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2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata Summer: Shifting Gears, Shifting Plans

Here's the funny thing about plans: no matter how well thought out, no matter how long ahead of time they're formed, they have a tendency to fall apart -- especially at the last possible moment.

That's what happened to my wife and I this past weekend as we were preparing to go on a little Ohio road trip planned around a wedding in Columbus. The nuptials proceeded as scheduled, but our trips to see old friends and college buddies broke down as the time of our departure got near. Life has a funny way of throwing obstacles in the way, and sure enough, business trips, home repairs, and job interviews all forced our original itinerary to morph considerably.

A downer? Perhaps to some, but we still had a wedding to attend, four open days, and keys to the Mazda MX-5 Miata in hand. Things weren't going as planned, but they certainly could be far worse.

It's Thursday evening; I haven't yet to made it out of our office's parking structure, and the Miata's razor-sharp handling and communicative steering have me grinning ear to ear as I whip my way down six floors. That grin disappears by the time I pull into my driveway about an hour later as reality sets in: yes, this car has enough room to whisk two people to Columbus, but there's also the matter of our stuff. Simply put, we have a lot to pack and not a lot of free space to pack it in.

Bring on the "trial-and-error" packing method. Over the next hour, I try to figure out the best way to cram our material goods into the Miata's 5.3 cubic feet of trunk space. I pack wedding gifts as tightly against the bulkhead and rear fenders as I possibly can, and then I turn my attention to our personal luggage. After trying three different suitcases, I find one that fits and proclaim to my wife that this medium-size case will need to store at least four outfits and our formalwear. The expression on her face is priceless but less than hospitable.

Somehow, we manage to pack it all in. Creative thinking has yielded additional cargo space in some of the most unusual places. I cram my toiletry bag into a cubby behind the driver's seat, and both my laptop computer and SLR camera are tucked into the folded roof structure. Perfect.

I had notions of trying to tackle this entire weekend with the MX-5's top down but change my mind by the time we finally reach Columbus on Friday afternoon. We've been roasting in the sun for about four hours, and despite frequent liberal applications of SPF 50 sunblock, our arms and legs are almost as red as Mao's party handbook.

We check into our hotel, change, and jump back into the Miata. This time, however, we elect to keep the top up on our way to the wedding in an attempt to preserve our formalwear. I've no idea where the ceremony is and even less of a natural sense of direction about the Columbus area, but my wife pulls out my iPad and starts calling out turns like a rally co-driver as we race off into the countryside and to the Darby House -- a beautiful piece of property formerly owned by real estate magnate John W. Galbreath.

Our clothes are relatively wrinkle-free, but I wish I could say the same for our gift bags, which look a little worse for wear, especially when placed on the gift table alongside the other presents. Here's hoping the bride and groom appreciate what's within the bags -- and just how hard we labored to fit them in the Miata's trunk to begin with...

I end up breathlessly talking about the MX-5 to a guest seated next to me at the wedding reception, noting that for the money, even this base roadster feels sophisticated and is a blast to toss around on twisting roads.

"Sounds great," he says, as he rises from his seat and stretches his six-foot-plus frame, "but can I fit when the top's up?"

Well, maybe not. Despite finding adequate leg and shoulder room, I can't help but notice that headroom is at a premium when the top is in place. I've cranked the MX-5's seat as low as it goes, but in order to eke a little more space between my cranium and the top's bows, I'm forced to recline the seatback a little more than I'd prefer.

The clock reads 2:00 a.m. by the time we return to our hotel room - and my sleep-deprived brain isn't able to process our plans for Saturday morning as well as it should. My wife suggests heading toward Dayton to visit my brother and hit a favorite shopping locale of ours just north of Cincinnati -- after all, it's only about two hours away.

But about an hour into the journey, I do a quick calculation: we have tickets for a Cleveland Indians game that starts at 7:05 p.m. The stadium is located about four hours away from where we started in Columbus. To tackle both, we'd have to turn around as soon as we hit Dayton, and since my wife is not a fan of manual transmissions, I'd be behind the wheel for almost eight hours.

