The Mazda MX-5 Miata is the most successful sports car of all time. It was introduced in 1989 with the explicit mission of reviving the classic British roadster experience for a new generation of open-air motoring enthusiasts who wanted their cars to, you know, start every time they turned the key.
Also, they would like the convertible top to not leak.
It all seems completely obvious now, but over 25 years ago, it was anything but. Created by journalist-turned-designer Bob Hall, the Miata was born as a sketch in the late 1970s (according to the car’s lore) and a decade later hit the streets and commenced its peppy, free-spirited embrace of the world’s twists and turns. The original Miata wasn’t a powerful car. It wasn’t a fast car. And it wasn’t a practical car.
But it was a fun car. I should know because I owned a very base first-generation model, with the now long-forgotten flip-up headlights.
It was black, it had cloth seats and a five-speed, crank windows and a radiator and a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine that pumped a whopping 130 horsepower to the rear wheels — and that was all! There was nothing better than tossing the top back and heading for the Pacific Coast Highway, heading north toward Malibu and then ducking into a canyon or two before ending up at the Paradise Cove restaurant for dinner and a moonlit drive back home with the ocean off my right shoulder and the cool Los Angeles evening wind whistling across my permanently grinning face.
I wasn’t a big fan of the looks of the Miatas that followed the first generation. The driving was always a joy, but I thought the roadster DNA feel away, replaced by more of a sports-car vibe. The Miata became a mini-Corvette or poor man’s Porsche.
But the arrival of the fourth-generation production model in 2015 — and with it a crisp redesign, shedding a few inches of scale and an impressive 220 lbs. of weight — means it’s back to the future, but with a bigger engine and one more gear on the shifter (and, as you can see from the photo above, narrow, angular headlights, a major improvement over what replaced the flip-ups).
I had originally planned to sample the new MX-5 in California, but the timing didn’t work out, so the car eventually landed in Business Insider’s suburban New Jersey test center — just in time for a winter snowstorm! The $31,000 roadster, with a “blue reflex” paint job, even came with snow tires.
Fortunately, the snow quickly melted and I was confronted with a decision: Top up or top down?
The old Miata top was a wonderful throwback and an improvement on the ragtops of old. Roll down the windows, throw a couple of latches, and toss it back into a small compartment behind the seats. The back glass was plastic, however, and notorious for discoloring and cracking.
The newest design reduces the latches to one and rolls down the windows for you, and the top itself converts into its own tonneau cover so that you don’t need to snap a vinyl one in place (something I usually skipped on my car anyway).
When the sun came out and temperature rose to the mid 40s, it was just too tempting.
Down went the top!
But how to stay warm?
Easy: I turned the seat heaters all the way up and set the heater on full blast. And I bundled up: wool scarf, driving cap with ear flaps, and driving gloves.
It worked great. I even spent a half hour on the highway and I wasn’t a popsicle when it was all over.
But what about the driving?
The snow tires weren’t ideal for typical Miata tossing, but they weren’t a problem, and they ensured that that a lightweight, rear-wheel-drive car wouldn’t be spinning wheels on whatever snowy patches survived the sunshine.
I found a stretch of roads about 30 minutes from my house that provided a fine driving test, with lots of curves and windings and a few elevation changes. The Miata needs to be driven in a certain way to extract the most pleasure from the spry machine: you don’t baby it — you run the shifts right up to the redline at 7,500 rpm and get back on the throttle fast.
You drive the shit out of the thing. The upshot is the impression of velocity, even when going not that fast. And if you do this often, you bond with machine as with no other car, and you become a far more accomplished driver. There is no more ideal car to learn to drive on, in my view.
It isn’t, however, the best car for dropdowns from fifth to third because the engine doesn’t have enough power; 155 horses don’t compare well with stonking brutes like the Corvette Z06, with 650 ponies and the desire to be thrashed between third and fifth all day long. But you can get into some nifty throttle-blipping and rev-matching in the Miata as you sling around at about 40 or 50 mph. (For the record, the claimed 0-60 mph time is around 7 seconds.)
Best of all, you never feel that the Miata is beyond your control. The balance is exquisite, a near perfect 50-50 split between front and back. A Porsche Boxster, with its mid-engine design, might on paper look better, but somehow Miata delivers proper a proper roadster feel, while the Boxster is pure sports car. In the Miata, the motor is right up front where it belongs and the back wheels are doing the pushing.
Miata’s don’t give you much when it comes to exhaust note. The burps, burbles, roars, and whines of supercars, Vettes, and BMW M’s isn’t part of the experience. A touch of rumble and whir is the extent of it. And in fact the noise you want to hear when manhandling the Miata is your own heartbeat, and the rush of the wind, and perhaps a dash of tire squeal here and there.
In this car, there isn’t much between you and the road — the driving is pure in the way that flying a Sopwith Camel biplane was for aviating in the 1910s. Not as pure as it once was — the modern Miata in Grand Touring trim comes with a shrunken-down version of all the latest technologies, and that means you don’t have to pull over to consult paper maps or fiddle with the radio as stations drift in and out.
Navigation and Sirius are included in the infotainment package, if simply driving the car and getting lost on some uncharted curlicue of asphalt isn’t entertainment enough for you.
The Miata is a beloved car with a devoted following in everyone from hardened auto writers to small-town retirees to the amateur competitors who race these marvellous machines. It isn’t practical (if you want to play golf, your clubs have to ride shotgun, and the trunk barely holds a pair of overnight bags), the cupholders are in a very odd place, and it’s the polar opposite of a family car.
You can use it as a daily driver — it’s easy on the wallet at the gas pump and even tough it’s tiny, the connection with the road and the snappy responsiveness make you feel safe — but it’s happiest on weekend jaunts with no particular destination in mind.
For the over two decade history of the Miata, the car’s motivating force has been the joy of the drive, more than the pleasure of arrival. So it has always been, and with the 2016 version, so it shall always be.
It was 45 degree out! I had the top down! And I didn’t want the ride to end.
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