2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Second Drive Review
I don’t think anyone has more respect than me for the Mazda Miata; I’ve owned two, raced one and instructed many others who run them in competition. Over its four generations it has come to define affordable, durable rear-drive performance like no other car. My initial reaction to the car on its launch last year over some of California’s best roads was overwhelmingly positive. How would it do in the thin air of my home state, stuck in traffic and on lesser tarmac was my only question.
I now have my answer. The Miata is still a singular vehicle, and perhaps even better in a real world context. This was driven home (literally) in that I had just purchased and started racing a 500-plus horsepower car, which, while an awesome beast on track, was a compromised bitch around town. In contrast, the MX-5 was an almost unalloyed joy. My biggest fear, that altitude would suck the life out of it, proved largely unfounded. The careful tuning of its 158hp 2-liter for midrange torque meant much of its punchy feel was intact; it never felt flaccid zipping from light to light, and while its top end lacked zest, it was more than enough to exploit the chassis’ inherent balance and playfulness. I do wish the Mazda sounded better and had a livelier rush to redline, but there are obviously years for it to be developed.
The Miata is all about sensation and response. It has been roundly criticized for its soft suspension and comparatively large amount of chassis movement. While these do exist, I didn’t find them as objectionable as some reviewers. I tend to agree more with Mazda’s engineers in that these allow one to feel more engaged at the typical 30-50mph speeds that one encounters on surface streets. A little bit of playful oversteer is easily available at these velocities, and it is so easy to catch that it becomes a fun “fourth dimension” to engage and doesn’t need jeapordize one’s drivers license, unlike getting a bit loose in my own car. The Club model’s stiffer suspension does seem the better compromise for both autocross-style competition and street driving though; the Grand Touring’s softer settings don’t enhance ride quality enough to justify its larger roll angles and more pronounced fore-aft body motions.
The primary controls’ excellence is critical to this; steering response, brake feel, clutch takeup and the superb gearbox action all make the MX-5 just so so rewarding to commute in, that things like the road roar and wind noise with the roof up matter less, and that the interior design is so well executed meant I cared less about the still somewhat odd exterior, which looks great at times and tippy and tall at others. Much of this is down to the huge fender openings and comparatively small wheel/tire combo. While you could address this with lowering springs and big rolling stock, I wish Mazda had done it themselves.
But from the driver’s seat all you note are the voluptuous fenders rising to either side, the road rushing right at you, with the body color continued into the cockpit via the door cappings. Mazda Connect is still an excellent interface, and the overall interior quality is first-rate despite the lightness of many materials. I prefer the Club model’s cloth seats both for their coolness in summer and the way the fabric wraps your body while driving hard, increasing your kinesthetic awareness of body motions, but the test Grand Touring’s heated leather chairs were nice during the cool days of top-down late winter driving I engaged in. When it warmed up the powerful A/C was a boon, and the ability to throw the top back in one quick motion or raise it with barely more work made accessing the joys of open top motoring much easier than in some of the folding hard-top vehicles I’ve owned.
Speaking of which, as I was finishing my time with the MX-5, Mazda was unveiling their new RF retractable fastback. Until I see one in the metal I cant say whether I like it better than the soft top or not, but it’s undeniably exciting that they’ve added such a variant. Whichever version we’re talking about, the Miata continues to excel and to compel.
EPA ratings: 27/34mpg; 30mpg combined
Price as tested: $31,015
Here is what Mazda has to say.(4.5 / 5)
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