Thumbs Up: The best all-around sports car for the money, period.
Thumbs Down: Stereo is marginal and the happy-face grille needs to go.
Buy This Car If: You’re an enthusiast, under 6’ 3”, on a budget.
I own a 2006 Mazda MX-5, so when Mazda asked if I’d like to give the 2011 MX-5 Special Edition Power Retractable Hard Top (PRHT) a try, my answer was a quick “yes”. The new body style (NC, in Mazda-speak) has been around with mostly minor changes since its launch in 2006, but that’s not a bad thing. When Mazda redesigned the MX-5 five years ago, it was a back-to-the-drawing board endeavor. Power was bumped up to 167 horsepower, courtesy of a 2.0 liter MZR engine. Interior room was increased, while weight was kept to a minimum via the use of weight-saving materials (like a lighter aluminum hood and an aluminum trunk lid). Things like floor mats and interior fabrics were lightened, and rumor had it that Mazda even spent time shaving a few grams off the weight of the rearview mirror. Obsessive? Perhaps, but the results spoke for themselves.
One of the major changes to the current MX-5 came in 2007, when Mazda introduced the PRHT option for the car. Costing less than a separate hard top, the PRHT gave added security, improved cold weather comfort and reduced interior noise. Best of all, the design only added 79 pounds to the weight of the car, and didn’t take away from trunk space. Mazda, it seemed, had created the perfect, affordable roadster for apartment dwellers everywhere.
The great automotive market collapse of 2008 and 2009 precluded Mazda from commemorating the MX-5’s 20th anniversary in 2010 (at least in the United States; Europe did indeed get a 20th Anniversary model). To make up for this, Mazda has launched a 2011 “Special Edition” MX-5, but it’s largely a paint and trim package. Unlike earlier special editions, this one doesn’t include special badging or a commemorative plaque. You don’t get a limited edition book, and there’s no watch in the glove box; what you do get is an optioned-to-the-gills MX-5, wearing a unique paint color and sporting unique leather on the seats.
The MX-5’s front fascia was updated for the 2009 model year, and I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of the new car’s “happy face” styling. One thing that sold me on the original NC redesign was the car’s muscular appearance, complete with oversized fender flares and a sculpted hood. In some ways, it looked like a scaled-down Jaguar XK, perhaps because of the long hood (or perhaps because of the then-close relationship between Mazda, Ford and Jaguar). The 2011 MX-5 retains much of that, but the chrome trim around the grille only serves to accentuate one of the car’s least desirable design features.
Top up, the styling of the MX-5 is completely transformed. It’s still a better looking car with the top stowed (as are most roadsters), but the power retractable hard top styling integrates well with the lines of the car. In fact, it almost looks like the car was designed as a two seat sports coupe, with the roadster version coming later; if that’s not praise for a design team, I don’t know what is.
Inside, the 2011 MX-5 is much roomier than earlier (NB or NA) generations of the car. Those taller than six foot had trouble getting comfortable in the first-generation cars, but the NC raises that comfort bar to around six foot, three inches. With the top in place, rear three-quarter visibility is a little compromised, but no worse than in the soft-top version. All NCs come with a heated glass rear window, so a power retractable hardtop MX-5 could be a year-round commuter for the diehard driving enthusiast (as long as you added a set of good winter tires).
The seats in the 2011 Special Edition were noticeably wider and softer than those in my 2006, and I suspect this has to do with the criticism Mazda received over the original NC seats. They were firmly bolstered, but sized more for Japanese and Euro buyers than for Americans. I’ve grown to like the seats in my NC, but I’d rather have the seats in the 2011 MX-5 for any long-distance trips. I’d also rather have them in cold climates, since the Special Edition seats were heated, while mine are not. Leg room in the new version is also improved; while the MX-5 still won’t fit the tallest drivers, it will fit a much higher percentage of the general population than either the NB or the NA versions.
