Not so long ago, the thought of inching a Mazda Miata onto a giant car ferry in Muskegon, Michigan, at 9:30 on a Thursday morning — after already having driven three hours on the interstate in the little cruise-control-less two-seater — wouldn’t have seemed very appealing to me. You see, before I worked at Automobile Magazine, I thought that Mazda Miatas were chick cars and American horsepower was absolute king.
During my first week on the job in 2004, however, I spent some high-quality time behind the wheel of a Lotus Elise and a Mazda 3 and discovered the wonders of small, tossable, lightweight, normally aspirated cars. I first drove a brand-new third-generation Miata in late 2005, and I immediately fell in love with its tiny footprint, sporty character, and intimate embrace. Around that same time, I had the good fortune to drive seven of New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman’s vintage British cars (including a 1969 Lotus Elan, the widely acknowledged inspiration for the original 1990 Miata), all of which offered varying degrees of the Miata’s deliciousness, with dollops of old and slow added in for good measure. My life was forever changed.
The MGB (before)
October 2007 found me driving my newly purchased vintage British funster, a 1967 MGB/GT Special, across America with close friend and knowledgeable electrical engineer Mike McPike. I now had my very own small, tossable, lightweight (and old and unreliable) car. I thoroughly enjoyed the MGB for three years before sadly selling it — in preparation for the pending arrival of Daughter Number Two — last November to noted vintage-car restorer/collector/dealer/author/racer Colin Comer.
Before long, the incessant perfectionist Comer e-mailed photos of the fenderless, hoodless MGB in his Milwaukee shop/showroom. “Here we go again,” he wrote, “the beginnings of a comprehensive rebuild of a car I swore would be great to use as-is.” Because of some long-ago accident, the frame rails needed significant straightening and the car needed a new inner fender, a new radiator panel, and a new hood. Between paying jobs, Comer and his five employees dabbled with the MGB. In April, he sent me a message: “B/GT is nearing its new paint job. What a project! Might be time for a follow-up story when it is done?”
That was about the same time I learned that a 2011 Mazda MX-5 would join Automobile’s fleet for the summer. I instantly knew exactly what I’d do for my weekend with the Miata — Mike and I would revisit the old B/GT and find out first-hand what it felt like after being freshly restored.
By July, “The Quickie” was back on the road with its 1798-cc four-cylinder engine rebuilt, a five-speed Ford Type 9 gearbox in place of the original nonoverdrive four-speed, new Dayton tubeless wire wheels, new vintage-looking Vredestein Sprint Classic radial tires, fresh Grampian gray paint, new leather-looking vinyl front seat upholstery, and plenty more tweaks and refreshments. I made reservations for the Lake Express ferry and waited impatiently, like a kid for Christmas, for the calendar to count down to our departure date.
The Miata to the Lake
I leave my house before 6 a.m., but my eyes become unbleary the moment I twist the key in the Miata’s ignition. Sure, the mercury is below 60 degrees, I’m wearing short sleeves, and the top is down, but I’m actually extra alert because the Mazda is so ridiculously refreshing and fun. It says volumes that I would rather drive this $24,000 Miata than the vast majority of new cars on the market today. Dollar for dollar, I’d say it’s easily the most desirable new car you can buy. Whenever we discuss roadsters here at Automobile, the Miata is always mentioned along with gems such as the Porsche Boxster, the BMW Z4, the Chevrolet Corvette, and the Lotus Elise. Those cars are truly great, too, but the Miata provides probably 90 percent of the fun for half the price (or less) and gives up only a bit of speed, refinement, and prestige. For my tight budget, that’s just fine.
It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled a great distance in a convertible, and I’ve forgotten how many smells bombard you, and this morning they alternate between making me hungry (McDonald’s) and disgusting me (highway diesel stench). In a car this petite, you can’t really stretch out, so — as when Mike and I drove the MGB from Sacramento to eastern Iowa, where we surrendered to a trailer — bathroom breaks are a welcome respite from somewhat unsupportive seats and the driver’s cramped right ankle and sore right heel. Our five-speed Miata also revs like crazy on the highway (about 3400 rpm at 75 mph), almost as bad as the old MGB. Nonetheless, it constantly feels good to drive this Mazda.
