Mazda MX-5 Miata still true to its mission of happy motoring

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

That December weekend in 1969 when with a friend we, in a new 1970 MGB roadster headed out on a road trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina is still a vivid memory.

It was too cold to put the top down. In fact, about five miles into the trip, the new MG with less than 500 miles on the odometer started heating up, and we had to pour some antifreeze into the radiator. Maybe the manufacturer figured temperatures didn’t fall below 32 degrees in eastern North Carolina.

It turned out to be a great roadster trip in a British car built for fun — the fun of driving, of revving up the 1.8-liter, 94 horsepower 4-cylinder engine and for the fun of running through the gears — all four of them. That was the muscle-car era and this was the antithesis of the big car with big horsepower. What a great change of pace.

More than two decades passed before getting behind the wheel of another true roadster, a 1992 Mazda Miata and it brought back memories of that 400-mile December jaunt to the Wright Brothers Memorial and other sites not yet inundated by tourists.

Mazda revived the roadster in 1989 for the 1990 model year, a decade after the British roadsters had all but vanished from the American highway. One half of this team who idled away his youth in Southern California behind the wheel of a ’57 TR3, a ’60 MGA and a Porsche Super90 found his way to a Mazda dealership and jumped back into the roadster world in 1991 and has since bought another. He notes the Japanese company built a winner right from the start. By 2000, more than 500,000 Miatas had been sold worldwide making it the best-selling two-seat convertible in history.

The Miata success spawned numerous competitors in the ’90s from such companies as BMW, Porsche, Mercedes and Honda.

But cars such as the BMW Z3 and Mercedes SLK were quickly transformed from 4-cylinder open-air two-seaters into high-horsepower 6-cylinder sports cars.

The Miata continues to soldier on as a true 4-cylinder roadster, and the third generation Miata — now officially called the MX-5 — enters the marketplace as a 2006 model and we think it better than ever.

Over the years, the Mazda has been injected with more horses and has grown a few inches, but even in its new iteration with 170 ponies under hood and a slightly more comfortable cockpit, it still has the feel of a traditional roadster.

The new MX-5 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 Miata.

Our gripes with the Miata over the years have been few. But one consistent problem is a cockpit too small for this wide body. The other half of this team whose body is even wider never complains, but even with the new dimensions, at least one of us found it confining; the other is just crazy. And for some strange reason, Mazda has placed a cup holder in the door, which comes into conflict with the driver’s left leg. It’s an annoying placement, particularly when you consider that there are two cupholders between the seats. How many cupholders does a little two-seater need?

The width has grown from 66.1 inches to 67.7 inches and that has to account for some extra room inside. I just couldn’t find it. For comparison, the BMW Z4 is 70 inches wide and the Honda S2000 measures 68.9 inches across.

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 wonderful balance with 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 or 6-speed manual. Our test car had the 6-speed, a short-throw transmission that was a joy to shift. The 5-speed comes in the base Club Spec model starting at $20,995 and the 6-speed comes in the Grand Touring ($22,995), Sport ($23,495) and Limited ($27,260) trim levels.

For those who want the wonderful MX-5 experience, but who are stick-shift challenged, the roadster can be equipped with a 6-speed automatic as a $1,100 option.

If you keep the new 2.0-liter percolating through the gears, it will propel you from 0 to 60 in about 6.5 seconds and through the quarter mile in 15 seconds at 91 miles per hour. But it’s finding the right gear through the twists and turns and then flogging the Miata that brings 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 four nights in a row in wonderful 75-degree early-evening late-summer weather.

Mazda has made folding the roof down about as simple as possible without a power button. Unhook one latch and push back. The top drops easily into a folded position behind the headrests. And perhaps the neatest thing is that a separate tonneau cover is not needed for a finished appearance. The front part of the roof acts as a cover and snaps into place with a push of the hand. It’s easily unlatched by pulling a lever behind the seats.

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 polished black panel across the dash gives the interior a nice pulled together look. Silver rings around the gauges add an upscale touch.

The steering wheel has a tilt feature and includes cruise and audio controls.

One of the most noteworthy qualities of the new MX-5 is that it’s affordable. It falls into the price range of many people. For instance, our Sport trim level test car carried a base price of $23,495 and a bottom line price of $23,995. The only option was a sport-tuned suspension at $500.

Standard equipment included air conditioning, 17-inch alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, power windows and doorlocks, a stereo system with CD player and a 48-month, 50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty.

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. Even in the face of new competition Miata holds true to its values and just keeps on motoring.

And best of all Miata offers irrefutable proof that fun doesn’t have to include 300 horsepower.