Mazda Miata SE (2001)

"We'd advise you to keep the extra dough in your pocket."
Good: stylish, reliable, fun!
Bad: low aspect tires, sixth gear


We loved the Mazda Miata when it was introduced a decade ago as a Japanese interpretation of the classic British sports car (i.e., didn't leak oil, started every day). We still love it today. It's been tweaked and stretched a bit here and there over the years, but Mazda has wisely chosen not to louse up a good thing. It's been joined in the market by a wide variety of two-seat drop tops, but the Miata is still among the purest and most fun of the group. It's remained true to its lightweight, British-influenced roots, and that's a big reason why.

Mazda has recently introduced a Special Edition version of the Miata, which we drove. Don't worry, it doesn't have a padded vinyl roof and opera windows. It does, however, have a six-speed manual transmission in place of the usual five, leather seats, and a bunch of cosmetic changes such as polished alloy wheels and British racing green paint.

The Miata is a blast, even after all these years. But, for reasons we'll explain in a moment, the low aspect tires and the sixth gear actually make the Special Edition less enjoyable, not more. We'd advise you to keep the extra dough in your pocket when the dealer tries to move you up to the Special Edition. With a target price of $24,000, the Special Edition is a whopping $4,800 over the base Miata and $1,700 over the Miata LS -- money that's not particularly well spent, in our humble opinion.

Driving Experience

The Miata is really two cars. With the top up, it's a noisy, cramped little econobox with terrible visibility. With the top down, it's the most fun you can have with your pants on. If driving the Miata with the top down on a nice day on curvy roads doesn't put a smile on your face, it's time to tell your primary care physician you may be clinically depressed.

With the top down, the car is nearly perfect. You can see everything. You can feel the wind against your bald spot. The air is good, the sun is pure, and the sound of the engine is delightful. It's got just enough power to make it fun -- 1.8 liter, 155 hp) but not enough to get you into trouble. The handling is well balanced and superb.

With the top up the car is claustrophobic, cramped, and noisy. It's hard to see out of the front or the back, and it happens to be lousy in the snow, and not so great in the rain. For that reason, we don't recommend the Miata as a "primary vehicle." We suggest you buy it as a second car, and drive it when the weather beckons.

In either case, be advised that this is a small car. And it's not the car for you (first or second) if you suffer from tractor-trailer-phobia. The Miata leaves you looking up at the door handles of passing Volkswagen Beetles.

Now, why do we advise against buying the Special Edition? Because the six-speed transmission and low-profile tires it comes with make the Miata less enjoyable, in our humble opinion. In adding the six-speed transmission, Mazda has essentially made it so you have to shift more often. So often, in fact, that it becomes annoying. The gears are so close together in the six-speed transmission that their overlap is significant. We ended up driving it like it was a three-speed -- using second, fourth, and sixth gears and skipping the others. If Mazda had simply added a sixth gear on top to lower the engine speed and noise on the highway, that would be fine. But they crunched all of the gears closer together, which was unnecessary and annoying. Fortunately, the six speed is an option. Opt out.

By the same token, the low-profile tires that come on the Special Edition are designed to improve the cornering. They do, a tiny bit, but they do so at the cost of a much harder ride -- and our aging lumbar regions thought it rode hard enough with the regular tires. Again, it's an unnecessary option, and we suggest you go with the regular tires, which are just fine.


The interior is snug, but the seats are comfortable. This is a convertible, so the visibility with the top up is putrid, although the glass back window is a huge improvement over plastic back windows that wrinkle, discolor, and tear.

The Miata comes equipped with air conditioning, four-wheel discbrakes, power windows, a trunk release, and a wind blocker to keep your hairpiece in place. There's a switch to turn off the passenger's air bag, in case you're trolling for dates with your golden retriever in the next seat over. The steering wheel is still not adjustable, so make sure you really like it where it is before buying this car.


The Miata's ergonomics are great, especially when it comes to the folding top. It's so simple to undo -- a couple of easy latches and toss the whole top in the back -- you can do it while you're waiting at a stoplight. Switches are pretty much where you'd expect them to be, with the exception of the window switches, which sit awkwardly between the driver and passenger. But controls are all easy to find and operate.


The styling of the Miata is absolutely classic. Since they got rid of the pop up headlights, it's even classic at night. We love it.

Reliability {C}

The Miata is wonderfully reliable. We have many customers who own Miatas. Admittedly, they only drive them during the nicer weather. However, given that these cars sit around for months on end without being driven, they suffer from surprisingly few ill effects.

Maintenance {C}

The Miata is very easy to service. It's built exactly the way the MG-B would have been... if the Brits hadn't designed it.

Overall comments

Since the Miata was introduced, other car makers have jumped on the two-seater bandwagon -- there's the Audi TT, the BMW Z3, the Porsche Boxster, the Honda S2000, and the Toyota MR2. But only the mid-engined Toyota is anywhere near to same price as the Miata, and it's even smaller and less comfortable than the Miata. The Honda, Audi, Porsche, and BMW all cost at least another $10,000 more. The fact is, whether it's time for your midlife crisis or you'd just like to have a second or third car that's fun to drive, the Miata is hard to beat.

[ Test Drive Notes Index ]

2 001
Make and Model: 
Old url: