As an employee of Automobile Magazine, it pains me to admit I don't always look for the most fun route between point A and point B. I love to drive for the sake of driving but some days I just need to get where I'm going as efficiently as possible. Right now my wife works in Chicago while I work in Ann Arbor, so I spend a lot of time driving between our two houses and I always stick to expressways and toll roads to shave time off the weekly trips. But that becomes very monotonous.
When I owned a motorcycle, I'd frequently head towards US 12, seeking out the curves and elevation changes in the Irish Hills region. I always wanted to ride across the state on US 12 but never managed to do it. Those same hills and curves sounded much more appealing to me than an expressway slog last weekend, when I was handed the Miata's key. Our Miata's lack of cruise control serves as a constant reminder the car wants to be on the sort of roads that require changes in speed and direction, not long, straight stretches of interstate highway. There's also a lot of wind and road noise in the roadster's cabin at highway speeds whether the top is up or down.
Driving slowly with the top and windows down creates a much more relaxing and interesting experience behind the wheel. Instead of being stuck behind left-lane hogs and massive semi trucks, I'm following a pair of motorcycles for 15 or 20 miles at the start of my trip. The sun is up, the top is down, and I give the bikes plenty of room because of their loud pipes. As we approach the sweeping turns, I wish I were following some sport bikes that could keep their speed up a bit better than these big old Harleys. I'm forced to slow down more than I'd like entering each turn, but that's not too upsetting when it's so easy to rev-match downshifts.
After the Harley riders pull in to a bar, the road opens up for me and straightens out again. Southern Michigan is a far cry from driver's paradise but the Miata is the best car I've driven on these roads. To some, 167 horsepower is an anemic figure but it provides more than enough performance for a car with a 2480 lb curb weight in a 55 mph zone. I've driven this stretch of road in cars that have triple the horsepower and with them you've got to double the limit to even begin to have fun -- which quickly turns to paranoia about being pulled over.
I make a quick stop for fuel and reluctantly put the top up. With an unusually cool spring this year, I haven't seen much sun this year and I don't want to get sunburned. I'd rather save my skin and drop the top in small doses. With the top up, the Miata feels a bit more claustrophobic. Part of the reason is my head contacts one of the roof support bows when the car hits large bumps and partially because I've become accustomed to looking over the top of the windshield frame to see when lights change from red to green. For drivers over six feet, the Miata is certainly best experienced with the top down.
Just before Sturgis, Michigan I see a sign for public access to Lake Lee. I've never heard of this lake before, but it's only a five-mile detour. I snap a few photos of the car and reflect on the fact that I've never found anything interesting enough to photograph on my weekly drive before. Other than a minor detour to get past a stretch of US 12 that's closed for a paving project, the rest of my drive through Michigan is enjoyable and uneventful.
I cross over to Indiana and discover Ragtops Museum in Michigan City. Had I known this museum existed, I would have planned to arrive when it was open to visitors. I'm not quite sure what's inside the building but the signs make for another photo opportunity. There's also a brewpub around the corner, so I have a couple reasons to come back and check out the museum on another trip.
After the museum, US 12 quickly becomes the Dunes Highway and follows the Lake Michigan shore. I'm surprised to find the road starts curving again and there are lots of trees lining the route. Having driven through this area of Indiana many times, I'd never have guessed it could be so pleasant only a few miles from the crowded routes of I-94 and the Indiana Toll Road. It doesn't last very long, though.
Before I know it, I'm in Gary, Indiana and there's nothing pretty about my surroundings. Like many cities in the Midwest, Gary has fallen on tough times and it could use a thorough cleaning and a couple thousand new jobs. I make my way though Gary and eventually leave US 12 and take US 41, better known as Lake Shore Drive, to get the rest of the way to my destination. Normally I head to the suburbs to spend the weekend with my wife, but I'm running my first half marathon in the morning and so I am staying at my sister's apartment in the city.
Lake Shore Drive borders Chicago's excellent Lakefront Trail, which happens to be where the half marathon takes place tomorrow. I've never been this far south on the trail and look forward to running somewhere new. I drop the top and lower the windows to take in Chicago's skyline as the sun starts to set. There's a bit of stop-and-go traffic as I skirt the skyscrapers downtown, but nothing unbearable. Urban driving is incredibly easy in the Miata thanks to its small size and stellar maneuverability. I easily find a parallel parking spot next to my sister's place and call it a night. If I were driving a bigger vehicle, it would have taken a lot longer to park.
Saturday morning comes quickly and I'm back on the south side of Chicago as the sun peaks over the horizon. The half marathon starts under a heat advisory and timing stops after only 130 people cross the finish line. There are several heat-related injuries on the course and I later learn one unfortunate runner died after reaching a local hospital. The sweltering heat doesn't let up for the rest of the weekend, and I'm happy our no-options Miata came with air conditioning.
I get a late start leaving Chicago on Sunday and I'm forced to take the familiar toll roads home. I was initially worried about driving a vehicle with a manual transmission the day after I attempted my first half marathon, but the Miata's light clutch doesn't bother my tired knee. This must be one of the easiest manual transmissions to drive because the clutch has perfect travel, requires little effort to depress, and the throttle is perfectly calibrated. There's not much else worth mentioning from the ride home. I wish I had enough time to take the two-lane route home, or at least for cruise control, as my right leg grows tired of holding the accelerator down after a few hours.
Despite my dull drive home, this has been the most entertaining trip I've made since I started this routine. Not only did the Miata make the drive more interesting and less stressful on the way over, I actually took a few small detours to take photos and experience the surroundings. When a car that's been on the market for this long can turn a monotonous weekly trip into something new and exciting -- without commanding more than $24,000 -- I'm more than impressed. Mazda has proof positive that it doesn't take big power, luxury appointments, or more than five forward gears to have fun behind the wheel of a modern car.
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)