Thumbs Up: Still delivers razor-sharp handling and superb value
Thumbs Down: Long overdue for replacement
Buy This Car If: You prefer your affordable fun in topless form
Mazda’s MX-5 Miata, in its current form, dates back to the 2006 model year. That’s when the second generation of the world’s favorite sports car gave way to the current generation, dubbed “NC” in Miata-speak. Seven years is a long time to sell any model without significant changes, but the Mazda MX-5 Miata has one primary advantage: it’s outlived all of its competition.
Since the original Miata’s launch in 1989, the Mercury Capri, Toyota MR Spyder, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky have all gone the way of the dinosaur, killed off by changing market conditions or a weakening economy. Only the Mazda MX-5 Miata soldiers on in the affordable open-air sports car category, and it’s still arguably the most-raced car in the world. On any given Sunday, there are probably more MX-5 Miatas dicing wheel-to-wheel or spraying cones across a parking lot than any other make and model of car, which speaks volumes about their appeal and potential.
When the third generation launched in 2006, its look was a radical departure from both earlier MX-5 models and from the rest of Mazda’s product line. A slight restyle for the 2008 model year brought the design more inline with the rest of Mazda’s catalog, but had the unfortunate side effect of giving the MX-5 a cute, almost cartoonish front look. For a vehicle struggling to shed its “chick car” stigma, the redesign did nothing to help the MX-5’s cause.
For 2013, Mazda has again reworked the MX-5’s styling to deliver a slightly more serious front end. It’s also introduced a new variant, called “Club,” which replaces last year’s mid-range Touring model. Other minor package tweaks aside, the current MX-5 will likely stay the course for another two years before an all-new model debuts in 2015. Rumor has it that the next MX-5 will get a smaller-displacement, Mazda-developed engine with forced induction, likely in the form of turbocharging. Multiple variants are planned, including a lightweight version targeted to drivers that track their cars, as well as a more luxurious version for owners who just want affordable top-down fun.
The next MX-5 will reportedly be smaller in size, too, likely closer to the original or second-generation cars. That could well translate to less trunk and interior space, making the 2015 version hard to live with as a daily driver. If you’re on the fence about buying a current model, consider this: we’ve owned both NA (first generation) and NC (current generation) MX-5s, and only the current model is what we’d call suitable for use as a daily driver.
Inside, the 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata serves up a reasonable blend of comfort and support, and the fabric top on our Club version is easily opened or closed with one hand. The power-retractable hard top available on higher-end versions may add security, but it also adds weight and complexity. We don’t know of any other car on the market today that has a folding top that’s quicker or easier to drop or deploy than the MX-5’s cloth or vinyl top.
If luxury is your thing, you aren’t likely to be thrilled with the MX-5’s cabin. Though quiet enough for a normal conversation at speed (unlike earlier Miatas), there’s still a lot of road and wind noise transmitted into the cabin, due to the Mazda’s scant use of sound-deadening to save weight. Heated leather seats are available, but don’t expect amenities like lumbar support or a seat cushion extension. The audio system options aren’t great either, which means you’ll need to go to the aftermarket if good sound is important to you.
On the other hand, if the thought of a lightweight, purpose-built roadster with reasonable performance and exceptional handling appeals to you, the Mazda MX-5 remains seriously worthy of consideration. Stock models benefit greatly from a set of Eibach or Mazdaspeed lowering springs, as well as stiffer anti-roll bars (though we prefer an adjustable rear bar, like the Mazdaspeed unit). If you really want to go crazy, mount up a set of Michelin Pilot Super Sport or BF Goodrich gForce Comp-2 rubber and call it done.
Under the MX-5’s lightweight aluminum hood is a 2.0-liter in-line four-cylinder engine rated at 167 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. While our Mazda-supplied Club tester came with the smooth-shifting six-speed manual transmission, base models make do with a five-speed manual transmission. Buyers can also opt for a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters, but checking this option box drops the MX-5’s output to 158 horsepower. With the six-speed manual transmission, the Mazda MX-5 is capable of making the trip from 0-60 mph in about 6.7 seconds, while returning an EPA-estimated 24 mpg combined (21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway).
While there are faster cars to be had for around the same money, few can hang with the MX-5 when the road turns to switchbacks and straight line speed is an irrelevant concept. The Miata has always excelled in the handling department, and the current generation is no exception to this rule. Not only is it capable, but it’s a sheer joy to drive fast, and driver errors are (generally) addressed with a slap to the wrist instead of a punch to the face. Lose your bravery while charging into a corner and lift at the apex, and the MX-5 will remind you of your error with a few degrees of lift-throttle oversteer. Try that in other performance cars, and you’ll be swapping ends before you even realize what happened.
While some view the MX-5’s absence of horsepower as a liability, it’s really an asset as it teaches you to carry speed into corners, especially during track days and autocross events. The car’s steering is nicely weighted and surprisingly communicative, allowing for precise placement of the car on road or track. Brakes, even with the stock pads, are superb, and the overall package consistently gets us wondering how Mazda gets this so right while other automakers get it so wrong, even on cars costing several times the sticker price of the MX-5.
While the Mazda MX-5 used to be alone atop the affordable front-engine, rear-drive sports car pyramid, it no longer has that luxury thanks to the introduction of the Scion FR-S and the Subaru BRZ coupes. Both are fine choices and can hang with the MX-5, even in tight corners, and both have similar power-to-weight ratios (if you’re curious, the MX-5 weighs 14.8 pounds per horsepower, while the Scion FR-S weighs 13.95).
While this is a subjective opinion, the MX-5 is still just a bit sharper behind the wheel, and even a bit easier to drive at the limit than either the Scion or Subaru. Neither of the coupes come in an open-air version (yet), so if you like to see the sun in good weather, the Mazda MX-5 is the logical choice.
The Club trim level includes Club fender badges; black chrome 17-inch wheels with performance rubber; a black cloth convertible top; cruise control; unique front and rear fascias; black chrome instrument trim; MX-5 striping on rocker panels and dash and steering-wheel mounted audio controls. There were no options on our Mazda-supplied press fleet tester, which stickered at $27,500, including a destination charge of $795.
For comparison, a similarly-equipped (but front-wheel drive) MINI Cooper S Roadster would list for $30,000, while the only available trim level of the Scion FR-S stickers at $25,255.