Since its arrival at the beginning of the summer, our Four Seasons Mazda Miata has rarely been parked long enough for the engine to cool. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when its keys fall into my hands for a weekend; a weekend, as luck would have it, that coincides with my cousin’s wedding. But the wedding is only going to take up half of Saturday, so I need to decide what else I can do to make the most of my time with the little convertible. Since the event is taking place in and around the city of East Lansing, the home of my alma mater, Michigan State University, it seems like a no-brainer to take the Miata to visit the campus, a place I haven’t been in more than five years.
I plan to take mostly two-lane roads on the eighty-mile trip, but a late start in the morning forces me to stick to the interstate. Unfortunately, this also means that in order to keep my up-do in the up position, I’ll have to leave the top closed. I know I’ll have an opportunity later in the day to enjoy the Miata topless, so I shrug off my disappointment, toss my gifts into the small but fairly deep trunk, and climb in. The cabin is noticeably tighter than that of the average car, but it’s comfortable, and its old-school simplicity is refreshing. What’s not refreshing is the immense heat the black-on-black color scheme produces when it’s been sitting in the sun. Fortunately, the Miata’s tiny interior means that it only takes a few minutes for the air conditioner to reduce the temperature in the cabin to a more agreeable level. This is one instance in which being small definitely has its advantages.
After only a short time on the highway, I begin to remember why summer road trips in Michigan can be a slow and tedious undertaking: the road is crammed with a hodgepodge of motorhomes and overstuffed cars, as well as pickups, minivans, and SUVs towing campers, boats, jet-skis, and/or other recreational vehicles heading to the northern and western parts of the state. I feel a bit vulnerable in the little, low-slung Miata, and the wide C-pillars and small rear window seriously hinder visibility, so I drive conservatively. The bustling highway hardly highlights the Miata’s strengths, but after encountering a meandering semi and several distracted drivers, I’m thankful for the Miata’s short-throw shifter, light clutch, and compact size. A quick downshift to fourth gear and a flick of the steering wheel, and the Miata effortlessly squirts out of several tight situations.
After an hour or more of driving at 70 mph or above, I am happy to see signs for my exit. At highway velocities, the thin, cloth top doesn’t provide a great deal of protection from road noise, and the lack of a sixth gear means that the engine rarely dips below 3500 rpm. Even the Miata’s excellent standard stereo can’t reduce the slight fatigue that comes from the constant barrage of noise. I exit the highway and can feel myself relax as the rpms drop to more tolerable decibels. Heading north toward downtown East Lansing, I pass the cornfields, pastures, and barns that are a visual reminder of Michigan State’s agricultural roots. My inclination is to take a left and meander through campus on the way to the church, but time is tight so I stay on the main road and pull in with just enough time to say my hellos to the family and freshen up before the ceremony.
After the “I do’s” are said, I have a couple of hours to kill before the reception. It’s late in the afternoon and the temperature has spiked to about 90 degrees. The university’s campus is heavily treed, so I drive back south knowing it will give me the perfect opportunity to drop the top for a bit. I cross Grand River Avenue — which forms the northern border of the school grounds — and enter Michigan State’s campus near the student union. I immediately pull over in a shady spot to put the top down. Because I’m fairly short, once I unhook the single, central latch inside, I have to get out of the car to get enough leverage to be able to snap the top into place. It’s still a quick process, though, and within seconds I am back at the wheel.
With the top down, the Miata proves to be the perfect chariot for sightseeing on the sprawling Michigan State campus. In terms of outward visibility, the benefits of losing the roof are obvious, but the Miata’s tidy footprint and light, direct steering also make it ideal for the quick turns and stops that I find myself making in order to take in all the sights. These characteristics also make it perfect for navigating the university’s many narrow, curvy, and often one-way roads and traffic circles. As I wind my way through campus, I can’t help but daydream about what it would have been like to have this fun little convertible during my college days. I’m sure it would have resulted in high marks in my social life, but my grades would have likely suffered.
I take several lazy tours around campus, with stops to see the Union, the dorm I lived in my sophomore year, Spartan Stadium — inside of which rock supergroup U2’s enormous stage is being set up for a concert the following day — and, of course, Sparty, Michigan State’s chiseled mascot. It’s time to head back for the reception, but I get so wrapped up in my trip down memory lane and in tooling around in the Miata that I don’t notice. I am perpetually early, so it’s a testament to the Miata’s engaging personality that I completely lost track of time. With a little creative driving, I manage to arrive at the country club just in time to see the bride and groom walking to the on-site chapel for some last minute photography. It’s a beautiful scene, and I quickly put the top down as I drive though the parking lot to snap some of my own pictures.
The reception stretches deep into the evening and by the time the celebration is over, the hot day has turned into a beautiful, cool evening. So after congratulating the happy couple again, I grab one last cupcake for the road, drop the top, and head for home.
2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Base price (with destination): $23,905
Price as tested: $23,905
2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine
5-speed manual transmission
16-inch alloy wheels
Tilt steering wheel
4-wheel disc brakes
Auxiliary audio input
AM/FM/CD radio with MP3 capability
Options on this vehicle:
Removable hardtop — $3126
Key options not on vehicle:
Convenience package — $1160
Remote keyless entry and retractable key
Power door locks
Steering-wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls
One-touch-down passenger window
Silver seatback bars
Appearance package — $1145
Front air dam
Body style 2-door roadster
Accommodation 2 passenger
Construction Unibody construction
Engine DOHC 16-valve I-4
Displacement 2.0 liters
Power 167 hp @ 7000 rpm
Torque 140 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Transmission type 5-speed manual
EPA Fuel Economy 22/28/25
Steering hydraulic power assisted rack-and-pinion
Turning circle 30.8 ft.
Suspension, front Double wishbone, coil springs
Suspension, rear Multilink, coil springs
Brakes f/r 11.4-inch vented disc/11.0-inch solid disc, aluminum calipers; ABS
Wheels 16 x 6.5-inch alloy wheels
Tires Yokohama Advan A11A high performance summer
Tire size 205/50R16
Headroom f 37.4 in
Legroom f 43.1 in
Shoulder room f 53.2 in
Wheelbase 91.7 in
Track f/r 58.7/58.9 in
L x W x H 157.3 x 67.7 x 49.0 in
Cargo capacity 5.3 cu ft
Weight 2480 lb (with hardtop removed)
Fuel capacity 12.7 gal
Est. fuel range 356 miles
Fuel grade 91 octane (premium unleaded)