I'm not really keen on that idea. It's not that the Miata isn't comfortable -- it's just that my right foot is starting to hurt because this no-options car is devoid of the available convenience pack, which adds in cruise control control. My colleagues haven't missed it much during jaunts on back roads, but for those facing long trips on the interstate, it's more a necessity than a luxury.

On Sunday, we had originally planned to meet up with a friend in Geneva-on-the-Lake, but that changed at the last minute. For kicks, we decided to take the trek eastward along the shore of Lake Erie anyway -- a friend of ours had described the town as a retro relic but warned that it may not be very vibrant on a Sunday.

She was right on one of those counts. This is one of those stereotypical beach towns that seem stuck in 1956, filled with quaint shops and burger joints that feel as if they're ripped from the pages of Archie. Today, though, is "Thunder on the Strip," and the main drag is inundated with bikers of all sorts as the town pretends it's a family-friendly Sturgis for the day.

That doesn't deter other motorists -- many in sporty little convertibles like our Miata -- from trying to buzz through town while enjoying the summer sun. One such example catches my wife's eye. "That's a neat little roadster," she says, pointing at a mustard yellow MG that whizzes past. "Is that a Midget? It'd be kind of fun to have one as a project car."

"I'd rather have something like this Miata," I argue, and call out the stereotypical arguments -- e.g. safety, reliability, and practicality -- that Miata owners frequently cite as purchase reasons. "This is almost all of the same fun you'd have with an MG or a Triumph, yet you'll never have to deal with any questionable parts bearing a Lucas label."

As if on cue, we catch up to the Midget about a mile later, its hazard lamps blinking away in the twilight. The hood is up, and its owner is poking about the engine compartment, fervently searching for a way to restart his roadster.

"Point taken," my wife adds as we zoom past and head toward the freeway.

Thus far, we've logged almost 800 miles on the highway, but by Monday I'm hankering to get the MX-5 on the kind of roads it was designed for: stretches of two-lane blacktop that tightly wind through hilly countryside.

Think you can't find any such roads in the Cleveland area? Try again. Nestled between the urban jungles of Cleveland and Akron is the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The National Park Service touts many natural highlights, including several waterfalls, a heronry, and an extensive hiking path that runs alongside the remains of the Erie Canal -- but none tout a manmade highlight: the roads.

We wind our way into the heart of the park -- the historic villages of Boston and Peninsula, respectively -- on Riverview Road, which runs perpendicular to I-80 and I-271. The crests, dips, and twists are entertaining, but nothing compared to those we find on Hines Hill Road, which runs between Boston Mills Road and Old Route Eight. By no means are these roads meant for high-speed hijinks, but they're still a blast in the Miata, which tackles each taut apex with aplomb. If there's a better way to enjoy a national park from behind the wheel of a sports car, I've yet to discover it.

Sadly, our fun is cut short by a strong thunderstorm, which prompts us to find a path back to the tollway and head back to Michigan. But I can't stop thinking about those roads; the curves, elevation changes, and beautiful scenery are worth sampling again. In fact, I'm already starting to plan a return visit -- but here's hoping this round of planning goes a little smoother.

2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Base price (with destination): $23,905
Price as tested: $23,905

Standard Equipment:
2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine
5-speed manual transmission
16-inch alloy wheels
Tilt steering wheel
Power windows
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
Fog lights
Remote keyless entry and retractable key
Power door locks
Cruise control
Steering-wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls
One-touch-down passenger window
Trip computer
Silver seatback bars
Appearance package -- $1145
Front air dam
Rear skirt
Side sills

Body style
2-door roadster
Accommodation 2 passenger
Construction Unibody construction

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
Drive Rear-wheel
EPA Fuel Economy 22/28/25 (city/hwy/combined)

Steering hydraulic power assisted rack-and-pinion
Lock-to-lock 2.7
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)