I’m going to let you in on a little secret: you don’t need a lot of horsepower to have a lot of fun. Sure, the Hellcats and Huracans of the world are wicked fast, but it’s impossible to take advantage of that lunacy on public roads without racking up speeding tickets, demerit points, and sky-high insurance rates. This is what makes the 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata so special: it ain’t fast in a straight line, but it’s tough to argue with that goofy smile on your face every time you drop the top on a sunny day, wring out its itty-bitty engine and rip through the gears, and look down — only to see you’re still a long way’s off from attracting attention from Johnny Law.
But I’m worried. With the impending arrival of the 2022 Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 twins, as well as the upcoming mic-drop that’s the Nissan 400Z, fans of affordable sports cars sending power to the correct wheels will be spoiled for choice. The MX-5 Miata has always been a charmer, but five years into its current iteration, is there still a place in this horsepower-addicted world for a car that values simplicity, playfulness, and engagement over everything else?
There’s nothing high-tech or needlessly complicated under the skin, that’s for sure. The 2.0-litre SkyActiv four-cylinder the MX-5 launched with in 2016 remains, and the tweaks we saw in 2019 carry over: lighter pistons and connecting rods, plus revisions to the fuel injectors, intake, crankshaft, flywheel, and exhaust — to name just a few of the tweaks — resulted in a healthy bump to 181 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. Certainly a big deal back then, but it’s old news now: the BRZ and 86 twins pack an impressive 228 horsepower without resorting to forced induction, and the 400Z is destined to launch with a twin-turbo V6.
But as we twiddle our thumbs and for those three to launch, I can attest to this: the latest MX-5 Miata, even five years into its current life cycle, is more than the sum of its parts. You still won’t outrun a V6-powered Honda Odyssey, but 181 horsepower is absolutely perfect for the Miata; the four-cylinder naturally doesn’t have much weight to pull, so it’s punchy, pulls hard all the way to the 7,500 rpm redline, and because you don’t have a turbocharger to deal with, it’s wonderfully responsive. Fuel economy is a bonus, too: the trip computer settled at 7.5 L/100 kilometres with copious amounts of spirited driving under our belt.
That said, the party doesn’t really start until you chuck the little car into a corner. Highway on-ramps will quickly become your best friend; Mazda has always engineered a fair bit of body roll into the MX-5 Miata, and the ND — that’s “fourth-gen” in Miata-speak — is no exception. Still, it’s light on its feet, you know exactly what’s going on beneath the wheels, and even though the steering is a touch on the numb side, it still feels natural and responsive. And then there’s the shifter: even after all these years, the MX-5’s six-speed manual is still one of the smoothest, most crisp and precise gearboxes out there. It was a work of art in 2016, and it’s still a work of art today.
Although the rest of Mazda’s lineup has gone through a thorough freshening over the last few years, the MX-5 more or less stays the course with the same overall look inside and out, aside from a few new colours, upholstery options, and special edition models here and there. The MX-5 is still an eye-catching car today, but the interior still leaves a bit to be desired.
Consider it a blessing and a curse. The MX-5’s interior is a tight fit for anyone over six feet, and the trunk is still hilariously small. Infotainment is still handled through Mazda’s previous-generation system; it’s not bad once you master the learning curve, but the graphics aren’t as crisp as they could be. Storage space is limited, too, and the cupholders are still frustrating: they continue to live behind the driver and passenger, or cut into the passenger’s footwell. As if the transmission hump didn’t take away enough space for your plus-one.
But that’s missing the point, isn’t it? For all its shortcomings, the MX-5 is still very much a driving-first environment. It’s honestly refreshing: most other cars and crossovers out there are practically sensory deprivation chambers, but because the Miata puts your butt merely inches from the ground, you get the sense that you can scurry and slingshot through cars and other tight spaces. Plus, it’s still ridiculously easy to form an instant connection to the world around you: just unlatch the roof, stow it in the bulkhead behind you, and presto! Nothing beats a top-down cruise on a warm summer night, and nothing gets past your nose — whether it’s the smell of freshly baked cookies, or — ugh — manure driving through the countryside.
Of course, Mazda has added some creature comforts over the years. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity is standard, as is LED lighting and the aforementioned infotainment system. You even get a few standard active safety bits, like an overly sensitive blind-spot monitor, lane departure warning, and a form of automatic braking Mazda calls Smart City Brake Support, as well as adaptive headlights and traffic-sign recognition. No adaptive cruise control, though — thankfully.
On value, the soft top is arguably the MX-5 to have. The base MX-5 GS starts at $33,200, while the mid-level GS-P will run you $37,200 — worth it, especially since you get a limited-slip differential and Bilstein suspension bits with the six-speed manual. The $4,400 Sport package is also arguably worth it, adding Brembo brakes, lighter BBS wheels, and a pair of very supportive Recaro seats. Our tester was finished in what Mazda calls Polymetal Grey; love it or hate it, it adds $200 to the bottom line, bringing it up to $41,800 as-tested. The top-spec GT rounds out the lineup at $40,300 before options — or $41,800 if you want the white-on-red “100th Anniversary” treatment. The tin-roofed MX-5 RF, for the record, gets dangerously close to the $50,000 mark.
Based on the numbers alone, the 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata doesn’t make much sense, especially with the updated Subaru BRZ, Toyota 86, and Nissan Z on the horizon. But a Miata isn’t about the numbers; very little out there in the world of affordable sports cars can match how a Miata makes you feel.
Well, for now.