Mazda MX-5 – continuous fun

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Aah, nostalgia; for nearly two decades the Mazda MX-5 has been the only British-style (note, not British like) roadster available in North America.

That means a lot in reference old and new: it’s not loaded with turbocharged horsepower (new), nor is it a continuous headache (old); but it does carry on the tradition of limited passenger space especially for those of us challenged with either vertical or horizontal issues. Although that spread issue never prevented us from owning a couple of these sweethearts through the years. Our history includes a TR3; MG 1600; and two Miatas.

That’s because all, but especially the two Miatas packed in fun-to-drive traits that make one yearn for the open winding road, top down and wind in the hair (if one only had hair).

The little Mazda, until a couple years ago known as the Miata, has been incrementally improved over its two-decade history and it might be the best true-to-the-template rendition of a roadster since the MG departed in 1980 except without the headaches.

Today fans who adhere to the strict definition of a roadster as found on European roadways in the ’50s and ’60s may be dismayed that the MX-5 now comes with a folding metal top — known in Mazda circles as a Power-Retractable Hardtop (PRHT) — as well as the traditional soft top. It is hard to stop what some call progress. But we’re here to report that the hard top works without sacrificing any of the little car’s roadster-attributes. The execution is brilliant. The top takes no more storage room than the soft top and adds only 70 pounds to the weight of the car. That’s a lot less weight than what we add.

The MX-5 hardtop still drives like it always has — a blast through the six manual gears with smile-inducing slot-car-like cornering ability. And it still comes — despite the metal top — with tire roar that can become annoying at higher speeds.

The PRHT has advantages, most of them obvious. With the top up you have the comfort of a coupe including a quieter interior (despite the road noise). Winter weather is no longer a convertible nuisance. And your precious roadster is no longer the potential victim of a vandal with a knife.

The top operation is extremely simple. Pull up the emergency brake and hit the button. The folding metal is stowed in an amazing 12 seconds.

The biggest disadvantage is price. It adds $2,815 to the Sport model and $1,870 to the Touring and Grand Touring models. Add an automatic transmission and the price goes up piling on an additional $2,155 for the Sport and $1,100 for the Touring and Grand Touring editions. Then again total pricing isn’t as ugly as we make it sound.

Over the years, the MX-5 (Miata) has been injected with more horses and has grown a few inches, but even in its new iteration with 166 ponies under hood and a slightly more comfortable cockpit, it has the feel of a traditional roadster.

The roadster, all-new in 2006 for only the third time, continues to be more about the overall driving experience and less about the high-performance malady that has infected manufacturers in the 21st Century.

If pressed for an example of a car that becomes one with the driver, it would have to be the MX-5.

Our gripes with the MX-5 over the years have been few. But one consistent problem is a cockpit too small for our wide body. Even with the new dimensions, we found it confining. But be darned with confining, buying another is more limited by funds.

The width has grown from a second-generation 66.1 inches to 67.7 inches and that has to account for some extra room inside. We just couldn’t find it. In comparison to other two-seaters, the Pontiac Solstice is 71.2 inches wide, the BMW Z4 is 70 inches wide and the Honda S2000 measures 68.9 inches across. Truthfully it feels like they all fit the same, like a comforting girdle. Total width really has more to do with stance and drivability than fit. Seat proportion and position is more important to comfort.

But who can argue with much conviction over the Mazda’s proportions — 157 inches long with a 91.7-inch wheelbase and a nearly perfect 50-50 weight distribution. It gives the MX-5 a perfect balance and the ability to score perfect 10s in the Olympics of driving.

Depending on trim level, the MX-5 can be purchased with either a 5-speed automatic or 6-speed manual. Our test car had the 6-speed, a short-throw, slick-shifting transmission that was a joy to operate.

If you keep the new 2.0-liter percolating through the gears, it can take you from 0 to 60 in about 7 seconds and through the quarter mile in 15 1/2 seconds at 90 miles per hour. 
But it’s finding the right gear through the twists and turns and then flogging the car until you or it reaches safe limits that bring the most reward.

A roadster is purchased not just for its driving attributes, but for its open-air persona as well. And we found the joy of top-down driving on a couple of 70-degree afternoons.

Thanks to the new stiffer Mazda structure, the little car is devoid of quivers and shakes with the top down. It’s rock solid. The rear glass window includes a defogger. And twin roll-hoops give the occupants some rollover protection.

Wind buffeting is tolerable, and we were probably getting some benefit from a small wind deflector located behind the seats.

The controls are simple and logical and the interior, trimmed out in black, is handsome. A black panel across the dash gives the interior a nice pulled together look. Silver rings encircling the gauges add an upscale touch. The steering wheel has a tilt feature and includes fingertip cruise and audio controls.

One of the most noteworthy qualities of the MX-5 is its affordable starting price even with the hard top. It falls into the monetary comfort zone of many people. For instance, the Sport trim level with manual transmission and soft top carries a base price of $22,180 including destination charge. The Touring begins at $24,225 and the Grand Touring at $25,485. Even the Grand Touring with power top and automatic falls far short of the 30 grand mark coming in at $28,455. Our Grand Touring test car with PRHT and a handful of extras had a bottom line of $30,050.

Standard equipment on all models includes 16-inch alloy wheels, antilock brakes, side airbags, audio system with CD player, power windows and mirrors and air conditioning.

The Touring edition brings 17-inch wheels, upgraded audio system, keyless entry, steering wheel audio controls and cruise control. Grand Touring add-ons include leather heated seats and Bose audio.

Many options come in packages. For instance, our test car came with Premium Package 2, which includes Xenon HID headlights, traction and stability control, rear slip differential, keyless entry and keyless start for $1,250.

Unfortunately stability control is available only as an option on the Grand Touring models. But stability control is coming as the government will require the electronic big brother on all passenger cars sold in the U.S.

Mazda has done a terrific job keeping the Miata up to date without losing the outstanding qualities that have made it the modern iteration of the original British sports car this time with reliability and without the cost of innumerable spare parts. And it offers irrefutable proof that fun doesn’t have to include 300 horsepower.


Base price: $22,180; as driven, $30,050

Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 166 @ 6,700 rpm

Torque: 140 foot-pounds @ 5,000 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Drive: rear wheel

Seating: 2

Wheelbase: 91.7 inches

Length: 157.2 inches

Curb weight: 2,500 pounds

Turning circle: 30.8 feet

Luggage capacity: 5 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 12.7 gallons
0-60: 7.5 seconds (MotorWeek)

Also consider: Pontiac Solstice, Saturn Sky, Mini Cooper convertible

The Good

• Hard folding top adds new dimension to roadster

• Precise steering and exemplary handling

• Extraordinary fun factor – a better Miata still again

The Bad

• Stability control only available as option on top trim level

The Ugly

• Still looking for more sports car 0 to 60 performance