New & Used Mazda MX-5 Miata: In Depth
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The Mazda MX-5 Miata has kept alive the dream of pure two-seat sports cars for 25 years. While it's rekindled a love of classic roadsters, it's also converted a new generation to the joys of top-down driving in a simple, nimble, back-to-basics two-seater without excessive power.
The Miata is a true sports car, and perhaps one of the more unlikely successes of the modern automotive era. Designed in the 1980s as an homage to the classic British roadster, the Miata offered up all the driving fun of those sports cars, but virtually none of the ownership pains. That combination continues today.
The Miata's success inspired other automakers to rejoin the classic-sportscar segment. The BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster, and Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class arrived over the next decade. Those German models, though they started out as more stripped-down machines, quickly went upmarket, with the BMW and Mercedes trading in four-cylinder engines for sixes. GM even got in on the act, with the short-lived Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky.
The little MX-5 Miata has endured and is entering its fourth generation, which remains true to the original small-roadster concept. The Miata's design and following have earned it a place in the automotive history books along with icons like the Mustang, Viper, Corvette, and M3.
MORE: Read our 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata review
The new Mazda MX-5 Miata
The 2016 MX-5 Miata has been completely re-engineered and redesigned and, we’re relieved to say, it's a classic on arrival.
With the 2016 model, Mazda has brought Miata up to some modern safety, efficiency, and tech expectations, all while preserving that delicate sweet spot that makes it different from anything else on the market.
The proportions aren’t that much different, but Mazda has shed a few inches of length and made the car even lower. Its design follows Mazda’s latest "Kodo" design, evolved from the Mazda 6, Mazda CX-5, and Mazda 3, and made a little more pert. Inside, the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata adopts a design that keeps its low seating, with a prominent center console separating the driver and passenger areas, as well as big, cockpit-style analog gauges and a horizontal, shelf-like instrument panel—although it makes a noticeable concession to modernity in a large, standalone infotainment screen.
The new Miata has a layout that's much like its predecessor, yet it's been completely re-engineered, with a new body structure as well as Mazda’s 2.0-liter "SkyActiv" direct-injection inline-4 and a high 13:1 compression ratio. The engine’s 155-horsepower and 148 pound-foot ratings aren't impressive on their own, but considering the car's light 2,300-pound curb weight, it's plenty—provided you keep the engine revving. The electric-assist rack-and-pinion steering is very precise, and the front wishbone, rear multi-link suspension, with an even lower seating position this time, helps keep the driver feeling bonded with the car in every twist and turn.
The Miata remains a two-seater, with a limited amount of space—just enough for the driver and passenger. Ride quality is reasonably good (although the Club is noticeably stiffer), and wind buffeting with the top down is impressive. The all manual top can be raised or lowered with one arm (thanks to a helper spring) in less than 10 seconds.
Three different models of the Miata are offered for 2016: a base Sport model, an enthusiast-oriented Club model, and a touring-oriented GT (Grand Touring). The Club model is the most aggressive performance setup available and has a limited-slip differential, Bilstein shocks, and a shock tower brace—brought to its best with a Brembo/BBS brake-and-wheel package. GT models add Bose audio with a subwoofer, a garage-door opener, heated seats, automatic climate control, and leather upholstery, plus 17-inch bright alloy wheels, and you can now option a Miata up with a suite of active-safety features.
And there's a cousin on the way. The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider will be assembled alongside the Miata in Japan.
Mazda MX-5 Miata history
With Japanese reliability and the personality of something like the legendary Lotus Elan (not to mention similar hideaway headlights in the first generation), the Miata was nothing short of a revolution when it first went on sale in the 1990 model year. A small, two-seat sports car, the Miata was an instant classic. Everything about it recalled classic roadsters, with a long hood and short cabin; a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout; and a design that kept it lean and simple, sometimes at the expense of some comfort.
The powertrain in the original Miata was a 1.6-liter inline-4 available with a choice of 5-speed manual or automatic transmissions, growing slightly with each new generation. In 1993 the engine was enlarged to 1.8 liters, and in 1998 the second-generation car was introduced. The same 1.8-liter engine powered the second MX-5 Miata, though it received a slight increase in power. The second-generation Miata offered a Mazdaspeed version in 2004 and 2005, which added a turbocharger to the 1.8-liter engine, increasing output significantly from 130 hp to 178 hp.
The third-generation car was introduced in 2005 for the 2006 model year. It again gained a larger engine, up to 2.0 liters and 160 hp standard (167 hp in 2009-2010 models), with a 5- or 6-speed manual transmission, or a 6-speed automatic, though the engine is detuned to 158 hp when paired with the automatic. Six-speed manual models were available with a limited-slip differential.
While the Miata maintained a go-kart-like handling feel, with a low-to-the-road driving position that tends to exaggerate the feeling of speed without breaking the speed limit, the tight cabin can lend a feeling of vulnerability—or intimacy.
True to its essence, the base cloth top on the Miata isn’t power-operated, but it remains easy to open and close with a single hand. For the 2007 model year, however, a clever power-retractable hard top version of the Miata was introduced. Thanks to smart design, the hard top opened and closed quickly, preserved headroom, took up no more trunk space than the cloth top, and created a tight, quiet cabin environment that made driving in cold weather considerably more civilized.
An MX-5 Miata Club trim was new for 2013. With a 6-speed manual transmission and a stiffer suspension tune, it had a somewhat sharper driving feel. For the 2015 model year, Mazda effectively signed off on the third-generation Miata with a special 25th Anniversary Edition.