Fast Times in the All-New Mazda Miata

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 28, 2015

WESTLAKE VILLAGE, CALIFORNIA—I’m the proud new owner of a 1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata, and it fits the bill for my midlife crisis just fine. My car is a so-called NB, the first year of the second series. As such it has the 1.8-liter power plant, and roars through the gears with gusto. There are only 31,000 miles on the clock, so I’m really just breaking it in.

A row of 2016 Miatas, getting ready to head out. (Jim Motavalli photo) My ownership coincides with the introduction of the fourth-generation of the car, ND if you will. I first saw it, looking quite right, at the Chicago Auto Show—the same place the Miata was introduced in 1989. Beside the car was a blue 1990, one of three Miatas (in red, white and blue) that had been on the stand back in the day.
Here in Southern California, I was able to drive the new 2016 Miata—now with a two-liter engine, and 155 horsepower—back to back with that same blue 1990. Mazda, you’ve come a long way, baby, but never that far from the car’s roots—front engine with rear drive, lightweight, inexpensive, fun. Dropping the top can be done one-handed from the driver's seat, a trick I remember from my old and fondly remembered Alfa Spider. I'm stoked that the Miata's extra power comes with a 25 percent increase in fuel efficiency over 2015. The manual version gets 27 mpg in town and 34 on the highway (and the automatic increases that to 36 on the highway).

 On the canyon roads, our two Miata Club models showed their mettle. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Miata goes on sale for most of us late this summer. But 1,000 GT Launch Edition cars, selling for $30,495, are already being delivered--I know because someone's already crashed one (minutes after taking delivery). The GT is the top of the line car, a luxury Miata if you will. The intro model is the Sport, for $24,915, followed by the Club for $28,600. That’s the model I was able to take through the blissfully empty canyon roads around Los Angeles.
The Club is the serious driver’s car, and ours had the BBS wheels/Brembo brakes package, which looked the business with the Club’s blacked-out trim. The MX-5 redesign stays firmly in the family; it’s a rethink that returns the car to the essentials. Designer Jacques Flynn told us that the finished car—originally conceived in California as a quarter-scale model—retains 60 percent of the U.S. DNA, with plenty of refinement from the team in Japan. Flynn said he had a first-generation Miata on hand for inspiration.

 An excellent driving position, with the driver sitting slightly lower. (Jim Motavalli photo)“Emotional values, like fun and beauty, are more important than meeting engineering benchmarks,” said Rod McLaughlin, vehicle line manager. “The numbers don’t tell the whole story.” He pointed out that the first roadster’s stats—116 horsepower with 100 foot pounds of torque, 1.6 liters, zero to 60 in under nine seconds—didn’t add up to zoom zoom on paper, but did where the rubber hits the road.  

 The new power plant is two liters, shared with the CX-3, and now putting out 155 horsepower. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Miata looks just right, a beast squatting on its haunches and getting ready to run. Flynn described the headlamps as looking “as if the car is locked onto its prey.” It is kinda fierce, at that. He described the top-down look as the “default style,” and it certainly is for mine—which hasn’t been driven yet with that top up. But raising the new canvas top is simplicity itself, and can be done one-handed from the driver’s seat. No hardtop is available yet, but one is soon to be developed for racing (and should soon descend to the road cars).
On to the open road: The Miata feels like my car on steroids, going through the gate with the same urgency but lots more grunt. It reaches 60, the magazines report, in 5.9 to 6.2 seconds, the fastest ever. I didn’t test the top speed, but that’s not the point in the Miata; it’s about crisp handling at the limit, a sweet slotting gearshift and that hard-working four giving its all. Highway cruising on the 101 wasn’t the Miata at its best, but those canyon roads were the perfect proving ground.

 One of the very first Miatas, and a Chicago show car in 1989. I gave it a quick thrashing around LA. (Jim Motavalli photo)Thumbs up on the new car, with a few caveats. The driving position is near perfect, but the passenger side legroom isn’t all it could be for people like me, six feet plus (though a trick I learned got a bit more rearward travel). Storage space isn’t ideal; I missed my car’s door pockets. The climate control works fine, but a pedestrian design lets it down. Premium fuel is suggested, but you don't have to use it.

Mazda is currently selling only about 5,500 Miatas a year, and that figure should see a big bump for 2016. The challenge will be keeping up the sales momentum as the model ages, and that's where racing comes in. 

 The very first Miata race car was battered but righteous. (Jim Motavalli photo)At the lunch stop, we met both the very first Miata race car, and the latest one. MX-5 competition started out small, but now Miatas--the affordable choice--are the most popular race cars in North America. According to Mazda Motorsports’ David Cook, the new MX-5 Cup car (with a stock engine but tweaked tires, wheels, exhaust, brakes and shocks) is due to hit the market this fall at around $55,000. It sounds cheap if the alternative racer is a Porsche GT3 for $200,000. The Cup car will be eligible to compete in a new all-Miata six-weekend series. It’s a real test, since the cars are nearly identical. I asked a question: Can you drive the Cup cars on the street? “Not really,” Cook said. “The airbags have been removed.”

 The very first 2016 MX-5 Cup car. The price tag is $55,000. (Jim Motavalli photo) That means race guys are going to have to buy two Miatas. Oh well, you’re still not spending Ferrari money, which is kind of the point. Here's a look at the car on video:


Get the Car Talk Newsletter