Most of the time, the universe is out to actively screw me over, but every now and then it hands me something amazing out of nowhere. A few weeks ago a rep from Mazda emailed me to ask if I wanted a 2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata for a week. Like I'd say no to that, right?
Even though I spent a week in a Miata Club Edition last year and we gave it a full review, I figured turning down another week in one of my favorite sports cars right when the summer weather here in D.C. has been just about perfect seemed like poor decision-making. When someone asks if you want a Miata, you say yes!
It was a different Miata than the one I had last year, too. There was just one thing Mazda neglected to tell me about it. Something terrible. Something horrifying. Something that deeply offended my Jalop sensibilities, and will probably do the same to you.
Send the kids and other sensitive family members into another room. Get ready to speed-dial your therapist or clergy-person. This is about to get traumatic.
(Full disclosure: Mazda gave me an MX-5 Miata for a full week with a tank of gas. It also came with a top, but I didn't use it much.)
Though I've driven the current model extensively, I was thrilled to test another Miata. Even after a week in a car as amazing as the 2015 Subaru WRX STI, the thought of pure, open-top, rear-drive fun just never loses its appeal.
But my hopes were dashed when I walked up to the car and saw what was inside.
Nooo! Not you!
NOT YOU! OH GOD, WHYYYYY?
Looks like you got me again, universe.
Maybe I should explain the deep spiral of despair I found myself in. You see, I'm in agreement with the philosophy that people should generally stop being transmission snobs. We're all enthusiasts, and at the end of the day we should be allowed to drive what we want.
More than that, I feel different gearboxes suit different cars. I love the Cadillac ATS, but its paddle-shift automatic is so good I never found myself missing a stick and three pedals. I'd opt for the manual on the BMW M235i, but the ZF 8-speed auto option is outstanding if you don't.
Cars like the Nissan GT-R, McLaren 650S, Porsche 911 GT3 and others are designed to go around a track as fast as possible, so their dual clutch gearboxes are totally appropriate. Not everything needs a manual.
But the Miata does. That, I believe with every fiber of my being. It's the literal definition of the pure sports car — two seats, two doors, an open top, and rear-wheel drive. Unless you lost a leg in some accident, an automatic simply doesn't compute here.
It also helps that the Miata has a fantastic manual gearbox. The clutch is a little vague in typical Mazda fashion, but shifts are ultra-short, direct and tight. I don't really know who opts for an automatic Miata besides the aforementioned maimed people — I'd say it's one of the most reliably manual-having cars you're likely to find around town.
On the plus side, I was wondering how I would write about the Miata after reviewing one last year. But now I had a story. I wanted to find out if my prejudices were wrong, and if you really can have fun in an automatic Miata.
The short answer is yes, yes you can. But it's less than optimal.
I'll start with the car itself. Like I said, it's a different car than the one tested last year. It's a Grand Touring, with a few nice features like heated leather seats, satellite radio, HID headlamps and a halfway decent Bose sound system.
And it drives surprisingly differently, too. It's much more softly sprung than the Club Sport, with both noticeably more body roll and a much more livable ride quality. Does that mean it doesn't handle well? Hell no.
It's still razor sharp around corners and has point-and-shoot direct steering. It's just a little more comfortable for everyday use and a tad less optimized for your next autocross meet. (It'll still do that, too.)
Like the last car, it's got the power-retractable hard top, which adds a mere 72 pounds to the overall weight and goes up and down in about 15 seconds. It's the best of both worlds, really, though visibility isn't great when the top is up. You can get around that by putting it down.
Now, onto that slushbox. It's a six-speed, torque converter-based automatic, no fancy dual clutch here, with paddles on the steering wheel and an up/down shift function on the gear lever.
That last one, Mazda got right. It's the proper down-for-up, up-for-down shifting pattern. The paddles are a little trickier — you pull the ones behind the steering wheel to go up a gear, and push separate buttons above the wheel to downshift. I prefer the "left/right, down/up" paddle setup, but that's just me.
In the "manual" mode, the gearbox is... not fantastic, unfortunately. Self-initiated shifts aren't especially quick, up or down, and it still misbehaves by not holding gears and by downshifting automatically when you mash your foot on the gas. It's less a true automated manual and more an automatic where you request a gear, and if it decides your selection is acceptable, it lets you go with it. For a little while.
The truth is, this is where the NC Miata really shows its age. This car has been around since 2005 when it debuted as a 2006 model. Automatic transmissions have gotten a lot better since then, in everything from sports cars to economy cars. This may have been a decent auto with paddles in the last decade, but it's since been left in the dust.
This Miata functions best when you just leave it in drive and let the transmission do its thing. Mash your foot down on the gas pedal and downshifts happen right away. It feels a lot less laggy in this mode, more natural and responsive, more enjoyable in cruising.
And that's what the automatic Miata Grand Touring probably does best: cruising. If you want to enjoy a cool sunset drive with the top down, and then maybe tackle some corners on your way back, it's hard to find a better car for the price. It may be less involved than a manual Miata, but it's still a hell of a lot of fun to drive.
Last year I said that the more I drove the Miata, the less I wanted to drive anything else. Much to my surprise, I found out this is still true even with an automatic gearbox.
We have an all-new 2016 Miata on the way soon, and it's supposedly lighter, smaller, turbocharged and more efficient. I hope Mazda knows that it has a lot to live up to, but I have faith in their ability to get it right. They haven't let us down so far.
Just do yourself a favor and get the manual, okay?