Mazda Ready to Cross Over by TCC Team (6/26/2005)
Sensing momentum, Mazda aims for new niches.My sunburn still stings from that long afternoon on the beach, but sometimes a man has to do what a man has to do. And so, doing my best impression of John Wayne macho, I lower the canvas top on the new Mazda Miata, fire up the engine and race off down Hawaii’s Kona coast.
To be honest, I can’t imagine many situations where I’d keep the top up on the all-new, 2006 roadster, even back in Detroit. This car is just made for the open road. Of course, it always has been.
Hard as it is to imagine, it’s been 16 years since Mazda first rolled out what some wag long ago dubbed “the best British sports car the Japanese have ever built.” Back in 1989, Miata was downright revolutionary, re-introducing the concept of the small, affordable roadster, a niche long-before abandoned by the likes of Triumph and MG.
The overwhelming accolades Mazda won convinced a procession of manufacturers to turn out their own entries: BMW with the Z3 and later the Z4, Porsche with the Boxster, Mercedes-Benz with its SLK. Even more are coming, in short order. The slightly delayed Pontiac Solstice will slip into showrooms before year’s end, soon followed by Saturn’s slightly more up-market Sky.
Yet after a couple days driving Mazda’s ’06 update, we can understand why Miata has remained, all these days, the best-selling roadster in the world. And we’ll be ready to wager that the third generation two-seater should maintain that status for some time to come.
Less Botero, more ballistic
The 2006 Mazda has a clear resemblance to the cars that came before it. There’s no battle between form and function here; they merge into one.
Though the basic shape is unmistakable, there have been some notable changes made for ’06. The new Miata abandons the classic Coke-bottle shape of the first and second generations, borrowing a little bit of edge from the Ibuki. It’s nowhere near as slab-sided and mechanical looking as the 2003 Mazda show car, but the Ibuki’s influence is clearly seen in the new Miata’s curvaceous nose, large oval air scoop, substantial rear end, and muscular wheel arches.
The look is familiar, but yet a little more solid and substantial. In reality, the 2006 edition is nearly identical in size, with a modest increase in track that pays off well in terms of handling and road feel. But there are other, more significant changes worth mentioning.
Start with what’s under the hood. Miata has never tried to compete with roadsters like Boxster or SLK in terms of performance. The emphasis has been on balance and harmony, and for most owners, the mix has been just right. Yet there’ve always been those who wanted just a wee bit more power, and that’s what they’re going to get.
The U.S.-spec car now gets a 2.0-liter in-line four that makes 170 horsepower with either the five- or six-speed manual transmissions, 166-hp if you opt for the six-speed automatic. Torque comes in at 140 pound-feet, whatever the gearbox. On paper, it’s not a huge difference. The 1.8-liter engine in the ’05 Miata made 142 hp and 125 lb-ft. But in practice, it’s transformational.
We split our time between the optional five- and six-speed packages and found that with both, there was far less need to shift than in the prior-generation Miata. You didn’t need to plan passes out quite so carefully. You just had that extra oomph you needed to act fast.
The six-speed gearbox is likely to generate a bit of debate among aficionados. The five-speed remains without question, the smoothest of the two transmissions, the sort of short-thrown linkage that boy-racers love. The six-speed has been improved for ’06, though it’s still not as silky smooth as the base gearbox.
The automatic, meanwhile, makes efficient use of the new car’s added power. Our personal preference is the manual, but the new automatic now has a reasonable amount of pep and performance.
Tuning its appeal
Longtime Miata fans will recall that one of the original car’s more endearing touches was the carefully tuned exhaust, chosen after studying the exhaust note of something like 100 classic roadsters. We’re pleased to hear that Mazda put in similar effort on the new roadster.
The new car is offered with standard 16-inch wheels and tires, and along with the 17-inch option, you can even upgrade to 18s, direct from the factory. To be honest, we can’t see the advantage.
With a starting price of $20,345, the new Miata is a fair bit more expensive than the ’89 model, which launched at a modest $13,800. But adjust for inflation, and the ’06 is actually a bit less expensive in real dollars. And you’re getting a lot more for your money these days, including such safety features as front and side airbags and ABS brakes, as well as standard aluminum wheels.
What Mazda hasn’t added to the package is bulk — at least not much of it. With its engineers encourage to focus on every possible gram of weight they could slice off, the ’06 Miata comes in just 22 pounds heavier than the car it replaces, despite added content.
That weight is better distributed, by the way. Influenced by the design of the Ibuki, the production car’s powertrain moves about five inches rearward, and the result is a nearly perfect, 50/50 weight distribution.
Now add the fact that the newest Miata’s torsional stiffness has been increased 47 percent.
The result is a car that’s rigid, balanced and precise. It steers like a sports car should, complimenting the way it flows through corners, the suspension delivering a direct feel of the road while still sucking up most of the bumps. The Japanese call it jinba ittai, a translation of the idiom, “rider and horse as one.” The new Miata feels like a mechanical extension of your body. It just does what you want it to do.
There are plenty of other areas in which Mazda has improved the new Miata. Take that manually operated top. It’s even easier than before to operate. Loosen one central toggle and roll it straight back, nearly as easily as a window shade. Taking it up or down requires mere seconds.
Though even the top-line Limited Edition prices out at just $26,700, Mazda has sculpted a surprisingly luxurious interior. Offering a bow to the top-line RX-8, the little roadster makes use of downright lavish materials with excellent attention to detail. The layout is ergonomic, but it’s also a joy to look at — and to touch, with the leathers supple, the switches crisp and confident-feeling.
The base audio system should prove fine for those who think the open road is the sound you should hear in a convertible. For true audiophiles, there’s a spectacular new Bose package, including a dash-mounted CD changer.
We have a few minor complaints, such as the positioning of the power mirror control. And if you use the cupholders in the center console, it’s likely to make it difficult to shift, but there are secondary cupholders on the door for anything but the biggest Big Gulp.
Another factor favoring the Miata is its incredible record of reliability. The car has continually scored in the upper ranks of all quality and reliability surveys and it’s hard to find an owner who’s willing to complain about service issues.
When the original Miata hit the road, way back in 1989, it had the roadster market essentially all to itself. No longer. It’s now a crowded segment. But Mazda planners shouldn’t worry too much about all the other options. The ’06 remake of this little roadster remains the one to beat.
2006 Mazda Miata
Base price: $20,345 for Club Spec, $26,700 for third-generation Limited
Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 170 hp/140 lb-ft (166 hp with automatic)
Transmission: Five- or six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 112.1 in
Length x width x height: 157.1 in x 67.7 in x 49.0 in
Curb weight: 2473 lb (with five-speed manual)
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 18/25 mpg (est.)
Safety features: Anti-lock brakes and traction control; dual front airbags and seat-mounted side airbags
Major standard features: Tilt steering wheel; cruise control; power windows/mirrors/locks; immobilizer system; AM/FM/CD
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles