We love the Mazda Miata. The tiny, softtop sports car is a rare automotive species that generates unanimous enthusiasm from our staff. We’ve been smitten with the tossable, toy-like Mazda ever since its 1989 arrival. As proof of its enduring, universal appeal, the Miata can claim eleven Automobile Magazine All-Star awards and our inaugural Automobile of the Year honor. We love the Mazda Miata.
The Miata’s charm lies in its simplicity, purity, and honesty. It is not a fast car, but it is a fun car. Impeccable balance, a surprising amount of stick, and the rev-it-to-redline engine create a visceral connection between car and man.
A perfect summer day is the very best time to enjoy a Miata, of course. So we’ve added one to our fleet for Michigan’s peak driving season — from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Since Mazda’s little legend is all about the fundamentals, we’ve stuck to the basics with our car. It’s a base model with no options. That means a manual folding soft top, no satellite radio, no power door locks, and no cruise control. There’s no stability control, either. As the 2012 model year nears, so does a federal mandate that all cars be equipped with stability control. We like to think of our Miata sans electronic nanny as a celebration of driver intelligence and responsibility and recognition of Mazda’s brilliant chassis. A car this poised has no need for driver aids. Our $23,905 roadster rides on sixteen-inch wheels; and it’s powered by a 167-hp four-cylinder connected to a five-speed manual (Touring and Grand Touring cars come with a six-speed). It’s not entirely without luxuries, however. Air-conditioning, power mirrors and windows, and an auxiliary audio input are standard equipment.
While we resisted ordering a single option, we did visit Mazda’s accessories shop for one big-ticket item. The $3126 for a matching black hardtop is the price of entry to be able to attend track days without a roll bar. Installing and removing the top is a two-person job, but requires no tools and is a quick five-minute task.
The start of a summer fling
Within two days of arriving at the office, the Miata shed its hardtop in preparation for the holiday weekend. I’m heading up north with my girlfriend and hoping for sunshine. First, though, we have to pack the Miata, a task that takes some planning and forethought. Soft duffel bags are a requirement, and it’s better to have several small items to accommodate the trunk’s unusual contours than a few bulky bags. Our kit is larger than usual, thanks to the shoes, helmets, and clothes necessary to run and bike through the cherry orchards outside Traverse City. We manage to squeeze two duffel bags, a messenger bag, two pillows, a pair of bike helmets, and a laptop into the shoebox trunk, but have no luck finding a spot for the final item, a sandwich-sized Tupperware container. It fits perfectly in the center console bin between the two seatbacks.
After gingerly pressing the trunk lid closed, we strap on a Yakima rack and load up our road bikes, then start the four-hour drive. The Miata is a driver’s car but it’s definitely not a highway commuter car, as it quickly reminds us in the holiday interstate grind. It’s loud and cramped and with the top up. It helps to think of it like a motorcycle — let the wind into the cabin and enjoy a leisurely pace with frequent stops to stretch.
The Miata sits neglected through a rainy Saturday, but Sunday beckons us onto the rural roads, as the flat gray ceiling breaks to reveal blue skies and towering white clouds. We chase the Grand Traverse Bay north on M-22, flanked by stunning scenery. With the heat blowing on our faces, it’s the perfect temperature for a top-down drive as the sun dips into the orchards. We turn back at the 153-year-old Grand Traverse lighthouse and on our second time driving past the Woolsey Airport, my curiosity forces me to pull over and peer into the fieldstone building that passes for a terminal. The building that was once a creamery and milk transfer station now holds a few yellow bicycles tagged “AIRPORT BIKE” with black paint, their deflated tires puddling at the floor. It looks as if the building has been untouched for months, and yet the grass runway is so well manicured it could pass for a world-class fairway.
On the gentle bends and flat straights of M-22, I find driving nirvana. I brake late and keep the revs high for the curves. Every car we come upon is an excuse to find the redline and snap off quick shifts as we slingshot around them. We’re barely surpassing the speed limit and yet the Miata is making this two-lane nearly as satisfying as a road course. The little Mazda is an inconspicuous car no matter the color or trim level, but our triple black example with its small wheels and tallish tires has the humility of a monk concealing the personality of a sports car costing $20,000 more. Just as we slow it down for the city speed limits, the rain starts suddenly. I dive for the shoulder, we flip the top over our heads, and scurry back onto the road in a matter of seconds.
Feeling shortchanged by the dreary Friday and Saturday, we drive home on Monday with the top down until you can see the pink in our forearms. In a construction zone, we reluctantly raise the roof but keep the windows down.
As a car that encourages you to take the long route, discover the back roads, stop in new places and simply enjoy the drive, the Miata has won me over once again. And the best part is, there are fourteen more weeks to go.
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)