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By Design: 2016 Mazda Miata

By Design

In just 25 years, the world's favorite sports car has matched the volume of all MGs made from the 1920s to 1980. Mazda has made nearly 950,000 Miatas over three series, the last of which has been with us for 10 years. The lightest version of the latest iteration is about 220 pounds lighter than the outgoing model, which is admirable, but still quite a bit heavier than the 1990 model, which is disappointing. A larger four-cylinder ensures that the new car is faster, but I wonder how much that really matters to most Miata drivers—at least those who are not actively participating in racing or autocross.

Whenever I've driven one, I've enjoyed the Miata not for its acceleration or top speed, but for the pure pleasure of using a machine that responds fluidly to my control inputs, going where I want without stress or undue effort. Roadholding is good, brakes are good, the structure is stiff enough, and the top doesn't leak. Nor does engine oil. Nothing about the cars has been extreme, and I believe that's why so many of us are so happy with them. It helps that all have been good-looking, although none quite as good as the first, cleverly cribbed from Ron Hickman's very pretty little Lotus Elan. We tend to forget that the Miata is a rather big little car—the new one is 9 inches longer and a foot wider than the Elan. And, of course, mandated safety features and desired comfort items—power steering, air conditioning, folding hardtops—mean Mazda can never match the Elan's sub-1,500-pound curb weight.

But who cares? In today's context the 2016 Mazda Miata is still light, and it still feels light, which is all important. This version is quite good-looking, but there's an odd surface bulge running diagonally upward from door mid-height over the top of the rear fender that's very peculiar, as though a metal-munching mole were tunneling beneath the skin, leaving an unwanted line. I suspect there are those within Mazda who agree that it's a mistake because the factory handout photos are intentionally lit to hide its presence.

The cockpit remains a bit austere, as befits a sports car, but it's a real black hole, tempered only by some colored stitching in the black upholstery. There was a Miata long ago that had tan upholstery in a British Racing Green body, much as MGs once had. I'd be glad to see that again. But for all the nostalgia, I really appreciate the creature comforts that come with the latest and still savviest sports roadster you can buy anywhere. Bob Hall's concept was great, Tom Matano and Mark Jordan's execution was great, and all the subsequent variants on the theme have been great, too. They've still got it going on in Hiroshima.

But I still want a Wankel Miata.

2016 Mazda Miata Front 3/4 View

1. This sharp crease helps emphasize the directional thrust of the whole front end, which tapers inward rather sharply from the wheel opening toward the grille.

2. The grille itself is surprisingly big, far bigger than the Lotus Elan-inspired inlet on the first Miata.

3. The sappy corporate "smile" of the last series is gone, and these horizontal bars are finely proportioned and look serious, a nice solution.

4. The black plastic under-nose extensions are unobtrusive enough to make you wonder why they're there at all.

5. These big inlets lead to a really small aperture well outboard. To cool the outer edges of the front tires? Certainly they are not aimed at brake cooling.

6. The side marker placement in the band around the wheel opening is nice, if very far from an original idea.

7. It's curious that there is an indent in the fender surface for this element.

8. The external manifestation of a mole or worm moving just below the surface, leaving a flow-breaking bump in the skin.

9. The degree to which the body pulls inward in plan view is clearly apparent from this perspective. The body just disappears.

10. Painting the windshield frame black gives the car a much sleeker appearance than the body-colored solutions used on earlier models. It also gives the lower body more linearity, which is vitiated by that dumb diagonal fender bulge.

2016 Mazda Miata Rear 3/4 View

11. The fixed rollover-protection hoops are given a glossy black finish as well.

12. The CHMSL is unobtrusively integrated into the cockpit surround. Nice.

13. The slight ridge derived from the turnup at the end of the decklid terminates as a fading line in the rear fender skin, parallel to the break between the plastic end cap and the steel fender.

14. This hard transverse line above the bumper strike face also fades into the rear fender form.

15. The taillight assemblies are tunneled into the body surface. The turn signal lamps are spear-shaped, very functional.

16. The lower portion of the rear fender seems to sag as it moves outboard of the indented license plate mounting surface, with a complex inset surface for the backup lamps.

17. A surface break line from the point of the inlet aligns with the bottom of the doors. The doors themselves have an elegant curved outline for front and rear cutlines.

18. In this view, one can easily see how the body mass moves in toward the center from the wheel opening.

19. The mirrors are generously sized, and their shells are body-colored, a welcome break from the overwhelming blackness of the cockpit and windshield frame.

2016 Mazda Miata Interior View

20. The instrumentation is pure sports car from the classic era, with the tachometer more prominent than the speedometer and the vital but secondary fuel and temperature gauges.

21. But multiple switches in the steering wheel attest to the fact that the cockpit is not as simple as a first glance suggests.

22. This is unmistakably 21st century. Display panels like this didn't exist for inexpensive products when the Miata first appeared.

23. It may make you think of the Golf GTI, but colored thread for some of the stitching is most welcome in this well of blackness.

24. Door cappings in body color are likewise welcome and connect the interior and exterior in a simple, clear, and agreeable way.