Happy Birthday, sport: The 2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Posted by hpayne on July 17, 2014

Our thirst for 1960s’ nostalgia is bottomless, so automakers keep remaking the classics. Ford will birth a brand new Mustang this fall as it chases GM’s own retro-rod, the Camaro. Alfa Romeo’s 4C is a dead ringer for the ’67 Alfa 33 Sradale, and Jaguar has followed the elegant E-Type with the ferocious F-Type.

Meanwhile, Mazda has cornered the market on wee English sports car nostalgia with the Miata.

Mazda has been so successful in preserving the golden era of Lotus Elans, MG Midgets and Bugeye Sprites that the Miata has become an icon unto itself, now celebrating its 25th year of production. Along the way, the Miata picked up the MX-5 badge to recognize it as a permanent member of the Mazda family, not just a passing salute to ’60s sports cars (and to make it sound more, ahem, macho). Indeed, the mass-produced cutie has far outlasted and outsold its Elan inspiration as the Lotus badge expired after nine years.

Yet Mazda’s little roller-skate has stayed true to its roots: affordable, fuel efficient, and more fun than Monty Python’s Spamalot.

Tight fit

Compact and cramped, the MX-5 is even sized like a British crumpet. It is the tightest fit of any car that I’ve driven. A Fiat 500’s headroom is like the Sistine Chapel compared to this pillbox. Next to an MX-5, the compact Chevy Spark’s driver seat feels like a Vegas pool chair.

The third generation MX-5 remains an homage to the playful Elan’s looks with its smiling, gaping grille which seems to shout — “Aha, I caught ya!” — in your rearview mirror. Early sketches of the all-new, fourth-gen MX-5 (due next year) suggest that the car will conform to the Mazda family’s Kodo-design architecture, cementing its position of permanence in the Mazda lineup.

Wipe a sentimental tear because Mazda does Lotus so well. Indeed, with its open headlights, the MX-5 now echoes the original, legendary 26R, which launched the Elan legend by terrorizing the European GT circuit in the early ’60s. The MX-5’s haunches have also grown, giving the car the more fearsome, feline look of the 26R as opposed to the mousier production Elan (that the original Miata slavishly resembled). Our scrawny cutie has been working out.

Modest in power

Yet, under the bulging hood, the MX-5 remains modest in power.

Its 158 horsepower (with the automatic transmission, 167 ponies with stick) is not a far cry from the Elan original’s 126. The MX-5’s biceps may awaken the corner cop (my MX-5 got appreciative looks wherever I drove), but its 6.9-second 0-60 mph time won’t. Turbocharged pocket rockets like the VW GTI and Ford Focus ST — even the MX-5’s aging brother Mazdaspeed 3 — will eat the MX-5 for breakfast at a Woodward stoplight.

But the MX-5 doesn’t mind. This sports car wants you to have fun, without tempting you to the limits. Maybe that’s why it’s a favorite of drivers’ schools like Barber at Laguna Seca, Calif.

The MX-5 makes an interesting contrast to the howling, Tasmanian Devil-on-wheels Alfa 4C that I recently tested. Both share a short wheelbase. Both tip the scales at about 2,500 pounds. Both are halos for their respective performance brands. But where the 4C wants to set a benchmark for $65,000 luxury greyhounds, the MX-5 offers inspiration for more modest bank accounts.

At your fingertips

Slip into the MX-5’s nicely contoured seats and the whole car feels like it’s at your fingertips. Stretch out your arm and you … can … almost … reach … the rear wheels. The little, three-spoke steering wheel fits compact surrounds. The gearshift is at your elbow. If they remake the Wizard of Oz, the Mayor of Munchkin City will drive up in an MX-5.

WARNING TO BEANSTALKS: THE MX-5 WILL CRAMP YOUR STYLE. Where mid-engine firecrackers like the Alfa 4C offer plenty of leg room, the MX-5’s two-seat layout means the driver is wedged between a fore-mounted engine and a rear-stowed, removable top. The result is little room for maneuver compared to, say, a rear-seated, 2+2 Subaru BRZ. My knees straddled the steering wheel, my back slumped into the seat, my noggin crowded the hardtop ceiling.

Good thing the MX-5 is such a joy to drive topless.

Release the ceiling latch, press the dashboard button and the MX-5’s metal helmet effortlessly retracts into the trunk in just 12 seconds, leaving an airplane luggage-sized trunk space roomy enough for a small suitcase and two Munchkins. At speed, the cabin is remarkably livable, accommodating easy conversation even as you gallop through the Michigan landscape at 70 mph-plus.

The Mazda doesn’t fear the whip. Rollicking over the knobs and nooks of northern Michigan’s Route 66, the MX-5 begs you to slip into manual shift mode.

Ingenious shift paddles

A word here about Mazda’s ingenious shift paddle design. Where most paddle shifters require two hands on the wheel — downshifts with the left hand, upshifts with the right — the MX-5 locates two pairs of up and down paddles on either side of the wheel depending on your hand preference. Shifting with one hand — upshift with the fingertips, downshift with the thumb — frees the offhand to rotate the wheel. Or just cruise one-handed.

Throw this fun-box into a corner and its 51/49 weight balance rotates easily under rear-drive power. The lightweight chassis rarely makes the tires scream, though the steering could use some firming. At full chat, the hydraulic rack feels floaty, rootless. At the end of a good squawk, you don’t feel beat up by an over-stiff chassis, your knuckles aren’t white, and your passenger isn’t searching the glove compartment for a barf bag. Sure, that Alfa 4C you were chasing is in the next county, but you still have an appetite for dinner.

If anything, the sophisticated auto-manual tranny feels out of place in such a back-to-basics car. In an age where electronically-stuffed consoles make autos seem like airliner cockpits, the MX-5 is simple, spartan. The radio is operated by dials, the mileage is reset by a button.

Old school. Old pleasures. Old country. We love our British throwbacks. Happy anniversary, Miata-san. You do a bloody good interpretation of an English classic.

Report card

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car
Price: $24,515 base ($32,735 as tested)
Power plant: 2.0-liter, dual overhead-cam 4-cylinder
Power: 158 horsepower, 140 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.9 seconds (Car & Driver)
Weight: 2,542 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/23 mpg combined
Highs: Handy paddle shifters; no-fuss hardtop convertible
Lows: Abrupt downshifts; numb steering
Overall:★★★★

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