What is it: 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata, two-seat convertible sports car
Price: $25,015 — $33,895
Alternatives: Mustang/Camaro V-6, a café motorcycle, living with children
Pros: A pure driver’s machine, at a blue-collar price
Cons: All the sacrifices necessary to make it a pure driver’s machine
Would I buy it with my own money? The Miata makes for a terrible first car in a household, a tiring daily freeway commuter, and a poor choice for young families. But as a second car, for recreation instead of responsibilities, there’s no better value today.
Nerds are having a moment. Back when the Mazda Miata first launched in 1990, carrying on in daylight about complex science fiction TV was the equivalent of shouting your Facebook “Single” status. Parents didn’t buy bumper stickers announcing their children were “mathletes.” And being able to master A/V equipment seemed more like a route to managing a Circuit City and less like a path to global stardom.
Today, our entertainments celebrate nerds and our professions bow to them. You may be one yourself; the definition has grown from merely brainy and socially awkward to encompass anyone single-minded enough about a particular field to face some exclusion from the world at large.
Which should make this precisely the right time for the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata, a car built by car nerds, for car nerds. After years of declining sales, Mazda has reworked every variable in the small sports-car equation, always solving for driving agility. Shorter, lighter and more enjoyable than ever, the new Miata has got more on-road finesse than any vehicle within $10,000 of its sticker price.
First: Yes, this is a two-seat convertible, where the engine turns the rear wheels. That used to mean a car with barely enough room for the average human and not nearly enough for the husky American and their Costco habit. But Mazda has made a series of smart updates that make the Miata’s small space comfortable. At 6-foot-1, I had just the right amount of leg room and head room to spare, what with the convertible top now slightly arched. That top, by the way, may be the best manual unit ever sold, a fabric-glass-aluminum jack-in-the-box that can go up and down in about 5 seconds using one hand, and folds in just the right way so to not need a separate cover.
I know you’re ready to drop to the comment section and tell me how ignorant I am about the glaring hole in the Miata’s engine bay. Yes, the Miata’s nerd game is so fleek it now has less power than the previous model — from 167 horsepower down to 155 hp, and 140 lb-ft of torque, from its own version of the corporate 2-liter 4-cylinder. And while Mazda says that the new Miata gets 25 percent better fuel efficiency, paper judges have already gaveled the Miata down for inadequate thrust.
Here is where the science kicks in. The new 2-liter makes its power over a wider band of revs, with better response when burning the recommended premium fuel. The gears of the six-speed manual no longer have to make up the fuel economy for a thirstier engine, and have a better match of ratios. In a straight line, the new Miata should get to 60 mph under 6 seconds, about a second quicker than before.
And the major reason the Miata’s reduction in engine power works comes thanks to a war against weight that would impress a Paris fashion editor. The new Miata has shed 150 lbs., and at 2,332 lbs., weighs what it did in the early ‘90s. Why do car seats need springs? Your office chair gets by on mesh and foam, and now the Miata does as well, sparing 17 useless pounds. (This is a Mazda patent.) Mazda execs say they went down to the gram in their hunt, and when they start talking about how the transmission gears allow for a lighter rear differential, I am impressed and just a little afraid for their social lives.
The unit Mazda sent me for three days of testing was the Club trim, complete with a pair of Brembo calipers up front, 17-inch BBS wheels (still four lug, saving the weight of a few bolts there) and a limited-slip rear differential. At slow speeds and poor road surfaces — the way we spend most of our time driving — the Miata avoids the kind of jarring that can leave a Subaru BRZ owner bruised. It’s when the roads open up that you feel it; the quick swing around a corner, the ready power, especially above 4,000 rpms, and how prepared it feels to enter and exit a turn. Every car nerd knows that a 50/50 front-rear weight balance should mean more precise handling; only in the Miata do you understand that the car will walk up to the grip limit of its tires and let go if need be, in a way that leaves you in control, rather than in fear of what might happen next.
The six-speed manual in the new Miata moves as all should; short, agile and notched like an oiled rifle bolt. Yet the steering wheel (shrunk slightly for more agility) has lost some of its feedback in the now-common switch from hydraulic power assist to electric motors. The best way to drive casually is to keep your right hand on the shifter, where you can hear the conversation between the road and the engine directly, rather than eavesdropping through the wheel alone. (Aiding this is the removal of the cupholders from the center console to plug-in slots behind your elbow or in the passenger’s panel. Let us now praise Dave Coleman, Mazda’s U.S. Miata nerd, for this singular moment in automotive history where making a manual transmission easier to use won over cupholder usability.)
Focusing so much on driving enjoyment inevitably brings compromises elsewhere. The sightlines over the Miata’s aluminum bodywork have improved, but lowering the driver’s ride height for a better center of gravity put my eyes level with the door handles on a Toyota Camry. The pedals will seem small and tightly bunched to those who think “heel and toe” is a line-dancing instruction. There is no glovebox, or spare tire, and while Mazda engineered the air flow with the roof down to allow a gentle amount of tousling, the raised roof does let a mild but persistent roar of highway road noise in.
All of which will only serve to sharpen the new Miata’s appeal among the fans. Yet, in this golden era of the nerd, that crowd has been in decline, and rapidly so. At its 1990 peak, Mazda sold almost 36,000 Miatas in the United States. Last year, it didn’t break 6,000, and while the redesign will bring the loyalists back, moving 20,000 copies in a year sounds overly ambitious.
While I can ignore the stiff and the bored that have no time for fun, I don’t comprehend the disdain the Miata generates among many car fans. Small convertibles have coughed through clouds of American aggro since the first wee Fiats and Austin Healeys landed on these shores 60 years ago. Detroit got rich by copying Charles Atlas — both sold muscle, not maneuvering — and that still works today. When the sand starts to fly from the bully’s feet to the nerd’s face, we feel bad for a moment, but in the end blame the nerd for not bulking up. And the Miata, in the eyes of many, will always have the taste of someone else’s dirt in its mouth, because it’s not the normal approach to driving fast.
If you’re a person who appreciates a passion for engineering expressed with grace and intelligence, you should cheer the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata. If you’re a car nerd, you shouldn’t be afraid to go, boldly.