2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata Summer: Autocross on Belle Isle
In these uncertain times, it can't hurt to have a safety net, a backup plan in case everything goes to hell in an imported-from-Greece hand basket. For me, that safety net is a no-frills Mazda Miata. If I somehow lose this amazing gig at Automobile Magazine -- perhaps when my superiors tire of my tendency to burn food in the office kitchen or my limited parking skills -- I figure I can get a job flipping burgers somewhere and purchase a Miata. No, it wouldn't quite be like driving a Spyker C8 Aileron through a ribbon of mountain roads, but it would, I'd hope, sate my considerable thirst for automotive entertainment on an austerity budget.
I put this safety net to the test when I arrived back in the office late last week from a business trip to find that our summer Miata was still available for Father's Day weekend. I can definitely find a few days' worth of fun on short notice and for minimal cash, but first, I need to find the car. Because our Miata has manual door locks, it has no remote key fob. Thus, I can't make it honk its horn to alert me to its whereabouts. I need a few passes through the parking structure before I find the little guy tucked away between two other vehicles. Because I'd grabbed the keys on short notice, the car isn't freshly washed and photo ready, as press vehicles usually are -- the grinning fascia is filled with bugs and the windshield has been strafed with bird ordnance. Perfect! I roll back the top with a flick of my wrist and motor off to the nearest self-service car wash. Running the soap wand over the sheetmetal, I'm faced with what I see as the only downside to the Miata: the styling. Although hardly an unattractive car, the (2005-present) Miata is neither as classically understated as the first-generation model nor does it turn heads like the now defunct Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. At least I don't have long to ponder, as the entire expanse of sheetmetal takes only about five minutes -- and $3 -- to wash and rinse. Only a few minutes later, I've applied and buffed off a quick coat of polish, leaving me with a glistening black Miata for my weekend.
But where to take my clean car? With only a day to prepare, I nevertheless find myself deciding among several tempting options, including a Sprint Cup race at the Michigan International Speedway and a vintage car show at the Henry Ford museum. I ultimately alight upon something more interactive -- an autocross event at Detroit's historic Belle Isle. In my professional life, I'm usually disappointed when manufacturers take us to an autocross: too much waiting for only a few short sprints that don't tell you all that much about a car's real world behavior. (How often do Honda Odyssey owners, for instance, slalom through cones?) As a real-life enthusiast of limited means, however, I love it. Participation fees are usually very reasonable, and even completely stock cars like our Miata can take part. And unless you're truly ham-handed or malicious, there's virtually no risk of injuring or damaging anything other than a traffic cone and your pride.
I depart on a Sunday morning, stopping to pick up our intern, Greg Fink, who isn't too impressed with the splotches of car wax I've failed to remove. We're running slightly late, so I have no choice but to take the interstate. Perhaps because I've been warned about the Miata's subpar highway ride by some coworkers, I'm pleasantly surprised by its habitability over some seriously bombed-out stretches of made-in-Detroit highway. The 2480-pound roadster, bereft of modern "necessities" like cruise control, is stable and confident chasing pickup trucks at 80 mph. With the top and windows lowered, Greg and I can easily carry on a conversation, and the steering wheel's immediate off-center responsiveness doesn't translate to high-speed twitchiness.
As we cross the short bridge from Detroit to Belle Isle and pull into the large expanse being used for the event, I begin to have second thoughts. Although the Michigan Sports Car Club allows cars to run without modifications, there don't seem to be many such examples present. The competition ranges from a Volkswagen Scirocco whose wide wheels protrude hilariously from its fenders to a smattering of brutal-sounding Corvettes. Roll cages, tire trailers, and elaborate decal schemes dot the field. We, meanwhile, must meekly ask for a roll of masking tape so that we can crudely render our numbers on the doors of our Miata, which rides on sixteen-inch wheels and street tires. "First time here?" is a popular question. As I roll onto the staging line, two thoughts dominate my mind: Don't spin (happened to me before), and don't get lost on the course (ditto). I shut off the air-conditioning and briefly wonder about the stability control before remembering that our Miata does not have it.
I start off slowly, looking more like an old lady lost in a parking lot than a wannabe racing driver. My time -- sixty seconds -- reflects it, falling some fifteen to twenty seconds behind the real hot shoes. Going toe-to-toe with so many focused track machines also highlights the fact that the MX-5's "zoom zoom" personality doesn't, in fact, equal "fast." It does equal fun, though. By the second go-around, it hits me: I'm in a Miata, and I'm going to have a good time. I peg the tach, screech off the line, and travel much of the way around the track by breaking those smallish Yokohama Advan tires loose and swinging the back end. It's truly striking to drive a car this cheap and realize that it possesses no discernable dynamic faults-- no understeer, no snap oversteer, no lag in the throttle. Remember that Spyker I drove? This is better.
Eventually, the line becomes clearer, and lo and behold, the times start to drop. Fifty-five seconds, then fifty two, and finally fifty. It's intern Greg, though, who takes home the best time, dipping a hair below fifty seconds on our last run of the day. Credit some experimentation with trail braking, he says. Son of a B.
High on adrenaline, we head back home. Gradually, the Miata transitions back to a commuter car, its tires cooling and engine humming calmly in fifth gear. Within a few hours, it's toting my groceries in preparation for another work week. On Monday morning, I reluctantly pull into the office parking structure and latch the top for the last time. Back to the grind or, in my fortunate case, writing about my adventures and brainstorming what to put in the next issue of our magazine. As I walk toward the office, I glance back and see the faint, dusty outline of our racing numbers marking the door like a tan line from a great day at the beach. I don't know about flipping burgers, but I could certainly get used to spending my weekends with a Miata.
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 (city/hwy/combined)
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)