The Mazda MX-5 Miata is one of the automotive industry’s revered icons, for a great variety of reasons. It carried on the torch of the compact two-seater convertible after the decline of various offerings from Great Britain and Italy, among others. Introduced in 1989, Mazda figured they had something good, and stuck with it right up until today. The key ingredients over all these years were: lightweight, simplicity in design, but with modern ideas in engineering and production, and of course, rear-wheel-drive. Mazda proudly trumpets the fact that the Miata is the, “most popular two-seat sports car in the world”. It is a car that is recognizable nearly everywhere you go. Mazda wanted me to check out the latest iteration of their zoom-zoom machine, and how it compares to some tough, new competition. They sent me the 2013 Mazda MX-5, in GS trim, painted a Crystal White Pearl with a Brilliant Black top. It’s actually a triple-tone with the red accents running down both sides of the car. This particular Miata was equipped with the Power Retractable Hard Top, or PRHT in Mazda’s terms.
The Miata is in its third generation now, codenamed NC. The earlier cars stuck to mostly the same formula, but the new car introduced more power, more safety features, and more creature comforts. Weight has crept up over the years as a result, but Mazda has worked hard to stave off the extra pounds. This new car weighs just over 2600lbs, which is lightweight for today’s standards. A 2.0L four-cylinder motor lives underneath the aluminum hood and produces 167 horsepower, and 140 lb-ft of torque. These are not pavement-scorching numbers, but when there’s not a whole lot of mass to move to begin with, enthusiasts have good reason to get excited. Power is routed to a choice of transmissions: a five-speed manual in the base GX trim, and either a six-speed manual or automatic in GS and GT trims. While the do-it-yourself solution with three pedals is the obvious choice for those of us looking to get the most out of their cars, Mazda’s inclusion of the automatic means everybody who wants to have some fun, can have some fun.
My GS tester also comes with some notable performance options: a limited-slip differential and Bilstein dampers. The former helps all available power get to the ground effectively (especially useful when exiting a corner), while the latter improves body control and helps the wheels maintain better contact with the ground in extreme conditions. Lastly, Mazda adds a front strut tower bar to improve rigidity at the front end. The GS also includes Mazda’s trick new Power Retractable Hard Top. For many years, it has been widely known that hardtops increase complexity and weight, both items that are not quite in line with Mazda’s philosophy. It is for these reasons that Mazda’s PRHT really impressed me. They actively promote that the hardtop weighs only 36kg, and only takes 12 seconds to operate. Not only is it fast, but it doesn’t negatively impact the trunk storage section. When is the last time you heard the two words convertible and practical in the same sentence?
The main trump card the Miata brings to the table is the overall driving experience. Mazda has worked on keeping things fresh for a long time, and this one is no exception. All the fundamentals mentioned earlier combined with a near 50/50 weight distribution combined with the refined driving position are simply great. Pedal placement is about as perfect as it gets – by the end of the week, I was getting pretty good at double-clutch heel-toe downshifts (read: two feet dancing on three pedals whilst braking), and the shifter is a joy to use. The Miata has so far resisted the industry-wide mass exodus to electric power steering, and thus retains an old-school hydraulic steering assist setup. Weighting is just right, and there’s lots of feedback through the wheel to tell you what the tires (Bridgestone Potenza RE050A summer tires, size 205/45R17) are doing. The steering ratio is also quite quick, making quick transitions easier. Everything you touch to operate the car has been well thought-out.
The Miata faces some seriously tough competition nowadays, especially with the release of the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ cousins. The Toyota-Subaru partnership produced something that is almost as light, a little more practical (thanks to the rear seats and roof), a bit faster in a straight line, but costs quite a bit less. My tester stickered at $36,245 – nearly $10,000 more than a base Scion FR-S. I originally asked myself whether the premium was worth it. As I got to understand and get more comfortable with the car, it became easier and easier to justify spending the extra money on the Mazda. As excellent as the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ are, I feel those cars compromise on a few items to help bring the price down. This is not a bad thing. The Miata feels like it has to make fewer compromises when it comes to driving dynamics, and delivers a better overall result at the end of the day.
Fuel economy is usually not very high on the list of priorities in a car like the Miata, but even with that fact considered, it is rated at 9.7L/100km in the city and 7.1L/100km on the highway. I was able to manage 9.0L/100km even with a lot of spirited driving and some highway driving mixed in over about 450km. 100km/h pegs the motor at around 3000rpm. The fuel gauge does fall quickly because the tank is only 48L. Premium fuel is required.
I’ve had a more than a few people tell me that the Miata is a girly car. Even on the internet, armchair experts on forums are very quick to dismiss the car. The diminutive dimensions, and big grin up front don’t help the stereotype that happens to go back more than twenty years. It also didn’t help that I drove some of my buddies around (I looked for any excuse to drive the car!) and they all happened to be male. The fact of the matter is, nearly all of my Miata-owning friends are also of the dude variety, and many of them drive their car competitively in autocross or track events. The autocross series I participate in is dominated by Miatas of all generations, and they are often found at the top of the scoreboard. It seems that the people that perpetuate such a stereotype are the same people that have never gotten a chance to drive the car and understand it for what it is.
As fun as the Miata is, I would have wished for Bluetooth integration in this mid-level GS model. I usually listen to podcasts when on the road, and Bluetooth streaming audio is one feature I have come to greatly appreciate. As it is now, you can only get this with the GT model, which approaches the $40,000 mark. Seeing how Bluetooth integration is available in cars costing half as much, I hope Mazda can consider adding the feature in future models (only if it doesn’t add weight!). One feature I wasn’t accustomed to: the wind-blocker that resides between the two seats. Flip this little flap up while the top is down, and wind noise all but goes away, allowing for conversations to be easily held. It’s only about two inches tall, but makes a marked difference in the noise that enters the cabin. When it came time to fill up on gas, it took me a minute to find the fuel release. It lives in the centre storage bin behind the armrest! Mazda puts it in there so you can lock the release with the ignition key.
There are only a few automakers in the world that offer an affordable two-seat convertible, possibly because to be compared to the Miata is not an easy feat to live up to. Some would argue that the European roadsters of the ‘70s and ‘80s did themselves in with the constant need for upkeep and proactive maintenance to sustain rigorous road use. Others would contend that the Miata single-handedly ended that market in North America. I think it’s a little bit of both. Even though it doesn’t seem like a great value for what little amount of “car” you get, it’s hard to think of a better weekend warrior than the Miata. Being out on summer evenings with the top down attacking some twisty roads is such an underrated thing.
2013 Mazda MX-5 PRHT Gallery