It’s great for your health to eat lean chicken and sautéed vegetables every day. But sometimes you want a big, juicy hamburger. The MX-5 Miata is an automotive treat that I’ve loved for 26 years.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been focusing my automotive attention on cars that are easier on the environment —hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and particularly, all-electric vehicles. I even ordered my own Chevrolet Bolt EV, which has been my personal car for more than 14 months. I believe that electric transportation is the future, and I’m eager to be part of it and promote its adoption.
Sometimes, however, a car has a special place in your heart, and even if it’s powered by petroleum, you have to get some time behind the wheel. The Mazda MX-5 Miata is mine. I’ve driven fourteen of them since I started testing cars as a journalist back in 1992. They are shown in chronological order in this post.
My first Miata test car came, like the others, through the automotive press fleet. This was a revelation, because although the car had been out since 1990, I hadn’t had any contact with one. The moment I sat in it and then took it out on the road, I remembered the wonderful British sports cars of my childhood. I was riding in my father’s Austin-Healey again, on a warm summer evening with the sun still out, going to get some ice cream. Sigh.
When that first Miata arrived in my driveway, I had already started my habit of photographing myself with each of my test cars. My first test convertible, this is also the first car photo that showed me in the driver’s seat—the best spot to be in.
There’s nothing quite like driving an open car, and in the Miata, all you do is drop the top and go. Ever since day one, you can unlatch the top and just flip it behind you. Although later models have introduced power tops and a couple styles of folding hard tops, you’ve always had the open-air option.
It’s amazing how many things there are to smell as you drive—most of them interesting or pleasant. Yes, there are diesel buses, livestock, and trash fires, but I also remember food from restaurants, freshly baked bread, and newly-mown grass. You also get to sample every possible kind of music blaring out of fellow drivers’ windows—or they may be driving topless, too.
Mazda’s little million-selling sports car provides direct connection to the road, with steering, close-ratio manual shifting, and responsive braking. I’ve tested models with the manual six-speed and the automatic, and vastly prefer the former. With its short little lever and feeling of being connected to actual gears, you can’t beat it. In my most recent week-long test car, I was stuck in a 2 hour and 10-minute traffic jam on the way home from work, and even in those conditions I’d rather sample the silky manual six than an automatic.
It takes some dexterity to get yourself into the low driver’s bucket set, and some strength and care to extricate yourself. I can still maneuver OK, but at nearly 65, I take it easy. My wife has no love for these roadsters, but that’s my fault. When I had test Miata number one, I insisted she climb into and out of it late in her pregnancy with our son. She’s never forgotten it, and she was equally unimpressed with the 2018 model.
Miatas have their fans—lots of them. There are race series for them, and I have spoken with many owners over the years. In fact, while testing this new model, I ran across a colleague with a green-and-white ’91 that was still rolling along. Another colleague, who owns a nicely-preserved ’94 in the limited-edition Laguna Blue, asked for a ride, and I was only too glad to oblige. He was impressed by the new car’s acceleration from the little 155-horsepower 2.0-liter engine (with 148 lb.-ft. of torque). With the manual six, the soft-top Miata weighs in at just 2,332 pounds, so that’s enough to generate excitement, if not speed records.
Riding low takes a little getting used to. Once you’re inside, there feels like enough room, but when you look out either side window, it’s likely directly at someone’s wheel. When you look out the windshield, you’ll see rakishly canted fenders, in the latest Kodo Design theme. The hood cut lines are cleverly hidden beyond the curve, so you don’t notice them from the cabin. The hood gently rises at its center over the engine compartment.
The original Miata featured a simple, plain interior, with the right proportions but no attempt at luxury touches. Its black plastic was well crafted, but not fancy. There were silver rings around the gauges, though, a tip of the hat to the cars of yore. There was a tachometer in the middle of the instrument panel, where it resides to this day. Cloth seats were standard.
The car has grown more and more elegantly designed over the years, with sculpted door panels and the neatly trimmed interior fittings. Beautiful metallic accents on the steering wheel, transmission surround, air vents, and door handles lend an upscale air. The Kodo Design theme blends a flow of soft curves and edges across the doors and dash. The center console not only gives your arm a resting place but sits above the driveshaft that conveys the engine’s power to the rear wheels—just like in those old-fashioned MGs, Triumphs, and Austin-Healeys.
My 2018 test car, as mid-level Club model, had some significant extras. The Machine Gray paint, a serious shade, added $300 to the tab. I personally would prefer red or blue. The car has come in a variety of colors over the years. One especially nice setup one combined British Racing green paint with a tan leather interior.
My tester flaunted a dark red cloth top—a no-cost option. The big upgrade, however, was the Brembo BBS Recaro package, at $4,470. It transformed the car inside and out, with gripping Brembo disc brakes, black BBS custom wheels, and gorgeous and supportive Recaro racing seats in a soft alcantara suede. These buckets are heated, and feature speakers in the headrest, which aids hearing while on the road with the roof lowered. I took a phone call using Bluetooth and was a little surprised to hear my caller’s voice behind me, but it was certainly easy to understand him.
The little roadster is economical, with EPA numbers of 26 City, 33 Highway, and 29 Combined. I averaged 31.4 mpg in a week that had much too much commuting and too little back road running. The EPA Green numbers are a disappointing 3 for Smog but a solid 6 for Greenhouse Gas.
You’d think a little car with a cloth top would be a drag in the rain, but I felt cozy and safe, and the raindrops on the insulated top created a great atmosphere. And, unlike its European forebears, the MX-5, assembled in Hiroshima, Japan since its birth, doesn’t leak.
In an era of basic cars starting close to $20,000 and mid-level Toyota Camrys approaching $30,000, the Miata’s price doesn’t seem out of line. My Club-level test car started at $29,155, but with extras and delivery, hit $35,240. A 2018 MX-5 Sport with no extras will set you back just $26,185. The original car debuted at $15,000, but had a lot fewer features, and that was 28 years ago! Interestingly, demand was so high at first that early adopters were paying $5,000 or more above sticker to get the cars.
Consumer Reports has given the Miata high praise over the years and ranked the 2017 model at 79 – a fine score. Owners have reported better than average reliability, and with the amount of affection the little car generates, they care for their babies. You’ll see plenty of all four generations on the road. The car magazines love it.
At the Western Automotive Journalists Media Days (photo above), I had the chance to drive my 14th MX-5 Miata. It was an ’18 RF, with the folding hardtop. In my brief drive, I never dropped that top, but I enjoyed the same feeling of intimate control as I looped down from the starting point – Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – and took the car up the Laureles Grade. Hard or soft top, top up or down, it’s a joy to row through the manual six-speed’s ratios. And this car flaunted the new Soul Red Crystal paint, which shows up on the inner door panels, too. Lovely.
So, while I happily focus my testing on cars with batteries and plugs and motor along in my smooth, silent, clean Chevrolet Bolt the rest of the time, the MX-5 Miata holds a special place in my heart. It has remained great—and even improved over the years, becoming (by far) the most popular sports car ever.