The Boat to Brew City
The Lake Express ferry began service from Muskegon to Milwaukee in 2004. Its top speed is 40 mph, and it’s a great option for travelers who don’t care to engage in the crapshoot that is Chicago traffic and summertime road construction in the Midwest. According to Google Maps, driving the 272 miles from Muskegon to Milwaukee (dock to dock) would take five hours and three minutes. Taking the ferry 83 miles across Lake Michigan cuts that time almost exactly in half. Like flying on an airplane, of course, you have to arrive before the vessel departs (in this case at least forty-five minutes), but you can sleep, eat, work, or walk around while someone else pilots the vehicle. The Lake Express crosses the big pond for three round-trips daily during July and August and twice daily in May, June, September, and October. The ferry isn’t cheap — our cost for two adults and one car one-way was $294.50. A round-trip discount would have put the total at $537.00. No one lives at the Lake Express dock, though, and Google says the time from Chelsea, Michigan, to Colin’s showroom via the ferry is actually fifteen minutes longer than the 320-mile drive via Gary, Indiana, and the Dan Ryan Expressway. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the ferry route is more relaxing — and your arrival time more reliable.
The Lake Express staff parks up to forty-six cars and twelve motorcycles on the bottom deck of the 192-foot-long catamaran based on a visual estimate of each vehicle’s size and weight. The lighter cars and motorcycles are directed to the outer edges of the six-lane parking deck, and heavier vehicles and those with trailers are arranged toward the center. Not surprisingly, our 2500-pound Miata went in line between a Toyota Prius and a Ford Focus, which was directly in front of several motorcycles. You can’t stay in your car once the ship is underway, but the passenger deck seems like the widest, tallest, most spacious airplane fuselage or train car you’ve ever been in. You can also loiter or sit on the open top deck, which we did until the four MTU Detroit Diesel engines’ 12,000 horsepower (total) awesomely thrust the 460-ton (loaded) vessel to its 36.5-mph cruising speed through four big Rolls-Royce Kamewa water jets.
The MGB (after)
Eight miles after driving the Miata off the ferry, we pull into the driveway of Comer’s showroom. Soon, his employee, Ryan Liersch, drives the MGB to the showroom from another shop around the block. The car is absolutely stunning. So shiny. So fresh. So amazing. Forget the prom — it’s like seeing the girl-next-door tomboy suddenly dressed to the nines to attend the Royal Wedding. Clearly, it’s the same car, but it’s just so breathtakingly different.
After a touring Comer’s enchanting showroom and shooting some photos of the Miata both inside and with the MGB, we lock the Mazda and bid adieu to Liersch. It’s time for MGB Road Trip 2011: Milwaukee to Road America.
I’d planned to get Comer’s impressions of the Miata while we were in town, but he accidentally agreed to a full day of driving vintage racing cars at Road America (namely his own 1965 Corvette, 1966 Shelby GT350 Mustang, 2000 Bill Elliott NASCAR Winston Cup Ford racer, and Comer’s wife’s 1959 Bugeye Sprite). “If you want an extended drive in the MGB,” he offered, “you could pick it up at my shop and drive it to Road America and hang out for a bit there. As far as I know, it’s fully capable of going 100 miles in a day, unlike when you owned it,” he joked.
