SMIATA. It is the answer to every possible question. Its name is an old High German word that means "reward." More of them are tracked every weekend than just about any other car. It is scientifically impossible to not have fun driving one.
In fact, whenever someone gets around to updating the Holy Bible (something that should have happened a while ago, if you ask me) they should probably add something about the well-known fact that the Miata was created by God himself. Something like this:
And on the Eighth Day, God decreed that there should be a lightweight, rear-wheel drive convertible just like the old British ones except that it doesn't leak oil on the showroom floor or have and electric system designed by Satan. So he created the Mazda Miata. And people raced it on the next Seventh Day. And it was good.
Something like that. Just worded better, obviously. I am the last person who should be giving advice on Scripture.
Everyone who loves to drive swears by the Miata. But if you check out a 2014 Miata, you'll realize that something odd has happened to it lately: it got kind of old. The current generation NC Miata has been around since 2005 when it debuted as a 2006 model. There's a new one that will also underpin a new Alfa Romeo roadster on the horizon, but that's a ways away.
And now, the Miata has its first real competition in years in the form of the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S twins. More than ever, it's hard out there for Japan's favorite roadster.
(Full disclosure: Mazda needed me to drive a Miata so badly that they gave me a 2014 model with just 300 miles on the odometer and a full tank of gas for a week and said "go nuts." It was a good week.)
My Miata tester was a Club Edition, the new middle model in the Miata family that replaces the old Touring, and had the trick Power Retractable Hardtop. It's not just for show, either: extra goodies on this model include upgraded Bilstein shocks and a limited-slip differential.
You may think a hardtop convertible option ruins the idea of the Miata as a simple, stripped down sports car and turns it into a top heavy monster with terrible handling. It doesn't. In fact, it only adds 72 pounds to the car, bringing weight up to a mere 2,593 pounds. When it's folded down it does not impact the (admittedly small to begin with) trunk space at all. As far as hardtop convertibles go, it's kind of a masterpiece.
Beyond that, there's really not too much to the Miata, and that's what makes it so great. It's gotten a little bigger over the years, but the 2014 follows the same formula the car has used since its inception: Open top, rear-wheel drive, stick shift, small stature, low to the ground, exceptional handling and fantastic steering. It's still old school in both spirit and execution, and that's what makes it so unique and special in today's world of over-technologized performance cars.
That doesn't mean it's perfect though. I'm sure Travis will disagree with me on this, but it does have its flaws.
However, the biggest problem I had with the Miata was that the longer I drove it, the less I wanted to drive anything else. The driving experience in the Miata makes almost everything else feel like watered-down bullshit. It offers a nearly unmatched degree of pure fun; this is the only car I've ever driven where I didn't mind being stuck in Washington D.C. traffic.
I'll say that again: It makes me not mind D.C. traffic. It's that wonderful.
In fact, when time came to give the Miata back to Mazda, I decided instead to hang onto it... um, indefinitely. When Mazda got wind of this they notified the police, and that may or may not have led to a tiny little chase across two states that may or may not have ended when they fired teargas into the cabin from a helicopter (P. George Life Rule Number 1: Keep the top up when you're running from the cops).
As I banged out this review sitting in the holding cell waiting for my lawyer to show up (P. George Life Rule Number 2: Always lawyer up before you talk to the detectives) the Miata's age weighed on my mind. As it nears a decade on the road and shows it in some areas, does it still have what it takes to be considered the answer to everything?
You better believe it does.
SI have always preferred the curvaceous lines of the second-gen NB Miata to the looks of the current one, but after a few tweaks over the years and the aggressive paint job on the Club edition, this is probably about as cool-looking as the NC Miata will ever get.
Well, if you don't count the Super20 concept.
Special touches on the Club include a black hardtop, a black stripe on the side, a front air dam and rear diffuser, smoked-out 17-inch wheels, and a little "Club"-shaped badge which may or may not be a subtle homage to the clover leaves that show up on Alfa Romeos.
Overall, it looks pretty good, though it's not nearly as aggressive as some roadsters and sport coupes are. There's still that giant smile on the front bumper, but I can't blame the car for that. It's just happy. I had the same goofy grin whenever I drove it too.
And here's where our friend really starts to show his age. Compared to modern cars, with their iDrive-like controls, slick touch screens, cell phone integration, USB ports and voice control, the Miata feels like it's from the stone age. Here, you get lots of hard plastic, a radio (that boasts its MP3 and WMA compatibility on the faceplate, in case you're still burning CDs with WMAs on them), air conditioning, gauges, buttons for that control the top, and... that's about it.
But here's the thing. On any other car — a sedan, a minivan, an SUV, even a high-end performance car — such an interior on 2014 model would count as strikes against it. But on the Miata, it all just works. The interior is simple, effective, easy to figure out, and never distracts you from driving, and that's the entire point of the Miata. Sure it's dated, but it's what you want in a car like this. (And on a side note, it's refreshing not to have to mess with an infotainment system for five goddamn minutes when I want to tune the radio.)
I was also a fan of the pefectly-sized steering wheel, which has little raised grooves on the backs of the spokes for proper 9-and-3 action. Like I said, it's all about driving.
The Miata's 2.0-liter, 167 horsepower four-cylinder is the Rudy of sports car engines. It ain't shit, but it works real hard. It's got heart!
