Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, is known for a lot of things, like excessive drinking during Little 500 week and a basketball team that used to be good, but what it’s not known for is being a driver’s paradise — and that’s because it’s not.
Roads are flat, curves are rare, and heavy traffic leaves your right foot wanting. Use your imagination to transform a stoplight into your own personal drag-strip Christmas tree, and overzealous cops will get just as creative with the infractions on your ticket.
Why, then, would I drive our 2011 Mazda Miata MX-5 330 miles from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Bloomington?
To start with, my girlfriend, Kenna, would probably tear me limb from limb if I never visited her. But if that were my only concern, a comfortable highway cruiser like our Four Seasons Honda Odyssey could’ve done the job. Why bring the Miata, a car that begs for back roads, when the quickest way to Bloomington is via interstates?
Because after spending four years at IU, I know there’s a ribbon of driving perfection just a few miles east of the dull, police-ridden campus streets.
As a freshman Hoosier, I watched as Suzuki Hayabusas and Porsche 911s spilled back into Bloomington on their way home from neighboring Brown County. Brown County is the sort of place that evokes images of art, state parks, lakes, and the like for most people who’ve been there. Me? I think of its great roads.
When I first took my Mazda RX-8 into uncharted territory, I didn’t know what to expect. But after that initial trip to Brown County, there was a little less tread on my tires and a lot more to look forward to on the weekends. It might not have any roads that are comparable to Tennessee’s Tail of the Dragon, but it has one road in particular, State Road 45, that’s not too bad for southern Indiana. My favorite stretch of 45 doesn’t have any potholes, rises and falls organically, and winds and meanders from farmland to small towns to dense forest. There are no guard rails, there are lots of exciting — and sometimes scary — blind corners, and there’s even a long straight with a large hump in the middle that has a knack for helping cars get airborne. It was the perfect proving ground for our summer Miata.
Which brings me back to my weekend with Kenna. Saturday morning was hot and humid, a typical southern Indiana July day. Kenna wanted to go to the pool. I wanted to drive the Miata to Brown County. She wouldn’t budge. I begged. I pleaded. I finally bribed her with foot massages, and she caved. We dropped the Miata’s top, sprayed on some sunscreen, and set off for the countryside in our little black two-seater. While I gushed about the Miata’s excellent power-to-weight ratio, Kenna entertained herself by playing with her split-ends, completely disinterested in my jabber about the car’s 167 hp and 2500-pound curb weight. Not to worry: I knew that the minute I found a place to swing the Miata’s rear end around, my blase girlfriend would be as excited as I was. Hell, even the slightest glimmer of interest in our excursion would be welcome.
Unfortunately, a glut of Saturday afternoon drivers crawling along in Grand Caravans, snapping pictures of quaint farm homes on the side of the road, put the kibosh on my plans to show off for Kenna.
Ah, well. Idling along, I made sure the car would be ready to go if the road ever cleared, following the same routine I do in my own RX-8. Press the button on the emergency brake, just in case. Check. Go through the gears, making sure everything is copacetic. Check. Turn off the electronic stability control. Ch…oh, right, our 2011 model squeezes by before the government makes electronic stability control a must in 2012 models.
My pre-flight check ended just in time. By some divine fate, all the vans trundling along in front of us pulled off just as we came to the section of road with the humped straight. We were in business.
The stretch of pavement, bordered by white fences and fields of drowsy cows, came out of nowhere. I was in luck: there wasn’t a single other car on the road. With a downshift to second and some tire chirp, the Miata’s rear hunkered down as its nose lifted up. While this piqued Kenna’s interest, she was still preoccupied by her hair. A quick upshift to third right before the hump made sure all four Yokohamas left the ground. That got her full attention. Rubber back on the tarmac, it was hard on the brakes, a little heel-and-toe, and back to second for a steep left. From there, State Road 45 became a blur of bends, valleys, crests, and slightly missed apexes. I was falling hard for our Miata.
The MZR-series, 2000-cc engine is responsive and smooth all the way up to its 7200-rpm redline. The close-ratio five-speed manual transmission shifts quickly and doesn’t balk when you get aggressive. While there’s more body roll than I’d like, the stock tires hold on in tough turns. Most of all, I love the MX-5’s steering wheel. It’s the perfect thickness, its center hub is simple and looks just right, and it isn’t littered with a single gizmo or gadget. It’s a steering wheel. And it steers damn well. Even the slightest finger flick is communicated with unerring accuracy and poise.
The unadorned steering wheel sums up everything I love about our bare bones Miata. No power locks, no cruise control, no satellite radio, just a machine that begs to be driven and never fails to make you smile. Even Kenna, who was very impressed with the car’s composure during the beating I dispensed, managed a grin. She never felt like I would lose control of the Miata and let the rear end run off its short leash, even during some impromptu powerslides.
Still, Kenna and I found a couple of things we disliked about the roadster on our way back to Bloomington. Mazda says the Miata’s exterior styling is functional and that the muscular bulge below the front fog lamps and wide air deflectors creates a low drag coefficient. We say the car is too worried about its machismo, and this generation’s styling strays too far from the elegance of the first-generation Miata twenty-one years ago.
You can find a lot of little things to complain about, but if you do, you’re missing the point. The Miata is, has been, and always will be a purpose-built automobile. That purpose is to be one of the purest, most enjoyable sports cars on the market. Give it a smooth road, good company, and great scenery, and the Miata takes care of the rest. On that, Kenna and I definitely agree.
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)