One of our main motivations behind driving a 2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata for the summer is to get on the track. With fifteen drivers of varying skill level in the Automobile Magazine office, the Miata is the perfect track toy. No new car is so accessible to novice drivers and simultaneously so satisfying to experts.
It’s no secret that the Miata is a spectacular track car. Spec Miata is one of the most affordable and most popular forms of amateur racing, and the cars remain quite close to stock. We’d love to have one, but a Spec Miata couldn’t pass muster for a daily driver. Our no-options, base Miata Sport retains the comfort and still delivers much of the on-track competence.
Our stripper has a handful of features — or lack of features — that should define its behavior on the track. It doesn’t have the benefit of a limited-slip differential (available on the Touring or Grand Touring models with the performance package) or electronic stability and traction control (available on Grand Touring models with the premium package). All Miata Sport models ride on 205/50VR-16 Yokohama Advan A11A summer tires while Touring and Grand Touring cars are equipped with 205/45WR-17 Bridgestone Potenza RE050A summer tires. So far we’ve been impressed by the ride with the 16-inch wheels and the relatively tall sidewalls. To see if all that sidewall would be a detriment to handling on the track, we recently visited GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan.
GingerMan’s 2.14-mile course mimics a great drive on winding, country roads. There isn’t much change in elevation and there is good visibility around the track. It isn’t the most technically challenging track, but GingerMan is close to the office and we always enjoy turning laps there. As we leave the pits and head onto the track, the Miata’s excellent steering brings a grin to our face. We’ve sung the praises of slow cars in the past and the Miata is the epitome of a slow car. Sure, the 2011 model is much faster than the original, but we barely top triple digits on GingerMan’s recently lengthened back straight and compared to anything else we’d want to drive on a track, the Miata crawls along all three straights. But going fast in a straight line isn’t what makes a track fun, anyway. We’re here to find the limit of adhesion for each of GingerMan’s eleven turns with our relatively narrow 205-mm tires.
Entering a turn at speed is a two-stage process with our stock tires. At turn-in, the car shifts its load to the outside wheels and the springs take their set for the corner. There’s a lot more body roll than we’re accustomed to thanks to ample time in today’s sports cars with ultrastiff suspensions. And then there’s the inevitable flex of the tall Yokohamas. The two-step squish of suspension then tires means that the Miata is a bit slow to settle into a turn, requiring patience and smart speed through every corner. Though we love the ride of the stock tires on the street, the added roll in turns can be a bit disconcerting to novice drivers. Plus we know the Mazda’s excellent chassis can handle more grip.
The body roll would likely be minimized with the optional performance package’s sport-tuned suspension and Bilstein shocks (only offered on Touring and Grand Touring cars.) A shock-tower brace comes standard on Touring and Grand Touring models, which would also increase stiffness. Despite the roll, our Miata is adept at changing direction and everyone who has had a chance to experience the car on a track has walked away grinning.
Even our novice drivers find the Miata easy to drive around the track and nobody seems to notice the lack of electronic nannies found on virtually every other new car today. The car’s balance is excellent, the steering wheel delivers great feedback from the front wheels, and there is just enough power to slide the rear end through a turn. The Miata’s simplicity means that drivers experience the sensations that microprocessors so frequently strip from modern cars. Eventually, one editor carries too much speed into a turn and enters the infield sideways, a reminder those electronics we frequently lament are actually making more corrections than we want to admit. Our Miata suffers no real damage from this off-track excursion and a slightly bruised ego heals quickly.
As good as the Miata is, it’s clear that there’s room for improvement with our stripper. Looking for big gains with low investment, we’re hoping a set of stickier, more stable tires will transform the car for its next track outing. Associate editor Eric Tingwall has a trip to the Tire Rack planned to evaluate our options. Check back with Automobilemag.com to find out which tires we put on our Miata and how they affect its track behavior.
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)