I don’t love long drives. I tell myself I do because I believe I should. After all, if you enjoy driving, shouldn’t you should have a high stamina for it? A four-hour trip — like the one I recently took to and from Detroit’s Wayne County Airport up to near Traverse City, Michigan for the Empire Hill Climb — is right on that line of being unbearably long to me, where my lower back starts to hurt and I wish I was anywhere but in between two places.
There was one uplifting element to this journey, though: I had a new Miata for it, and I’d never driven a Miata before. Actually there were two positives, because the weather in Michigan happened to be sublime throughout this particular weekend. Temperature consistently in the low 70s, sun beaming. If I were in any other car, there’d be almost no point to mention any of that, but these things suddenly become important when you’re sitting in a Miata.
I’ve never been one for power — I don’t have use for it. I also haven’t driven anything with all that much to give, which is how I keep myself from pining over cars I can’t afford. The Miata, I quickly learned, was made for me.
My particular Miata was an RF — Retractable Fastback is what that apparently means. It’s the one that looks a little weird, but in exchange for that weirdness, the roof is mechanically operated and goes up and down with the extended hold of a switch.
That roof is the single most complicated thing about the Miata RF. The rest of it is very nice, very elegant — this was the Grand Touring trim after all, with the light-toned leather seats — but ultimately dead simple. There are no pockets to keep things in the cabin save for a tiny lockable compartment between the seats; the Miata just isn’t big enough for it. I had to be extra careful about where I stashed things in a way I never had to, only driving cars with fixed roofs my whole life.
The trunk is surprisingly roomy, despite being located right next to the place where the roof goes. But once you’ve put away all your stuff, and provided the sun is still up in the sky and clearly visible like it ought to be, you magically stop thinking about anything else. The Miata sneaks up on your demeanor like that.
In the realm of small, light, rear-wheel-drive sports cars, the new Toyota GR 86 and Subaru BRZ are the closest I’ve driven to the Miata. I had a blast with both. On a given road, the Toyobarus and Miata are equally as fun — which is to say, a lot — though they each have their perks. For the roofed contingent, it’s all the extra power and torque you get. (That’s less of an issue for the more recent ND Miatas since they received a big power bump two years ago.) Meanwhile, I appreciated the slightly heavier electric power steering of the roadster. That, and the incomparable sensation of having not a damn thing over my head.
I’m no professional driver, and I’ve had all of two hours of track time in my 28 years. Excusing the ’97 Ram 1500 I inherited from my brother when I got my learner’s permit, I hadn’t driven a rear-wheel-drive car until this past August. I can’t get the most out of the Miata, even though there’s not much there. But the Miata never minds, and that’s what I love about it.
I arrived at cars by way of video games before I could even read. The best analogy I know how to make about the Miata’s accessibility is that it’s like the automotive, corporeal equivalent of one of those classic arcade racers I grew up with, like Daytona USA or Sega Rally. The beauty of those games was that you didn’t have to be good at them to enjoy them, but once you were, they felt like an extension of your nervous system. Easy to learn, but you could spend a lifetime mastering them. The Miata feels like a car I could grow with. And while I’m doing that growing, I’d still be having the time of my life. That’s a rare thing.
I miss that. I miss the sound. I miss the perfectly weighted, tactile short throws of its gearshift that have unfortunately tainted my muscle memory and convinced me something’s coming loose or slacking on my Fiesta ST’s transmission. I miss that intangible sense of freedom only a tiny, nimble convertible offers — the kind of car that makes you feel like you can be over there just as easily as right here, and nothing’s going to stop you. I don’t miss the cacophony of cabin noise when I did have the roof up on the highway, or Mazda’s asinine decision to force humans with index fingers to use a rotary dial to navigate Apple CarPlay when the car isn’t stationary. In the grand scheme of it all though, those gripes feel insignificant.
The morning of my long journey back down from Traverse City to Detroit, my colleague Rory drove us in the Miata around the corner to grab coffee. Rory said he thought the Miata was among the top three or four cars currently on sale. I had no basis to agree or disagree with him, since I’ve probably driven a tenth of what he has. Still, I figure if I already share that inkling and he’s claiming it after a far greater sample size, there must be something to it.
A few hours later, I embarked downstate. In retrospect, I wish I’d made that trip a week from now, as opposed to two weeks ago, so the leaves would’ve been just the right color. I also wish two-thirds of my route wasn’t comprised of straight-line highway driving, and that I wasn’t en route to an airport, my least favorite of all places in the world. But truth be told, when I was in the Miata, I didn’t dwell too much on those things. Everybody deserves to have that experience.