Despite its smiley new face, the 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata, more than any other car, begs the question: Are you man or mouse? Sadly, it turns out I'm the latter.
In addition to the corporate grin, the face-lifted MX-5 receives new taillights and side skirts, intended to give the roadster a more mature, appealing look. The 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine also gets upgraded, with a forged steel crank and connecting rods, stronger wrist pins and firmer valve springs combine with a new oil-cooler to make possible a 500 RPM higher redline; now 7,200 RPM. That doesn't deliver anything in the way of improved top-end power — still 167 HP — but it does allow you to hang on to a lower gear in corners for longer, something that will return a real, on-the-road, performance increase. Fuel economy also is nudged up slightly — now 21 city, 28 highway — but enthusiasts will care more about the intake noise, which, thanks to revised ducting, now sounds more like the roar of the 1990 original's than the stifled meow of the 2006 model's.
There's also a new, optional $500 sports suspension with firmer springs, Bilstein dampers and a limited-slip differential. This Grand Touring package, Power Retractable Hard Top version was equipped with that and every other option aside from the slushbox, bringing the price up to $31,010, but you can still get a soft top with a stick for just $22,420.
So, while face-lifts and tummy tucks are now well within the acceptable bounds of manhood, why did I get scared shitless in a cute little roadster that takes 6.9 seconds to reach 60 MPH? Two reasons. One; the MX-5 offers an unrivaled sense of occasion at legal speeds and two; I'm a terrible passenger.
I've spent years trying to become a good driver and the result of on-track training, learning from lots of mistakes and racking up hundreds of thousands of miles in fast cars is that I drive by-the-book and very smoothly. Ride with me, even when I'm going fast, and you could fall asleep. The problem is, if I'm riding with you, I can't. I'll be busy spotting every little mistake, silently critiquing each and every one of your turn-in points and cringing every time you step outside the bounds of what I consider appropriate. In short, I'm anal.
Riding along a mountain road with another journalist, my lack of confidence combined with his lack of discipline — in-corner downshifts, unintentional trail braking, changing lines in corners — had even my consistently high fear level hitting unprecedented heights. Even with the newly recalibrated stability control on, the tail was moving around on entry and exit. Well, I was scared until I looked at the speedometer, which was sitting squarely within legal limits.
You see, weighing just 2,511 LBS with a folding hard top and equipped with skinny 205/45-17 tires the MX-5 offers an experience wholly absent from other modern cars — even the more capable Lotus Elise — it's involving and exciting at relatively low speeds, just like a British sports car from the ‘50s or ‘60s. The relatively low power and rev-happy nature of the engine also helps, you never find yourself with more power than you can use, meaning you can use it all.
Of course, all the things that make the MX-5 bad for a nervous passenger also make it great for the enthusiast driver. Start out down a mountain road with every intention of behaving and by the time you've reached the third corner you'll be pushing the communicative front on the way in and, depending on how tight the corner is, either lifting or flooring the throttle to play with the rear on the way out. It's really only first or second gear hairpins in which you can do the former, but even the latter is extremely safe and easy; lower limits equal a broader range of slide with little chance of a spin.
The MX-5 is now fitted with a newly recalibrated stability control system that allows a couple of degrees of slide before kicking in, but the chassis is so friendly and so willing to tell you what it's doing that there's really no need. Don't be afraid to switch it all the way off.
If you're tough enough to live with the bouncy ride and buzzy engine in everyday driving and comfortable enough to deal with the questionable looks and aggressive behavior from overcompensating SUV drivers, the MX-5 can still deliver the thrill of real driving. For the enthusiastic driver that's a hugely welcome change from overly-competent and underly-involved modern performance cars. Just tell nervous passengers to man up.
Photography credit: Grant Ray