The Miata still uses the MZR engine, not the newer SkyActiv motors. It really isn't bad for what it is. It feels quite a bit more potent than your average economy car four-banger, and it develops most of its power in the midrange so you don't have to rev it into the stratosphere to get the most out of it. Remember, it doesn't have much weight to move. I have seen tests that put the Miata's zero to 60 mph time in the low 6 second range — that seems optimistic to me, but while it isn't truly fast, it's definitely not slow.
Most importantly, the car always feels much faster than it is. Because of the engine's prominent noise, the car's small size, and the rush of wind in your face when the top down, 20 feels like 40, 40 feels like 60, and 80 feels like Warp 9. Isn't that more important than actual 0-60 numbers?
The brakes are pretty solid. They're just 11 inches front and rear, but the Miata doesn't have much mass to stop. The pedal has a nice firm feel to it. Overall, it's a system you can trust when you're doing the kind of driving the Miata was meant for.
Oddly enough, the ride quality really ain't bad for a small, dedicated two-seat sports car. Maybe it's because the Miata has a relatively soft suspension. It didn't beat me up nearly as bad as the Fiat 500 Abarth I drove a few months ago.
My biggest complaint with ride quality had more to do with the seats than anything else — they're hard, narrow, and not terribly comfortable. But if you want comfort, get a Toyota Avalon or something.
Handling. This is what the Miata does. It's why you get one in the first place, and it will make you wish every road is a twisty back road, or at least a tight-angle hairpin turn in a city. This is where the roadster excels.
Throw the Miata into a corner, and it tends to stick rather than slide. It takes some work to get the rear end completely out, instead offering a quick, scalpel-precise, direct cornering experience. It does exactly what you tell it to.
It's hard to talk about the Miata's handling without using clichés like "turns on a dime" and "rides on rails," but that's what it's like. There's a tad bit of body roll, but overall, it's very involved and also very forgiving. I can see why it makes such a great track car for novices, veterans and everyone in between.
A huge amount of credit goes to the steering system, which thankfully remains hydraulic instead of electric and thus offers a nice natural weight and provides tons of road feel. If the next Miata gets an electric rack, it has a lot to live up to.
My tester came with a six-speed manual gearbox, and it's the kind of transmissions other transmissions wish they were. Shifts are tight, crisp and extremely short, with gears easy to locate. It's one of the best factory manual boxes I've ever used.
It falls short of a perfect score for two reasons: one, it has a typically wonky Mazda clutch with an ill-defined catch point, and two, the six speed box has unusually short gearing that will put you in sixth gear at 40 mph to cruise comfortably. It's not bad, just odd.
A six-speed automatic is also available. If you know someone who opts for this transmission, shun them.
Buzzy and loud. That's the best way I can describe the sound of this engine. Like I said, it's willing to work hard, but it always sounds stressed under hard acceleration, and while you have no trouble hearing it, the motor never sounds terribly appealing. (The same goes for the newer SkyActiv engines; can we hope Alfa Romeo will teach Mazda a thing or two about how to make a great-sounding engine that isn't a rotary?)
The Miata Grand Touring gets a Bose sound system. My tester didn't have that, but the stereo was fine. Not great, not awful, but fine. It's potent enough to hear at highway speeds when the top is down.
Like I mentioned before, the Miata lacks a lot of what we would consider "toys" on modern cars, like USB ports or even a navigation option. But guess what — the roof goes away whenever you want it to! The car itself is a toy! You can have your smartphone integration, I'll take this guy on a sunny day.
The power retractable hardtop is the killer app here. Simply release the latch on the roof, hold down a button next to the hazard light switch, and the top folds into the car within 10 seconds. Mazda says it's the fastest of its type in the world. It's a hardtop with none of the usual hardtop penalties.
The Miata scores a big victory in the value department. You may not get a plethora of high-tech gizmos, but you do get one of the most fun cars to drive at any price. For pure driving enjoyment, it trumps many cars that are more powerful and more expensive.
And the Miata won't break your bank. A base model Miata with a soft top starts a smidge less than $24,000; it goes all the way up to just less than $30,000 for a PRHT Grand Touring model with stuff like leather, auto climate control and heated seats. If it were my purchase, I'd probably keep it simple with a bare-bones soft top.
Besides the BRZ and FR-S, the $20,000 range is full of fun competitors like the Mustang, Ford Focus ST, Fiat 500 Abarth, Volkswagen GTI and a whole host of others. The difference between the Miata and all of its potential competitors is that it remains the purest sports car; the one that adheres most closely to the traditional definition of a sports car, an open top, lightweight, rear-drive fun machine.
Only time will tell what the next Miata will be like. Great, most likely. I have a lot more faith in Mazda not to fuck up their future products than I do most automakers. Until then, the current Miata remains the answer to everything, no matter how old it is.
2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club PRHT
Engine: 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder
Power: 167 HP at 7,000 RPM/ 158 LB-FT at 6,700 RPM
Transmission: Six-speed manual
0-60 Time: 6.5 seconds (estimated)
Top Speed: Not disclosed
Drivetrain: Rear-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 2,593 LBS
Seating: 2 people
MPG: 21 City/28 Highway
MSRP: $28,665 (Club PRHT base price)
Photo Credits: Patrick George