The MGB doesn’t just look like its hotter, richer, faster, sexier sister. It drives like it, too. Comer installed a Tourist Trophy SS exhaust that sounds amazingly throaty and turns lots of bystanders’ heads, and the engine feels stronger and more responsive. The five-speed transmission doesn’t shift with quite the rifle-action precision as before, but it’s nearly as nice, much quieter, and offers an all-important extra gear that drops engine revs by about 900 rpm at highway speeds. By my calculations, fuel economy is at least 30 percent better than when I owned the car. Every single part on the B has been carefully cleaned up, refurbished, or replaced, and it shows. Overall, it drives as silky smooth as it looks, and that’s saying a lot. My only complaints are (1) that, for aesthetic reasons, Comer swapped in a stock MGB “banjo” wheel that’s larger and transmits slightly less road feel and requires more movement than the cool wooden Nardi wheel that was on the car when I bought it, (2) that fifth gear engages with some rubbery, gummy action, which Comer attributes to the shifter boot getting in the way, and (3) that it smells less like an oily old British car and more like lots of new rubber and plastic. Boo hoo. Mike and I have a freakin’ blast revisiting our vintage friend anyway.
Our slightly less vintage friend Comer shows us a great time once we finally get to Road America, too, a much-needed purchase of lunch and sunscreen having delayed our arrival at the classic track. After parking his Corvette, he greets us, gets our feedback on the MGB, and quickly ushers us into his white 2010 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. We’re goin’ for a ride! Comer has been lapping Road America for most of the day, and his racing experience is plainly clear as he calmly talks us through the tricky, fast, fourteen-turn, 4.05-mile course at extremely high speeds, touching an indicated 143 mph at the end of the front straightaway. Since my first enthralling drive of a rorty C63 several years ago, I’ve been trying to convince Mike to trade his Acura for one, and now he knows exactly why…and goes on to spend much of the evening researching used C63s online.
The Miata is no stompin’ C63 AMG on the racetrack, but I’ve been around GingerMan Raceway and Waterford Hills in our summer-fling example, so I’m definitely regretting that Mike and I didn’t get to Elkhart Lake earlier in the day and try to get it onto the track for a few long laps of fun.
Back to the Miata
Although it starts to rain, Mike and I are secretly pleased when we make a couple wrong turns while attempting to take the back way south to Milwaukee, all the better to extend our limited time in the B. Too soon, though, we’ve dropped the MG at Colin’s house and checked in to a hotel. It’s been a long day, we’ve spent more than two-and-a-half hours in each of three different vehicles, and we’ve got many miles to go tomorrow.
The next morning, we visit with an old BMW sedan (a future Collectible Classic subject) and its owner for a couple hours before enjoying our first meal worthy of mentioning in this story — pancakes, eggs, and pig at Maxfield’s Pancake House, which came highly recommended by my dear college friend Katie Doral, who’s lived in Milwaukee for several years and had a beer with us last night. All through the trip, the Miata has been catching people’s attention — particularly because of its tough-looking, graphite-colored OZ Racing Alleggerita HLT wheels — and it’s never as apparent as when the rider of a BMW motorcycle (and owner of a Z3 M roadster) bends our ear about cars for about ten minutes outside Maxfield’s.
Riding the ferry across Lake Michigan was fun and relaxing, but a Mazda Miata is best enjoyed driven, not parked. That’s why we’re taking the long way back home, around the northern reaches of Lake Michigan. We head north toward Green Bay on WIS-57, making brief stops to photograph the Miata in front of the No Where Pub in Fredonia, dwarfed by some farm implements along the road, and frolicking with a Tyrannosaurus Rex sculpted from metal junk just south of Packer Town. Stunning Lambeau Field provides another picturesque backdrop as well as a good place to stretch our legs, switch drivers, and tell ourselves that this is gonna be the Detroit Lions’ year.
Besides visiting the MGB, another goal of mine for the trip was to fill the Miata’s unused luggage space with exotic beer — or, at least, stuff that you can’t buy in Michigan. The charming Stateline Mini Mart in Marinette, Wisconsin, came through at the last pre-Michigan minute, and I take full advantage, shoveling into the trunk a mixed six-pack from the New Glarus Brewing Co., along with a thirty-pack of Hamm’s (Hamm’s!) and a sixer of Old Style. Oh, and a couple Powerades for the road.
