For those of us of a certain age, a first drive of the automatic version of the new ND 2016 Mazda MX-5 conjured up memories of a time when automatic transmission options first started appearing in the sort of European sports cars that inspired the Miata. Here is our story…
A one-page advertisement with a picture of a couple driving along in a red Fiat Spider 2000 [nee’ 124 Spider], along a scenic coastal road ran in all the monthly enthusiast magazines during the summer of 1979.
“So many times you’ve watched it go by and said, ‘I wish they’d make one with an automatic transmission, just for me.’ We just did.”
For the 37 years since I first saw that ad, I’ve pondered the same question, over and over.
Who the hell are you?
If one was made just for you, the saving grace would be that it’s the only “classic Fiat Spider 2000, now with a 2-litre engine and optional automatic transmission.”
But life isn’t fair, and there are a lot more automatic-shifting roadsters. A third of a century later, the modern affordable drop-top, the Mazda MX-5 Miata and its partner in product development and manufacturing, the Fiat 124 Spider, can boast pretty big take rates for their optional Aisin six-speed automatic.
Fiat had even planned to offer the 124 Spider Lusso, the “luxury” model, with only an automatic, until a few auto hacks, including yours truly, objected. This isn’t like arguing for import of that cool, diesel stick-shift station wagon, complete with brown paint. This is a sports car, and Porsche PDKs aside, it’s best suited for three pedals. They are not hard to figure out if you’re willing to put down your smartphone.
Our slushbox Miata tester came looking the part of a wannabe luxury grand touring roadster. In fact, it was equipped in the Grand Touring trim (though automatics can be had with even the Club model), painted Meteor Gray with a tan interior and an all-in, manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $32,090. Something of a bargain for a sports car with a European countenance to it.
Unlike Miatas with the six-speed manual, the automatic includes a Sport switch on the center console on your elbow’s side of the gearshift. This switch programs the Aisin automatic to hold a gear — usually second, sometimes third — as you power out of a turn. In manual mode, the six-speed holds your chosen gear, with the rev-limiter bumping redline until you shift.
It helps, but it’s not enough. Go into a turn “slow in, fast out,” and the automatic’s Sport mode prevents the stumbling that the normal, more fuel-efficient mode provides. Even then, you’ll want to combine Sport mode from the button with manu-matic shifting via the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Even then, the automatic’s shifts aren’t as quick as the manual’s.
You might think this is an argument for a dual wet-clutch automated transmission. It’s not. It’s an argument for a drivetrain that remains as direct, simple and instinctive as it has always been. With a bit of practice, anyone with a modicum of hand-feet coordination can become a proficient Miata heel-and-toer and get through tight turns much more quickly than the automatic in manual control/Sport mode. There’s no comparison.
Choose the automatic, however, and your MX-5 gets an extra 2 mpg on the highway according to the EPA, and equals the manual’s city and combined numbers. You’ll likely have to avoid Sport mode and the paddle shifters to improve your chances of matching the fuel efficiency estimates. The $1,075 automatic transmission option (same price whether you buy a Miata Sport, Club, or Grand Touring) includes advanced keyless entry, a $130 option on manual-equipped Miatas.
To be fair, the same great and predictable handling, quick steering, and polar moment of inertia that make the manual Miata one of our favorite cars do not disappear with the automatic option, so a novice enthusiast willing to seek out a sparsely traveled country road can have some fun with the slushbox, which adds just 49 pounds to the MX-5’s light weight. But he or she will probably remain a novice for a long, long time.
Shortly before Fiat added the General Motors-built automatic option to the Spider 2000, it ran ads in enthusiast magazines explaining how most every convertible, domestic or foreign, had been removed from the U.S. market, so its roadster was one of the few such choices remaining. This advertisement featured a male model wearing an impossibly tall, yet fashionable (circa the Malaise Era) hat that would never fit under a hardtop.
Nowadays, men with fashionably tall hats who refuse to drive manuals might be their own special interest group in heavily congested cities like Los Angeles. For them, there are Mini Cooper, Volkswagen Beetle, Audi A3, and even Buick Cascada convertibles, all of them ragtops with useful trunks and some back seat space. Why would you choose a Mazda Miata, or for that matter, a Fiat 124 Spider automatic over one of those, if you’re not going to take it out and throw it around some s-curves from time to time? For the fashion statement these two two-seat sports cars make?
Oh. That’s who you are.
2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring Specifications
|Engine:||2.0 DOHC 16-valve I-4/155 hp @6,000 rpm, 148 lb-ft. @ 4,600 rpm|
|Layout:||2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible|
|EPA Mileage:||27/36 mpg (city/highway)|
|L x W x H:||154.1 x 68.3 x 48.8 in|
|0-60 MPH:||5.8 sec. (mfr)|
|Top Speed:||125 mph (mfr)|