BARCELONA, Spain – It took but two sharp, fast turns on a stretch of fantastic driving road in northern Spain for us to know that the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata will not disappoint the roadster’s devotees. The pre-production, right-hand-drive 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata we drove follows an edict set by the three generations of Miatas before it: built from the inside out, minimum cabin space, low curb weight, and components designed to make drivers feel at one with the car.
Though Mazda has 25 years of experience with the MX-5, the all-new 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata enters an automotive world that’s applying lots of pressure to make things bigger, heavier, safer, and duller. And yet this Miata is slightly shorter, roughly 150 pounds lighter depending on spec, and has a 0.6-inch shorter wheelbase compared with its predecessors. Its seats have been pushed 0.6 inch closer to the transmission tunnel, a chassis backbone, in order to optimize the center of gravity, says Hitoshi Takamatsu, deputy program manager. The canvas top can be raised and lowered from inside with one hand, and it’s lighter than the outgoing car’s despite the addition of an aluminum panel for sound attenuation. (No word yet on a power hardtop version.)
The ride and handling are perfectly balanced for a small sports car, although it handles itself in a slightly different manner than Miatas previously have. By moving the engine back by 0.6 inch and lower by 0.5 inch, adding aluminum front fenders, aluminum front suspension knuckles, and narrower tires, this Miata has a lowered polar moment of inertia and is easily coaxed to rotate. The power steering—electrically assisted for the first time in a Miata—is precise and quick, providing plenty of feedback. In concert with the snick-snick of the short-throw six-speed gearbox, the light, progressive clutch, and the easily modulated brakes, the Miata provides as much driving pleasure as any sports car that costs three or four times as much.
The car was very stable during mundane moments, but its rear wheels were always happy to dance on the edge of adhesion when some extra throttle was applied coming out of corners. It’s a characteristic that can be used to great advantage once you’ve become fully acclimated to the car and you’re ready to turn off the stability and traction control, and go au naturel.
Mazda loaded us up with notebooks full of statistics, specifications, and technical advances, such as the fact that a plastic mesh replaces the metal inner frame in the seats, saving 17.4 pounds per car. Or the fact that the A-pillars, which have been moved back on the body, are designed to minimize wind impact. Or that the tiny front-quarter windows and the character line in the profile are designed to channel wind to the driver’s and passenger’s chests and shoulders, which Mazda says is a good, pleasant kind of wind. Or the fact that only one component in the car is heavier—the rear differential mounting bracket that has gained 0.1 pound in order to use the drivetrain’s vibration to increase the frequency of the exhaust’s “beat” sound under aggressive throttle.
“It was a big struggle,” Tatsunori Iwasaki, staff manager of the engine-design engineering department, says. Mazda built two mules – one with the added weight, and one without – and compared them before deciding the extra mass was worthwhile. As for Iwasaki-san’s 1.5-liter Skyactiv engine, a heavily reworked longitudinal variant of the engine used in the Mazda3 that will be available in various markets, it’s pretty good. The power is adequate on tight and twisty European roads, so long as you consistently row the gearbox.
Mazda will provide only the 2.0-liter Skyactiv inline-four for the U.S. market, although one engineer smiled when we suggested the 1.5-liter might be considered for us when Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards get stricter in coming years. All we can tell you about the U.S.-spec Miata’s 2.0-liter Skyactiv direct-injection engine is that it will be a longitudinal version of the transverse 2.0-liter available in the Mazda3, and it will make 155 hp and 148 lb-feet of torque. No answers on how much its higher mass will affect the 1.5-liter Miata’s 50:50 weight distribution or whether it will match its 7,500-rpm redline.
Aside from the wrong engine and the right-hand drive, the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata we sampled is close enough to the U.S.-spec car to figure out that the next-generation Miata will be at least as much fun as the first three models. Its interior is again comfortable, with more top-up headroom and enough storage to make it a practical daily driver. The Miata has always been the automotive contrarian to both the quotidian appliances and the over-the-top luxury sports cars with which it shares the road. Now it seems a more important antidote for the next decade to the coming onslaught of mandated backup cameras, automatic braking, and fully autonomous cars.
Wondering how the all-new, 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata compares with its predecessors? Read our original drives of the first three generations of Miata.
2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Specifications
- On Sale: Summer 2015
- Base Price Range: $25,000-$32,000 (U.S. 2.0L est.)
- Engine: 1.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4, 128 hp @ 7,000 rpm, 111 lb-ft. @ 4,800 rpm
- Transmissions: 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic
- Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
- EPA Mileage: 22/30 mpg (city/highway) (est., U.S.-spec 2.0L)
- L x W x H: 154.1 x 68.1 x 48.6 in
- Wheelbase: 91.1 in.
- Weight: 2,200 lb