Mazda MX-5 — 21st Century roadster

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Mazda has crafted a new MX-5 Miata that stays true to the roadster formula it developed more than a quarter century ago, turning it into a modern road-carving juggernaut loaded with the latest in safety and technology equipment, a modern two-seat droptop that offers cutting-edge styling while retaining the iconic Miata look.

The 2016 MX-5 injects joy into the everyday driving experience that no other car sold in North America south of $50,000 can duplicate. It will carve up a winding mountain road like it's riding on rails, and the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque mated to one of the slickest-shifting six-speed manuals in existence keeps the excitement level elevated as the little two-seater gobbles up the twists and turns.

There's something addictive about rowing through the gears watching the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder's rpm climb to redline, top down and wind blowing through your hair. Of course it helps to have decent rain-free weather before throwing the top back, something that was in short supply the week we drove the car.

While the rear-driven MX-5 has seen incremental evolutionary updates over the last quarter century — now in its fourth generation — it still remains the only rear-wheel drive roadster in the British tradition. Its quarter century of success can be measured with well over one million sold worldwide. It continues to offer the most authentic roadster experience for the money starting at a very reasonable $25,750.

Although the new engine falls 12 horsepower short of the outgoing 4-cylinder, it adds eight more pound-feet for torque and felt stronger to us than a 2015 model we drove last year. Our seat-of-the-pant perception is backed up by published numbers of 5.8 seconds from 0-to-60 and 14.6 seconds at 94 mph in the quarter mile. That's about a full second quicker than the 2015 model. One reason the newest MX-5 can wring this kind of performance out of the small engine — it has shed about 220 pounds and now weighs in at a very athletic 2,324 pounds. Granted, the little roadster is no rocketship in the image of say, a Nissan 370Z, but the combination of point-and-shoot handling and its incredible road-carving ability are a perfect match for the drivetrain.

There are still downsides. The Miata has always had one of the most intimate cabins in the sports car ranks, just a bit too tight, and much to our disappointment nothing has changed for 2016. Also, passenger and storage space are at a premium. And we were also dismayed at the elevated wind and road noise at highway speeds. We had hoped that Mazda would have outfitted the new generation with a more insulated top and with more sound deadening materials in the body.

Note that the retractable hardtop introduced a few years ago is gone in favor of the more roadster-authentic soft top. The new top is easy to open, and a removable wind-block panel sits between the standard twin roll hoops. It's possible to flip it open in one easy over-the-shoulder motion without leaving the driver's seat.

The interior has an attractive, but minimalist look. Controls are right at hand and there are useful redundant buttons including cruise on the steering wheel. The touchscreen navigation/information screen sits atop the dashboard and is user friendly. Cupholders are rather flimsy and set back making them awkward to use, and storage cubbies up front are nonexistent.

The MX-5 is offered in three trim levels — Sport, Club and Grand Touring. The base model gets 16-inch alloy wheels, a manually retractable black soft top with glass rear window, air conditioning, push-button ignition, adjustable driver's seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, full power accessories, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and a six-speaker audio system with CD player for $25,750.

The mid-level Club trim starting at $29,435 includes a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers, a limited-slip differential, an engine sound enhancer; 17-inch wheels with summer performance tires; sport front fascia; nine-speaker Bose audio system with headrest speakers, satellite radio, dual USB ports, and a seven-inch touchscreen interface with an auxiliary control knob.

The Grand Touring brings most of the available goodies for a starting price of $30,900. Standard features include adaptive headlights with automatic high beam, automatic wipers, a cloth-lined top, leather upholstery, heated seats, automatic climate control, navigation, and a safety-oriented bundle that includes blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and lane departure warning. An optional six-speed automatic transmission is available across the lineup.

Our test Grand Touring edition carried a bottom line of $31,315.

Base price: $25,750; as driven, $31,315
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 155 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 148 foot-pounds @ 4,600 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive: rear wheel
Seating: 2
Wheelbase: 90.9 inches
Length: 154.1 inches
Curb weight: 2,332 pounds
Turning circle: 30.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 4.6 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 11.9 gallons (premium recommended)
EPA rating: 34 highway, 27 city, 30 overall
0-60: 5.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Mini Cooper convertible

The Good
• Winding road juggernaut
• Spirited performance
• Top down fun

The Bad
• Very noisy cabin

The Ugly
• Tight living quarters