Everyone already knows the Mazda Miata is a glorious instrument for carving back roads, soaking up the sun and restoring that desire to just drive that’s been sucked out of you by bumper-to-bumper traffic. But the question must be asked: how does it do off-road?
(Full Disclosure: Mazda wanted me to drive the 2016 Miata so bad they had one delivered to my house with a full tank of fuel. I filled the rest of the car with dirt, cleaned it and gave it back a week later.)
Driving purists love the Miata because it’s inexpensive and well-balanced. But most importantly, driving it enthusiastically is an athletic experience. Its limits are relatively low, so you can feel like a hero hustling this car hard without breaking and serious speed limits.
We call the phenomenon “slow car fast”, the idea that you actually have more fun in a less capable car because it’s more engaging at lower speeds.
I figure the concept should apply to off-road driving as much as canyon carving. Wouldn’t a plucky little car actually be more fun than a Jeep in the dirt, since it’d make you bust your ass for every mile and inch?
Obviously, the Miata was never going to survive rock crawling. I wouldn’t even take it on a “moderate”-ranked training trail at an off-road park and expect it to handle itself. But remote dirt roads make for as earnest an adventure test as any. Half the Jeeps and Tacomas I see running around with extra lights and lift kits never seem to go much deeper than fire roads anyway.
That said, our little overland expedition in the Miata started to feel like a struggle long before we left the pavement.
I probably don’t have to tell you that dropping from an adult’s standing height into the Earth-scraping seat becomes tedious when you’re not in the mood for it, or that the car’s cloth roof lets the cacophony of the highway right into your head at cruising speed.
The only aspect of impracticality I was earnestly surprised by was the hopeless inadequacy of the Miata’s climate control. Even with the roof up, if it’s hot outside, you’re hot in the Miata. And if you’ve been underway for more than a few minutes, your passenger will be very hot since the driveline which protrudes into the starboard footwell (under a carpet) radiates like a little sun tucked below the dashboard.
Compared to riding in a properly-roofed luxury car, even an old and tired one like my 200,000 mile Acura, the 100-mile highway trip from Los Angeles, California to the mountain town of Big Bear Lake felt an experience in early aviation.
Of course I was handsomely rewarded for my pain as soon as soon as I hit Route 330 and 18, a spring-loaded serpent of a road that opens up into a mountainside-running meander straight out of your most cliché driving fantasies.
But we’ve already talked about paved cornering, and I promised you off-road action. Don’t worry, that’s the whole reason I drove out to Big Bear.
The area’s popular with the Jeep people because it’s close to Southern California’s urban centers, but the lake and timber create a classic “alpine air” vibe there that would make you surprised to learn it’s on the same planet as Los Angeles, let alone just half a day down the road.
Once you’re actually at the Big Bear Lake, a paved ring circles the water and leads to a nearby ski hill. But a spiderweb of dirt tracks take off every which way out into a maze of tall trees. And that’s where I was hoping to find a new way to test the Miata’s limits.
I knew it was going to be bumpy. I mean, come on. As the road below us switched from gray to brown, I braced for a kick and BAM! The car didn’t just buck back, it turned stiff as a carnival bumper car as the suspension seemed paralyzed in trauma.
The shocks didn’t stop working, of course. They just exhausted their range of motion with an immediacy I had not anticipated. And maybe the dip was a little deeper than it looked across the hood of the car, which in this context felt like it was as long as the deck of an aircraft carrier.
“Slower, then,” I said to my passenger as I reeled the car back to a stop and comforted it. Slow car fast, after all.
Slipping back into first gear I decided to let the car dictate what speed it could comfortably handle the terrain. On a rutted and cratered hardpack fire road, which was what the pavement had suddenly dropped into for the first few miles of our “test,” the Miata was able to cope at about 5 mph without spilling anybody’s coffee.
At 10 mph you could carry on without making the chassis beg for mercy, but for the rougher sections where potholes needed to be navigated around like icebergs; 15 mph was pretty much the end of the world.
Hard gravel roads proved to be much less trouble, I took it slow over those mostly to avoid scratching the car’s wheels and rocker panels.
But the heavily compacted sand sections... now that’s where I found the Miata’s unadvertised sweet spot I was hoping for.
Once we got out of the ruts and holes, the car was able to get back up to a reasonable gallop without overtaxing the suspension into oblivion. With the RPMs high and traction control off, it only took a little poke of the throttle to get the car loose but its beautiful balance stayed almost entirely intact.
Push and pushed back, just enough, like one of those roly-poly toys that bops up as soon as you flick it down. The car’s poise was relaxed, but still reassuringly.
Where the soft road was wide and empty I could wag the car’s butt around corners, at like, less than 20 mph. And it was wonderful.
Combine that multilateral motion with the drama of sand flying everywhere and the car becomes a whole new kind of heroic experience. And somehow still safe.
I could have played with it all day, and I pretty much did, until it got too dark to see the big holes I didn’t want to lose the Miata in.
Yes, there is some earnest rock-crawling and axle-snapping to be done out in Big Bear if you try hard enough. No, I wasn’t planning on pushing our borrowed Miata to the point of destruction. Not only would that be sacrilegious, it’d be a real dick move for the nice Mazda people who loaned me their fun and good car.
So to settle any suggestions that I recklessly endangered somebody else’s car and make the severity of our “off-road” situation clear– I will say I would have taken my own Acura and its expensive summer performance tires on these “roads” too. Just maybe a little more slowly.
Not all dirt roads are easily viable in this thing, but the right ones, with just enough softness and slip underfoot unlock a whole new flavor of what it means to, how do I put this, “properly Miata.”
It’s also even more exhausting than droning down the highway, which is to say you probably won’t be excited to do it two days in a row. But it certainly makes for a Real Adventure, and that’s pretty much what the Miata is all about.
So the moral of the story is that a fun car stays fun when you pull a little traction out from under its legs and embrace the slow car fast philosophy even on the dirty. You might have known that, but I needed an excuse to share these photos with the world.
If you moved from an MG or a Triumph or an original Fiat 124 to a modern Miata and find yourself missing that rough and rattly charm of imminent danger, at least now you know you can get it back! All you need to do is subtract the asphalt.