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“The traditional two-seat sports car.”
The Mazda MX-5 offers driving satisfaction in its purest form, with the top down and the engine winding. In the two-seat sports car context, the Miata delivers fun as well as cars that cost four or five times more. Yet it's very easy to live with.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine revs freely and delivers good throttle response, sending 167 horsepower to the rear wheels and giving the MX-5 a nice kick in the back end. We'd peg its 0-60 mph time in the mid six-second range, and that's plenty quick, especially for a car with a relatively small, fuel-efficient engine. Yet it's not just the quickness that satisfies. The MX-5's four-cylinder loves to rev, nonstop, gladly bouncing off its 7200-rpm limit. It always feels strong and healthy, even at the redline, and never raucous, tinny or overworked.
Shifting gears with the manual gearbox is a delight. The Miata has historically offered about the best-shifting gearbox on the planet. Its crispness and light effort have been pretty much the gold standard in manuals. The current generation's 6-speed doesn't quite match the effortlessness of the previous 5-speed, but it's close, and improvements introduced for 2009 have moved it a long way in the right direction. The throws are delicate and light, and the lever goes just where you want it, as if wired to your brain.
The automatic transmission does well in stop-and-go traffic. In Activematic manual mode, gears are selected either by tapping the shift lever forward or back, or with steering wheel-mounted paddles. The Activematic function works as it should, too, declining to shift up even with the engine zinging along at its electronically limited redline, or to shift down no matter how hard you stomp the gas pedal. Shifts are smooth, but noticeable, in either mode. In all, the automatic works surprisingly well, but we must say: if you really must have an automatic, you might consider another car. The MX-5 only achieves full glory with a clutch pedal and manual transmission.
Playing with the gears in a sports car should entertain not only in how the car moves down the road and through curves, but also aurally, in what you hear as well as what you feel. The current MX-5's exhaust sound is a bit less satisfying than in previous generations, sounding more buzzy than throaty; except under hard acceleration, when it finally generates the sounds of entertainment. The exhaust note was something Mazda's engineers worked very hard at for the original Miata, and we miss its classic sports car sound.
Mazda's engineers definitely worked overtime to keep this third-generation MX-5 from gaining performance-dulling weight, and it shows. Liberal use of lightweight and high tensile metals, along with fresh thinking in such basics as how much a rearview mirror weighs, kept weight to within 22 pounds of the second-generation Miata. Dropping the spare tire helped, but the MX-5's designated dieticians still faced added calories from the larger engine, the head-and-thorax side-impact airbags, more robust side-impact hardware, larger wheels and those stylish seatback hoops. This is a crucial reason the car remains true to its fun-loving roots. It's better, but it's not dulled.
Just as significant from the driver's seat is how the car's mass is distributed. The lower the mass is in the car's chassis, the lower the car's center of gravity and the more stable its ride and handling. Especially important for a sports car, the closer weight is clustered around what engineers call the vertical yaw axis the better.
Imagine a broomstick with two five-pound weights attached. It weighs about 10 pounds regardless of where the weights are positioned. Put the weights at the ends of the broomstick, and try to spin it like a baton. It's not so easy to get started, and once started it's difficult to stop. But move the weights next to each other at the center of the broomstick, and starting it spinning and stopping it requires much less effort. This is a simplification, but you get the point. And so did the Mazda engineers. The engine in the current MX-5 was moved rearward more than five inches from its relative location in the previous (pre-2006) model. The gas tank was moved forward and lowered in the chassis. What's so cool about all this shifting around of mechanicals and components is, it works.
The MX-5's wide track and low center of gravity enable it to corner flatter than should be possible. With balance so close to perfect with two people on board, and with the sporty, asymmetrical-tread tires on the Touring and Grand Touring models. the MX-5 holds its line through corners like it was highway striping paint.
Quick, left-right-left transitions on a winding two-lane along a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii succumb to nearly perfect steering response: light but not twitchy, with good feel regardless of the speed. Crank in more steering to keep it off the rock wall on the outside of a tight switchback, and the rear tires step tentatively sideways. A touch of counter-steer and a soft feathering of the gas and the tires stick again, and away you go. What a rush.
And all that is with the electronic stability control activated. With its recent updates, Mazda programmed more latitude into the system, allowing the MX-5 to slide a bit more before the electronics try to reign the slipping in. It's also with the standard suspension. Ordering the sports suspension buys a firmer ride and increased feel of the road, with the same controllable balance, but not a higher level of discomfort.
We spent time in an MX-5 convertible running around the bumpy freeways of Los Angeles and found ourselves wondering if we could take this all the time. Running around the city might be cute, and it makes parking easy, but you have to get the MX-5 out into the smooth curves to get what it really offers.
The Miata cruises well, too, though on the Interstate it can wander slightly in response to pavement irregularities or when passing through the wind blast of a large truck. When it must, the MX-5 can crawl along with stop-and-go traffic with no complaint. Clutch effort is so light, your left leg never gets tired.
With the top up, there's a little flutter of the unlined fabric at high speeds. Wind noise is well muted, although the rear window shivers a bit. Cowl shake, which afflicts most convertibles, is virtually nonexistent, a benefit of bracing the strut towers against the cowl, rather than against each other across the engine bay.
As for wind bluster with the top down, the small quarter windows inboard of the side mirrors can keep the interior calmer, though having them up looks a bit geeky. We could discern no difference with or without the mesh blocker panel in place between the seatback bars.
A PRHT hardtop model we tested on Michigan's rutted roads proved quieter than the soft top version. The solid roof pays sound-deadening dividends, and the radio is a lot easier to hear than in the convertible when its fabric top is up. The extra measure of top-up quiet enables you to enjoy the MX-5's exhaust accelerating hard through the first three gears. Still, the hardtop's cabin isn't nearly as hushed as the average sedan's. Road noise emanates from the rear wheels and comes up through the top's storage well behind the seats, and there's some wind flutter around the rear corners of the side windows. But the roof is squeak-free, and adds to the sense of solidity in what is already a very stout-feeling automobile.
Brake feel is solid, thanks to improved brake system rigidity and strengthened brake hoses, making repetitive and smooth stops a breeze. But the pedal pressure required is very light around town, necessitating a get-used-to-it period before your right foot learns how lightly it needs to tread.