Driven: 2009 Mazda Miata MX5

June 19, 2009

The original Mazda Miata MX-5 caused quite a stir because there was a dearth of affordable, two-seat, rear-wheel-drive convertibles back when it was introduced in 1989 as a 1990 model. Memories of drop-tops sourced from Great Britain were fresher in the nation's collective memory, so the general public saw the new Mazda as a reincarnation in the spirit of the Triumph Sprite or MG Midget.

Of course, for anyone who owned one of those English gems, the fond memories are highly selective. Compared to the entirely modern Miata, even one from 20 years ago, the old Brit cars were as sophisticated as an anvil but not nearly so reliable. And they leaked. From the engines, transmissions, differentials, windshields, side glass, etc. Neither you nor your garage floor was ever guaranteed of being dry.

2009 Mazda Miata MX-5

2009 Mazda Miata MX-5

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Since 1990, Mazda has carefully polished the Miata/MX-5 to be a sparklier gem of a little car. While the dimensions of the Miata have grown along with its features list, Mazda has kept the focus of the Miata MX-5 mostly the same: to be a reliable, trouble free, affordable sports car.

Inside, the open cockpit is surprisingly roomy for such a small car. The MX-5’s seats provide good long-distance comfort, while the center console provides useful storage space. (In a story on Not Hot Cars, I pointed out that one reason the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky were not burning up the sales charts were their cramped interiors, complex fabric tops, and lack of trunk space.) Pop the trunk in the Miata to find enough room for a couple modest duffel bags, about 5.3 cubic feet.

Speaking of tops, my latest 2009 Mazda MX-5 had the power-retractable hardtop (first available in 2007). This stands out as a best-of-both-worlds feature. It quickly motors up and down in a no-fuss manner. When shut, it provides fixed-roof like interior quietness and weather sealing. The Miata could easily be a four-season car. (I've also driven recent editions of soft-top Miatas ... that top goes down just as easily, and can be released from the driver's seat while waiting for a traffic light to change.) The hard-top weighs about 80 pounds more than the soft top, but the extra pounds don't impact the car's sporty mission.

The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine spins up nicely. Horsepower is 140. Three gearboxes are offered; five- and six-speed manual transmission and a six-speed automatic. The six-speed shift-it-yourself variant in our tester had exceptionally short throws and the kind of action that makes it fun to row up and down the gears. With mileage of 22 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, the little car is fairly frugal, but not as efficient as one might expect given its size. The full-size, two-ton 2010 Ford Taurus with a 3.5-liter V-6 gets the same highway mileage.

Performance-wise, redline on the 2.0-liter four-cylinder is high, 7,200 rpm, and the engine remains composed at those revs. Once you get the tachometer needle spun up over 3,000 rpm the engine pulls, but don't expect the power of say, a 6.2-liter V-8 out of a 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS. The engine delivers the kind of performance that's perfect for country two-lanes or running through hills or canyons. On roads like these, the MX-5 comes alive. It's short wheelbase whips around corners effortlessly. Body roll is tightly controlled and the steering tells you exactly what's going on at road level. It's no wonder the Miata has its own class in SCCA racing.

When driving at a more sedate pace, the overdrive gearing found in sixth lets the engine settle down nicely, even at an 80-mph cruise.

True to its nature, the 2009 Mazda Miata MX-5 was easy to live with. Even during torrential rains, the interior stayed dry. More importantly, as I backed it out of its garage space every morning, the floor was dry too.

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