Mazda MX 5 Miata: A car for our time

Photos by Andrew Trahan

Last week I took a very brief ride in the new BMW X6 M, which had just arrived in our office. It’s big, it’s red, and it has all the leather and carbon fiber one would expect of a $90,000 vehicle. And although I can’t yet attest to it personally, reliable sources say it’s stupid fast.

But that’s not the car I want to write about. You see, as we pulled through our parking structure, we came upon my ride for the night: a Mazda MX-5 Miata. Loaded with just about every feature available, our yellow test car costs $29,310, weighs 2511 pounds (per Mazda), and is rated by the EPA at a combined 24 mpg. That would be about a third the X6 M’s price, less than half its weight, and nearly twice its efficiency. As I flicked back the manual top, started up the feisty four-cylinder engine, and snicked the six-speed transmission into first gear, I couldn’t help but cast a glance at the X6 and wonder how dated it seemed.

I’m not trying to pick on BMW. The X6 M is just one of several vehicles hitting the market that probably seemed like good ideas in product planning meetings a few years ago but are now hopelessly out of touch. The sudden falling out of fashion so many new vehicles have experienced only heightens the irony in the fact that, twenty years after its introduction, the Miata is the perfect car for our new automotive era.

The art of the fine roadster, as we all know, lies eking out as much fun as possible from humble components, so it’s only natural that it appeals most in lean times. The concept coalesced in England during that country’s hungry postwar years. Mazda, for its part, launched the Miata during the recessionary late 1980s/early 1990s, and hewed perfectly to classic roadster strengths. It was light, fast, efficient, and cheap ($13,800). But then, a funny thing — or rather several funny things — happened. The Soviet Union fell, the Internet made millionaires out of college students, gas prices stayed incredibly low, and everyone, it seems, bought (or financed) a house and a large SUV. None of this dampened the Miata’s success –- it became the best-selling sports car of all time and won nearly every accolade in the industry, including our very first Automobile of the Year award. But for most of its two decades on the market, the Miata has been a quirky exception, the anti-SUV for folks who apparently didn’t notice that they could get more horsepower in a family sedan.

It’s only now, as we slowly dig out of a financial mess and look ahead at drastically tightening fuel economy standards, that the Miata once more seems like not only a great car, but a great idea as well, one that deserves to be copied. Ironic then, that it’s now nearly alone in the market. The Pontiac Solstice and the Saturn Sky are dead, as are the Toyota MR2 Spyder and the Honda S2000. The new performance vehicles we do see, fun though they may be, are becoming ever larger, heavier, and more expensive.

So, as we celebrate the Miata’s second decade, we hope that automakers -– most important of all Mazda -– realize how important the car is to our new reality. Humble though it may be, the Miata — and more fun, cheap, efficient cars like it — might hold the key to a responsible, yet not at all dreary, future for car enthusiasts.