Astonishing that it’s really been a quarter century since the MX-5 came out. I can remember voraciously devouring every car magazine article on the Miata back in 1989, though my college budget didn’t permit the idea of a $13,800 new car right then. But a few years later I had ordered my very own base model and spent three years zipping around the country to race it in SCCA competitions. I later owned a ’90 B Package (loaded) model that gave well over 100,000 miles of joyful, trouble-free motoring.
While some things have changed dramatically in the intervening years, this Mazda isn’t one of them. It’s barely larger than its Generation One forbear, and only weighs about 10 percent more, despite all the modern safety systems required today. It still looks good, too, with the caveat that bumper height regs mean it sits too high above its lovely 17-inch wheels.
The MX-5’s interior is slightly larger than my own cars’ cockpits, and is still built to a very high standard, though most of the materials are hard and some easily marred. Seat comfort is still excellent, too, and the Bose sound system rocks (but there’s no USB input). There is Bluetooth and lots of clever nooks and crannies to store stuff. The trunk is also much larger, aiding practicality. Probably the biggest change is the optional folding metal hardtop. It zips up or down in just over 10 seconds, and seals away much of the wind roar and some of the road din that made the earlier car such a fatiguing device for long trips.
This Mazda’s ride is slightly better than the older machines’ too, with a welcome initial compliance. The downside is that the MX-5 moves around much more than many modern sports cars, even when equipped with the Sport Tuned suspension option; the similarly spec’d and priced Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S show how far chassis tuning has come. While the pitch, dive and body roll present mean some transitional moves take more time than is ideal, the Mazda still handles with rare balance and offers a level of driver interaction that has become increasingly rare in these days of fast yet isolating road rockets. The Mazda’s steering precision and feel are first-rate, and its gearbox and control weightings above reproach.
The test vehicle was very low in mileage, meaning its 2-liter, 167hp engine was very tight. Therefore I spent most all my time working its midrange so as to make sure it got broken in properly, and its rorty intake noise and decent midrange torque are a world away from my own, ancient machines’ 1.6-liter, 116hp engines, which could only move those original Miatas past 60mph in the high-8s to mid-9s. This car will do it in the mid-6s, though it never feels that fast. What’s really lacking (even when it’s well broken in), are the kind of top-end fireworks that engage the enthusiast. A more fruity exhaust note and 7500rpm redline would go a long ways towards stoking desire.
I have little doubt the all-new MX-5, due to be shown as this goes to press, will address most or all of these minor gripes; the Skyactiv design philosophy has turned good cars into great ones; brilliant chassis and suspension design mean modern Mazdas both ride and handle better than anything they compete with. They are also quieter, lighter, quicker and more frugal.
That’s the future though; in the here and now, the MX-5 remains a singular example of the affordable roadster. Purist in the best sense of the word, practical enough for real world use, built like the finest Swiss timepiece and stone-ax reliable, it is a joy to pilot and a glorious testament to the singular vision that has inspired the best Mazdas through three decades.
EPA ratings: 21/28mpg; 25mpg average
Price as tested: $32,935
Here is what Mazda has to say.
The 2015 Mazda MX-5 is quite stylish and fun for a person who is a driving enthusiast. It still looks modern and sporty, and the test model had lovely chocolate leather seats, which go great with the dark gray exterior. Those seats are comfortable, and the ride for the passenger is agreeable and does not cause queasiness, unlike many performance vehicles. The Miata’s interior materials look nice—however, they are not all nice to the touch. The plastic on the side of transmission tunnel is too hard; although there is a softer material in the middle, it only is usable when the cup holders aren’t full of drinks, phones, etc., and my elbow gravitates to the hard part. I prefer to keep my elbows callus free.
The Mazda is more practical than I expected. It rides well on not so good pavement, which is wonderful as Denver is under perpetual construction and the roads can really beat you up. Engine noise is not too overbearing, and air doesn’t buffet those riding inside when the roof is stowed. Also, the convertible top opens and closes quite smoothly and quickly. But when it’s up the Miata lets in a lot of road noise. The trunk is well shaped but limited in size, and getting in and out is quite a chore. Especially with fancy footwear.
I would thoroughly enjoy this car as a second vehicle for track and autocross use; it is a blast to drive, and has one of the best manual gearboxes I have ever used. Unlike my husband, who has owned two, I don’t have a personal history with the Miata. But I can see why so many people have such fond memories of their own.