One area of vast improvement is in interior design and layout. My 2006 MX-5 has door-mounted cup holders that intrude on knee room, and an utterly worthless center console that’s shaped to hold drinks, but blocks access to the shifter if you actually place drinks there. Worse, the console has a hard plastic cover that gets uncomfortable on your arm after a few hours driving. The 2011 MX-5 has recessed door-mounted cup holders that don’t bruise your knees, and the center console is configurable to hold more than just drinks via a removable divider. Best of all, the center console cover is padded for long distance comfort.
Mazda’s made some minor changes to the instrumentation graphics for better readability, and the redline gets bumped up to 7,200 RPM (from 6,700 RPM) in 2009 and later cars. The anti-glare plastic used by Mazda on the original NC’s instruments remains, and I can verify that it makes the instruments readable even in bright sunlight. The 2011 MX-5 Special Edition comes with automatic climate control, and I can testify that the car’s ability to crank out heat or air-conditioning extends the range of top-down motoring (especially with the windows up).
Unlike most retractable hard top convertibles, the Mazda MX-5 PRHT gives up no trunk space with the top down. Whether or not the trunk is big enough for your needs is up to you, but I’ve taken two-week road trips with my wife in ours. Pack light, and the MX-5 gives you a surprising amount of luggage room. In fact, I’d bet there’s far more luggage room in an MX-5 PRHT with the top down than in an Infiniti G37 convertible or in a Volvo C70. The Mazda also gives you a generously sized console between the seats, and storage in the bulkhead behind the driver and passenger seats.
Under the hood is a Ford Duratec / Mazda MZR 2.0-liter, four cylinder engine good for 167 horsepower and 140 ft lb of torque when bolted to a manual transmission (like the superb six speed in my Special Edition tester). Opt for the paddle-shift equipped automatic, and the horsepower rating gets lowered to 158, which gives you added incentive to master the art of driving a stick. Zero to sixty miles per hour comes up in around 6.7 seconds, which is comparable to the turbocharged Mazdaspeed MX-5 sold from 2004 to 2005. Fuel economy is rated at 21 MPG city and 28 MPG highway, and I saw an actual 23.6 MPG in city driving during my week with the car. I can tell you from personal experience that your actual fuel economy will vary greatly depending upon how often the motor sees redline. You don’t have to wind it out to make power, but it sure sounds good when you do.
Behind the wheel, the MX-5 is superb on a twisty road or on an autocross track. Despite this, it’s not punishing to drive in stop-and-go traffic like other sports cars can be. Clutch effort is light, and gear changes are short and precise. Acceleration is reasonable since the car is so light, and even the stock MX-5 brakes are superb. Steering is nicely weighted without being too heavy, and the front tires communicate their intentions well even on rough or uneven pavement. My own MX-5 is lowered via a set of Mazdaspeed springs, and it’s got stiffer Mazdaspeed sway bars (tuned for less push than the stock setup). The difference between the two cars was immediately noticeable in a quick right-left transition while driving the Special Edition. I felt the rear suspension weight then suddenly unweight, almost as if the back was going to come around on me. Granted, I was pushing the car moderately hard, but it clearly demonstrated the advantage of a lower ride height, stiffer sway bars and a more-performance oriented alignment. If you’re going to track or autocross your own MX-5, consider those changes mandatory. If it’s just a street car and you’ll never probe its handling limits, the stock setup is probably fine for you.
My 2011 Mazda MX-5 Special Edition PRHT tester had an all-inclusive sticker price of $31,720, including a destination charge of $795. That’s not an insignificant amount of money, but it’s worth noting that the 2011 MX-5’s price of admission starts at just $23,905 for a stripped down Sport model. There are other cars that will go faster for less money than a well-equipped MX-5 (like Mazda’s own Mazdaspeed 3, for example), but none will teach you the fundamentals of driving quite the way an MX-5 will. I’d even argue that none will be able to match the MX-5 on a tight racetrack, where carrying speed into a corner is more important than accelerating down a long straight. Whether you agree with me or not, this much is certain: the MX-5 has outlived the competition from Toyota, Mercury, Honda, Pontiac and Saturn, and remains the only affordable sports roadster on the market today, It’s one of the world’s truly great sports cars, and well worth driving if you’ve never had the chance.