A couple of weeks ago, I took a call from a lifestyle writer for Forbes magazine who was working on a piece about the best coastal roads to drive in the world. Among others, we discussed the most obvious one in America, California’s Highway 1. I suggested that the perfect car to drive on that lovely ribbon of asphalt clinging to the cliffs above the Pacific is the Mazda MX-5 Miata. I also said that I wouldn’t require or desire any more car than the Miata on any coastal road, and that I would dearly have loved to have had one last summer when I headed south from Cape Town, South Africa, toward the Cape of Good Hope. (Instead, I was in a miserable little Fiat Punto rental, but the road was still magical.) For the pure pleasure of driving on a twisty road, you don’t need any more power, grip, chassis, or cabin than the Miata provides. This is a car that still sticks to the original model’s design ethos of “oneness with horse and rider.” The Miata just feels right.
That’s because Mazda pays attention to the details, and always has, ever since the first Miata debuted in 1989 as a modern-day re-creation of classic British roadsters like the Lotus Elan and the Triumph Spitfire. What exactly do we mean by the details? Well, there’s the exhaust note, which was famously tuned to burble and crackle just so and to remind drivers and passersby of the classic roadsters of their youths. There is the simplicity: a small, rear-wheel-drive chassis, an engine of modest power and displacement, and a cabin that has just enough room for two people and not much more. There is the fact that Mazda worked with ergonomic experts at Japanese universities to determine which parts of the human palm and fingertips are most receptive to stimuli, and to design the gearshift lever and the steering wheel to maximize those effects. Clearly, this car was designed and engineered by people who were willing to sweat the details.
Most of all, there is the way the Miata drives. The latest iteration is just a squinch bigger than the last model, but it still wraps around you in an intimately pleasing way. The seating position and the sightlines are perfect, at least for this five-foot, eleven-inch driver. You turn the key, the 170-hp, 2.0-liter four snaps to life, and your left foot hits the clutch pedal, which has just the right amount of give and tension. The gearshifter feels similarly perfect. The steering wheel communicates but doesn’t monopolize your conversation with the car. Instinctively, you seek out roads with camber changes and decreasing radii, and you revel in the rewards of low mass and weight, a stiff chassis, and an engine that sounds better the more you rev it. And then there’s the revelation: You find a road with some long, undulating stretches, with a few long sweepers thrown in, and you discover that the modest little Miata can grip and steer and ride as well as cars costing two, three, and four times as much. Highway 1, here we come.