Six months ago, you would have found me in a crazier place in my life: I was living in the thick of the college experience and my days were filled with running to class in slippers, feverishly updating my resume, and cramming for final exams. Flash forward to today, and the situation is much different: I'm a 21-year-old college graduate, I have a steady job, and I have leases on a sensible apartment and a sensible mid-size sedan. I've reached a point of relative stability, which is nice, but as I drove home from the grocery store a few weeks ago, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'm getting...boring.
Simply put: I had a quarter-life crisis.
Whenever my college life got predictable, I always solved it with the same thing: a road trip. After deciding my life in Ann Arbor was getting a bit too routine and grown-up, I reached for the familiar option and penciled myself in for a road trip in our summer Mazda MX-5 Miata.
I set my sights on my parents' home west of Philadelphia for one reason: I'm not the only Timmins man in crisis. Having recently sent my only sibling off to college, my father was just starting a real life crisis -- the mid-life one. I figured his situation would somehow make me feel better, for one, but the other half of me selfishly hoped that, after driving it, he would choose the MX-5 as his mid-life crisis car.
I chose the Miata for a similar reason: I think I may want one. Before my trip I had only spent one evening with our summer convertible, but I spent that evening driving the streets of Ann Arbor with a gigantic smile on my face. As long as I could live with the Miata for a long stretch of time, the convertible would jump from my wish list to shopping list.
Eager to hit the road, I stuffed a duffel bag with dirty laundry into the trunk -- after all, I was visiting my parents -- punched the coordinates into my iPhone's GPS, and pointed the Miata's smiling face toward Chester County.
When you're in the Miata, with a left hand full of steering wheel and a right hand full of stick shift, everything becomes more exciting. Highway merges are full-throttle acceleration runs, and lane changes require not so much effort as thought: look at the lane to your left or right, and the Miata suddenly occupies it. The car sits so low that you can check your hair in the reflection off of an 18-wheeler's chrome skidplates, and the windshield is raked so steeply, tall people get hours-long scalp massages from the passing wind.
As with any sports car, however, the excitement can wear. Our Miata, a base Sport model, came with a five-speed manual transmission. The gearbox is well integrated with the engine for most uses, but with a short fifth gear, the engine buzzes away at 3,500 rpm when you cruise at 80 mph. So I did the only thing I could do: I turned up the stereo, which is good enough to drown out the engine even without the optional Bose system upgrade.
Even the Miata couldn't make up for a boring road, however, and boring roads are all northern Ohio seems to have. In general, the first half of the trek is pretty grim: from Ann Arbor, go south to the Ohio Turnpike, turn left, and drive due east until you lose all hope just shy of the Pennsylvania border.
Once you enter the Keystone state, however, car and road begin to mesh. As the Pennsylvania Turnpike snaked through hills and under mountains, the Miata came into its element. The aftermarket Dunlop Direzza tires gripped the undulating turns and hills but also kept noise to a minimum. As I-76 tunneled through the Allegheny Mountains, I appreciated the combination of 2.0-liter engine and convertible: at 65 mph in third gear, the engine stopped buzzing and started singing, reverberating against the tunnel walls and keeping me alert. I arrive at my parents' house Saturday night surprisingly refreshed.
After church on Sunday I figured it was time to see how my father Joe would like his potential mid-life car, so I tossed him the keys to the black convertible and hopped into the passenger's seat. "You do know how to drive stick, right?" I asked.
"Of course, Ben," he said. "I used to have an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme convertible with a four-on-the-floor and --"
He tapped the gas and the four-cylinder wound up. "Ooh, nice," he said, interrupting himself.
Joe pointed the MX-5 towards his very favorite road, a tree-lined two-lane country route that snakes between two local highways. Here, rowing through the gears and with the wind in what's left of his hair, he had a revelation.
"It's like...it's like I'm actually connected with the car," he said. "The steering is so direct, and I can really feel what the car is doing. I'm really part of the process."
I chuckled. "You've just summarized twenty years of reviews about this car, Dad," I said. "It took you, what, five minutes?"
Somewhere in the switchbacks of Limerick, PA, my father finally understood what makes this car so intensely likeable: it's ridiculously, incredibly fun to drive. Even with the driving skills of Mr. Bean, I felt like Ayrton Senna at Monaco every time I drove it.
The fact that the Miata is fun was no surprise; the fact that it's also sensible was. The Miata is a car that can embarrass Mustangs on back-road blasts, but it costs no more than a basic Toyota Camry. Its available hardtop makes it track-ready and weather-proofed, and the trunk is big enough for most trips to the grocery store.
If your quest is to stay young while the world around you grows up, the Miata strikes a perfect balance, no matter your age. The reliability and usability will satisfy your inner adult, but the driving experience is enough to make your inner teenager giggle. Needless to say, I grabbed the keys to the Miata on Friday in the hopes of curing one pseudo-life crisis, but I ended up curing two.
Somewhere on the ride back to Ann Arbor on Monday, I started to realize how I can really put the notion of "quarter-life crisis" to bed. I flopped onto my couch later that night, opened the lid to my laptop, fired up eBay motors, and grabbed a calculator. Surely I could swap out that Hyundai Sonata lease for a used Miata, I thought.
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)