Launched for the 1989 model year and drawing its inspiration from the classically seductive – but otherwise mechanically betraying – Fiat, MG, and Triumph two-seaters from the 1960’s, Mazda’s MX-5 Miata roadster remains true to its roots as a reasonably simple and affordable, peppy and nimble sports car.
While it was last refreshed for model-year 2009, the current generation MX-5 Miata dates back to its last complete redesign for model-year 2006. It remains unchanged for 2011, with alterations for the 2012 model year also expected to be modest in anticipation of what could be a significant revision for model-year 2013.
At least for now the MX-5 Miata retains the “happy face” front end treatment it received for 2009 that can either be engaging or cloying, depending on one’s view-point. Here, the upswept headlamps are the eyes, the Mazda logo the nose, and the grinning grille the mouth. Fortunately the rest of the bodywork remains true to the car’s classic roadster heritage with bulging wheel arches hunched over 16- or 17-inch wheels and tires, and a subtly rounded rear-end appearance. The hood and trunk lid are fabricated from aluminum as a weight-saving measure.
A lightweight 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine utilizes contemporary technology like variable intake valve timing, and coil-on-plug ignition to generate a respectable 167 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque, with lively engine response and brisk acceleration.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard with the base Sport model, while the rest of the line gets a quicker and easier-shifting short-throw six-speed manual. Some would argue that outfitting a lithe roadster like the MX-5 Miata with an automatic transmission is sacrilegious, and to be sure it’s far more enjoyable to drive under most circumstances with a stick shift (crawling though rush-hour traffic being a noteworthy exception). Even so, a six-speed automatic is available for the clutch-averse, and it includes steering wheel-mounted paddles that allow a motorist to shift through the gears manually. As if to underscore the buzz-kill this transmission brings to the MX-5 Miata, its four-cylinder engine is rated at a slightly lower 158 horsepower when fitted to the automatic, though few drivers would be able to notice the missing horses.
Precise and nimble handling has always been the MX-5 Miata’s forte. A nearly even front-to-rear weight distribution, along with a double-wishbone suspension up front and a multi-link array at the rear, offer slot-car-like handling around the curves. An optional Suspension Package on Touring and Grand Touring improves the car’s handling a notch with a more-aggressively tuned suspension and specific shock absorbers sourced by Bilstein. It also includes a limited-slip differential to help improve the MX-5 Miata’s performance on slippery surfaces.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard across the time to afford quick and controlled stopping abilities. Both traction and stability control are optional to help improve grip in slippery low-speed situations and prevent the car from fish-tailing at higher speeds, though they’re offered only with the top Grand Touring trim level and only bundled with other features as part of an options package.
A manually operated convertible top is standard, and can be unlatched and folded with one hand; a removable hard top is optional for winter-weather use. Alternately available should again be a feature you’d never find in small roadsters from the genre’s Golden Age, namely a lightweight power retractable hard top. It folds at the push of a button into what is essentially the same space as the soft top (most retractable hardtops stow in the trunk and encroach on cargo space). Waist-level louver vents direct warm or cool air throughout the cabin to keep it viable for top-down use during at least three of the four seasons. A mesh air deflector mounts behind the seats to help reduce wind buffeting and top-down turbulence.
It’s a tight fit inside but the MX-5 Miata offers reasonable room for two passengers of average or smaller build; it’s far less hospitable for taller or more-corpulent riders, however. The interior design is all business, taking an efficient and attractive “less is more” approach. Cloth upholstery is standard, with leather seats and trim available. There is officially a trunk, though it offers just a mere 5.3 cubic feet of stowage, which is at least sufficient to accommodate a few grocery bags or a set of golf clubs. Side-impact airbags are included for added safety, and are positioned in each seat’s backrest.
Available in three trim levels, with assorted amenities like heated seats and a Bluetooth hands-free mobile-phone interface offered, the MX-5 Miata remains an agile and athletic roadster for those who appreciate the sheer joys of driving. It’s not overpowering in any sense, nor will it intimidate more-casual motorists. It’s affordable enough to coexist as an automotive toy in the garage along with the family’s SUV and commuter sedan, though those seeking added power, passenger room or cargo capacity will have to look elsewhere.
Mazda MX-5 Miata Quick Facts
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-Cyl
Horsepower: 167 @ 7,000 rpm (158 @ 6,700 with AT)
Torque: 140 @ 5,000 rpm
City/Highway: MPG 21/28-22/28
Transmission: 5-Spd Manual, 6-Spd Manual, 6-Spd Automatic
Wheelbase: 91.7 in
Overall Length: 157.3 in
Width: 67.7 in
Height: 49.0 in
Curb Weight: 2,480 lbs
Did You Know?
In the car’s home market of Japan, the MX-5 Miata is called the Eunos Roadster. Though Mazda has emphasized the MX-5 part of the name in recent years, aficionados still prefer to call it the Miata, which according to Wikipedia means “reward” in Old High German. (And we can bet there’s at least one old high German out there who’s rewarding him or herself with an MX-5 Miata.)