, but let's get serious now.

Even the Club Spec has power windows and mirrors, CD, and antilock brakes, but it takes the regular MX-5 (+$1,000) to get air conditioning and a leather steering wheel.

From there, MX-5 Touring (+$1,000 again) puts remote controls on that wheel and adds power locks, keyless entry, cruise control, fog lights, and silver seatback bar trim. From this point forward, the 6-speed automatic transmission (with manual paddle shifters) becomes an $1,100 option.

MX-5 Sport (+$500) is the point where the manual transmission gets six speeds instead of five and the car gets 17-inch alloy wheels instead of 16s, plus a front shock tower bar and a leather shift knob.

Top-dog MX-5 Grand Touring (+$1,500) adds the Bose 7-speaker stereo (up from 4), black/tan cloth convertible top (up from black vinyl), black/tan leather seats (up from black cloth), and silver interior trim pieces.

Four major options exist. The first two are the Appearance Package (front air dam, side skirt, rear underskirt - $1,145) and Interior Trim Package (aluminum/leather shift knob, aluminum pedals, and misc aluminum pieces - $435), both optional on all MX-5s. When you get up to MX-5 Sport, you can buy the Suspension Package: sport-tuned Bilstein shocks and limited-slip differential for $500. Finally at the Grand Touring, there's the Premium Package: HID headlights, traction and stability control, limited-slip differential, alarm, and Mazda's Advanced Keyless Entry & Start System for $1,600. That last item replaces the neat Volkswagen-style jackknife flip-out key with a credit card-looking item that can fire up the engine remotely. Stand-alone items include 6-disc MP3 CD changer ($500), Sirius satellite radio ($430), spoiler ($350), floor mats, mud guards, etc.

About those transmissions, by the way, both the first and last gears on the 6-speed stick are shorter (numerically higher) than the corresponding gears in the 5-speed - 3.82 and 0.83 instead of 3.14 and 0.81 (all trannies share a 4.1:1 final-drive ratio) - so don't get the 6-speed expecting to save gas. And those of you who lug down the MX-5 with an automatic lose 4 horsepower. Serves you right.

The middle-line MX-5 Touring seems to have everything most people would want, and at $22,995 it lands very close to its only remaining rival, the brand-spankin-new Pontiac Solstice (with an equal load of options), which awaits our full evaluation. If that sounds like a lot for a two-seat toy, try naming other removable-roof sports cars with rear-wheel-drive, high-tech engines, and real suspensions. The next cars on that scale are the $35,000+ Nissan 350Z and BMW Z4, which can clear the quarter-mile in less time but have the upper hand in few, if any, other areas. They also get about 10 MPG less, dent the dirt with 800 more pounds, and give back zero in practicality. Knowing all this, knowing the low gas bills, and keeping in mind the old Miata's squeaky-clean repair record, how can you call the MX-5 anything but practical when speaking financially?

Last WordMazda Miata Review
Think it through and you should realize what Miata owners knew all along: this car is invincible in terms of fun-for-the-buck, especially over time. [source : automotive.com]


 

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