Through the Upper Peninsula
Brew acquired, we cross the Menominee River into the eponymous town in Michigan, where we take another quick photographic detour, this time through John Henes Park.
Neither Mike nor I had ever entered Michigan through Wisconsin, and we are somewhat certain that the time zone switched back to Eastern from Central as soon as you cross the state line. Not so. It turns out that the four Michigan counties bordering Wisconsin observe that state’s time zone, so our phones don’t lose an hour until we cross into Delta County, about 35 miles into Michigan on M-35. Mike sees the Delta County/Eastern Time Zone sign out the corner of his eye at the last possible moment, so we turn around for this special photo op.
Escanaba’s highly recommendable Hereford & Hops Steakhouse and Brewpub provides a lovely atmosphere for us to watch the Lions crush the Cincinnati Bengals in a preseason NFL game. And fantastic walleye. And more beer for the boot, this time a one-gallon growler of H&H’s oatmeal stout for my wife. After a quick stop for a twelve-pack of Blatz (for my brother-in-law, not me, I swear!), the sober driver takes us as far east as Manistique’s pleasant Northshore Motor Inn before we call it a night.
Back to the Lower
Rain has been pounding the Miata for quite some time when I awake on Saturday morning, so we’re forced to fuss with the Mazda’s three-speed wipers and drive 275 miles or so with the top up. This includes the five majestic miles that are the Mackinac Bridge, which has connected Michigan’s two peninsulas since 1957 — and which I courageously crossed in the MG in 2008. On that same trip, I was introduced to the Legs Inn in Cross Village, less than twenty-five miles from the end of the big bridge. Unfortunately, they’re not open when Mike and I pull in with the Miata, so our stomachs will have to rumble for potato pancakes awhile longer. But that’s OK, because Cross Village also happens to mark the northern end of the famous Tunnel of Trees, a portion of M-119 that stretches along the Lake Michigan shore to Harbor Springs. Despite drizzling rain and the Miata’s track-biased (and awesomely sticky) Dunlop Direzza Sport Z1 tires, the Mazda enthusiastically carves the road’s many curves with the deftness of a tango dancer. The spud hotcakes at Harbor Springs’ simply named Polish Kitchen twenty miles down the road are the perfect reward for keeping the Miata on course.
We don’t dawdle much for the rest of the drive, because we’re rushing to get to my parents’ house for a cookout. Mike’s next turn comes after the rain stops, so the top goes down, and our smiles get wider. At one point, he says, “These stupid little corners that’d be nothing in any other car are just plain fun.” He’s absolutely right. Aside from a bit of mechanical and cosmetic polishing, the 2011 Miata is identical to the 2006 Miata, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
The Mazda is reasonably practical, too. The car yielded 26 mpg during its 940 miles in my care. And even though it’s small, there are lots of handy cubbies, in addition to the decently spacious trunk: deep cup holders in front of each inner door handle, tiny door pockets for paper and maps, a pen holder and shallow dual cup holder behind the shifter, a lockable bin between the seatbacks that’s large enough for a couple small cameras and wallets, hidden bins behind each seatback perfect for extra water bottles and sunscreen, and a bit of space behind the seats for jackets and small loose items. There’s even room to stick sundry heavy items like full water bottles on either side of the stowed roof — you just have to remember to remove them before you cycle the top; when the roof is raised, there’s a large shelf beneath the rear window that could’ve easily housed another case of beer.
The only additional complaints we uncover on the balance of the drive is that the center console has ZERO padding where your elbow rests and that the air-conditioning blows pretty fiercely on the driver’s right ankle if he’s wearing shorts, even when the fan speed is set at its lowest level.
After bailing from US-127 in Mason, Michigan, some of my favorite twisty back roads on the way to Waterloo are icing on the cake of a splendid but quick trip across a freshwater sea, back in time, and through a soggy tunnel of trees.
Don’t get me wrong — I still have a great appreciation for horsepower, American and otherwise. But nowadays I also envy guys — and chicks — who drive Miatas all the time.
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)