What to Read Next

Road-tripping the Mazda MX-5 Miata for the crown of sports car king

April 25, 2013

The words “affordable” and “sports car” seldom go together. Add “new” to the mix and we’re presented quite the anomaly. Many love the glorious notion of owning a thoroughbred sports car, but reality means rusty, stained, aged — albeit once beautiful — machines typically carrying over 150,000 miles. Most dreams of owning an affordable sportscar drift away within minutes of scouring the used car listings.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are a few excellent new car options that won’t need fixing every five miles, and don’t require distant, untapped ties to the Royal Family. For years, the Mazda MX-5 Miata has claimed the king of this region. But with new protagonists from Scion and Subaru, does that title still remain? To find out, I took a 2013 MX-5 Miata Club on a road trip to one of the greatest uninhibited driving roads in the country.

Over beers one night, a fellow Indianapolis based journalist informed me of a gem he discovered while living in Nashville. It’s called the Natchez Trace Parkway, and it starts just southwest of Music City. There, he said, I would find paradise. Fast, swooping bends demanding unparalleled bravery, and tight, twisting curves intertwined like an Italian chef tossing spaghetti. It sounded ideal, and within two days I embarked in a Ferrari-colored MX-5, costing just $28,000.

While $28,000 isn’t necessarily cheap, the rear-wheel drive Miata starts at an affordable $23,720; well-conditioned used models can be found for less than a high-end bicycle. No matter your credit score, a tip-top Miata with relatively low mileage could grace almost every driveway.

A click of a button retracted the convertible hardtop in favor of the 70-degree Midwestern sun, and the 6-speed manual gearbox rocketed the MX-5 effortlessly onto the highway. At 167 hp and 140 lb. ft. of torque, rocketing isn’t a word you’d expect. But with just 2,400 lbs., the Miata swiftly eats up tarmac. While it’s not fast, it doesn’t feel slow. And under the wispy, cotton wool-like clouds, I briskly approached the Kentucky border.

Passing through Louisville, I’m reminded the Miata is no slugger. It’s light, agile, precise and diminutive, unlike the mighty vintage Mustangs and brute-force Corvettes that festooned the roads that Sunday afternoon. At this point, I’d barely turned a curve, and despite loving my surroundings, I began questioning the Miata’s pedigree.

It’s the modern day Lotus Elan. That, by nature, remains a resounding compliment, but could it really trade paint with masterful used sportscars like the Porsche Boxster or Audi TT – cars that can regularly be found priced below $20,000? And what about the magnificent Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S? No doubt, some of the best rear-wheel drive affordable sportscars to hit dealerships in years, but I’ve never developed that emotional attachment to one, like you do with a treasured family pet. That connection, to be fair, remains rare, but it’s important to justify “King” status. At this point, I wasn’t yet convinced the Miata could achieve what its fellow rivals — at least in my eyes — could not.

As the topography changed, and hills built like oceanic crests, the fuel meter read “E.” Mustering every effort to ignore the blatant lure of Kentucky’s Dinosaur World, I redirected to a nearby gas station. It was there I realized I remained an idiot.

Onlookers watched as, for the next 15 minutes, I scoured the cabin for a fuel cap release. I looked under the steering wheel, next to the seats; I even checked the key fob. I relented to the owner’s manual and, despite a few sniggers from fellow motorists, discovered the pesky latch in a compartment between the back of the two seats. Annoyed and embarrassed, I continued on.

As I approached Nashville, the sun was setting. I sparred briefly with a Mercedes C63 AMG, trading places as we carved through rush hour traffic, coming to rest at a pleasant downtown Nashville hotel. An early night was prudent. The real test was looming.

The next morning, I was pleased to see my smiley-faced Miata. The spring air felt crisp and fresh, and another perfect day beckoned. It would only be around 20 miles to my mysterious road, and over dinner, I’d discovered many local auto enthusiasts knew of its existence. One guy, in a thick southern accent, said, “Don't you tell no one…” keen to avoid a flurry of non-local enthusiasts crowding their prized tarmac.

“Oops...” I thought.

The cabin in the Miata remains distinctly bare. The windscreen wipers have just three settings; no fancy variable speeds. Seats are patently non-leather, and the absence of the usual infotainment system seems almost refreshing. The stereo is poor, too, but I didn’t care. A Miata isn’t about luxury. It’s about pristine, open-air handling, a magnificent manual gearbox, and a cheeky demeanor that forces smiles, much like its own grinning grille.

As I entered the Natchez Trace Parkway, the road I’d travelled 300 miles to drive, I was grinning too. It was majestic. Trees lined the empty rolling pavement, reminding me of Spa-Francorchamps – the wondrous Formula One racetrack in Belgium, a venue I’d driven many times. Mile after mile the road curved serenely. It demanded constant throttle application, steady hands, and nerves of steel. It was here the Miata felt at home. It reveled in the conditions. The car was neutral, but not scary, and understeer was minimal. The Miata had clearly been engineered masterfully.

Peeking off the Parkway’s bridges, I noticed winding roads slithering underneath me. With the trees lining the way, I began losing my bearings.

“What are all these roads, and how do I get to them,” I wondered.

That, in itself, appeared quite the dilemma. I could see the rollercoaster adjacent, but there were no exits from the Parkway to join. In the end, a quick pit stop and a scan of the map showed the necessity of a 10-mile detour, where I could then travel back amongst the tighter, bumpier, roads to gauge the Miata's response.

By this point, I was already in love. Despite futile attempts at resistance, the Miata had won me over. Its short, precise transmission boasts close gear ratios. It demands constant, rewarding, engaging shifts, drawing you in to its charming demeanor. The driving position is low, hunkered, and yet comfy. The steering exudes excellent off-center weight, and welcomingly agile movements. It does, however, remain a touch numb on initial turning. The noise produced from the twin-exhaust is smooth and crisp, without ever sounding pretentious. In fact, the whole machine lacks pretension. It does only a few things, but it does them so very well. It maintains true sportscar genes, while eliminating anything that embellishes the bottom line.

More to the point, as I careened down the alternate, twisty section of pavement, I felt an innate attachment to the little red Miata. The kind of feeling where you pat the dashboard after each trip, thanking it for bringing joy to an otherwise mundane journey. It occurs when you ditch the descriptive “it," and start using “she” or “her." It becomes less mechanical and more emotional. It develops a heart.

The Miata’s not quick, and it’s not luxurious. It doesn’t bellow like a rousing bear, nor ensure neighbors turn red with envy. But for everything it's not, it becomes more. It's for those that value a car for what it is; unconcerned about how much leather it exudes, or how the exhaust tips gleam in the sunshine while attracting onlooker's undivided attention. It’s a true sports car.

I discovered that, while some cars may handle better, boast more speed, more leather, or more noise; none make you smile the way I did on that majestic Tennessean road. And despite forgetting my sunscreen, making my face glow brighter than the car itself, or wasting countless minutes attempting to refuel, pitied by all who witnessed. I unearthed what makes the Mazda MX-5 Miata so very special. After my trip was done, and I handed back the keys, I continued to miss its smiling face. To me, it’s no longer the king. She’s my queen.