The MX-5: A Gripping Experience


If ever there was a car that could make your heart skip a beat, it's the Mazda Miata, the inexpensive little two-seater that hit the market in 1989. For my money, the Miata is one of the all-time great models of the last 25 years, so Mazda took a risk when it revamped the car for the '06 model year.

Now called the MX-5 Miata Sport, it's still a great little car -- and with a base price of $21,995, a real bargain. It's one of those models that appeals to women and men alike, so it's a wonderful car for bringing couples -- and aspiring couples -- together.

If you want a soft ride and luxurious appointments, this isn't the car for you. The MX-5 is unabashedly a sportscar, with the road noise, cramped interior, and rough ride that entails.

PRICED RIGHT. The engine's high-pitched snarl, the car's agility, and styling are meant to remind you of English sportscars like MGs and the Spitfire- and TR-series Triumphs. For instance, you open the gas fill-up door by pulling a little loop at the back of the passenger compartment between the seats. The inconvenience of this seems a little contrived, but it's the kind of goofy thing you had to do in classic sportscars.

"It captures the essence of 1960s British open-top motoring," says Joseph Freda, a novelist and real estate agent in Calicoon, N.Y., who has owned a '64 Jaguar XKE and '69 MG Midget, and who rushed out to buy the MX-5 in early September.

The MX-5's interior is Spartan. In my test car, the Sport version with 17-inch, 10-spoke alloy racing wheels that lists for $23,495, the passenger compartment was all black with cloth seats (the Grand Touring MX-5 with leather upholstery lists for $24,995.) The MX-5 has power windows, and plenty of drink-holders, with space for two cups in the center console and a "bottle holder" (an interesting concept) in each door.

PACK LIGHT. But there are few other concessions to comfort. I took the car on a 275-mile highway jaunt through New York and New Jersey, and my rear end was numb and my lower back aching by the time it was over.

Needless to say, there's also very little storage space. The tiny trunk is augmented by three small storage compartments at the back of the passenger area -- one behind each seat and another between them.

But, boy, is this car fun to drive. The four-cylinder, 166-horsepower engine (170 h.p. with the six-speed manual transmission) is somewhat more powerful than the one in the previous model, but it still won't win many speed contests.

PADDLE IT. The MX-5's virtue is the way it looks, feels, and hugs the road, not how fast it jumps from 0 to 60. My test car came with an automatic transmission, which adds $1,100 to the price, but included a manual mode.

Out on the hilly highways and back roads of Northeast corner of Pennsylvania and the Catskill resort region of New York, I tried it both ways -- letting the automatic transmission do the work and switching to manual so I could do the shifting myself.

If anything, the Mazda's racecar-style paddle shifting system is even more fun to use than the Acura RL's(see BW Online, 9/23/05, "Acura's Introduction to Luxury"). In the Mazda you can upshift by squeezing levers on the steering wheel with either your left or right hand. To downshift, you flick another little paddle with your thumb. Changing gears this way is very quick, maybe even quicker than a conventional stick shift.

NO SLIP SHOWING. Letting the car do the shifting was surprisingly exhilarating, too. The MX-5 runs out to a noisy whine but rarely hesitates while searching for the right gear, and it doesn't race like a lot of less refined transmissions do. A pedestrian hearing you go by might well think you were driving a stick shift.

Cruising with the top down is one of the great thrills of owning a car like this. And as I found out when caught in a torrential, post-Hurricane Rita downpour, putting up the manual top is easy. In the dark in a downpour, it took less than a minute, but you could do it in 15 seconds or so with practice.

The MX-5 handles like a dream on wet roads. During the same storm, I took it on a curvy little stretch of road near where I live in rural Pennsylvania, taking every twist and turn at top speed. Even though the blacktop was slick with rain and the first fallen leaves of autumn, the car never slid or felt like it might skid off into the woods.

THIRSTY LITTLE BRUTE. The MX-5 is a looker, too. To my eye, from front and back there are faint hints of classic Jags in its curvy styling. From the side, it's an acquired taste. The 17-inch alloy wheels on the Sport version look a little too big for the rest of the car -- as if a kid had put the wrong wheels on a toy. At first, I didn't like the look, but it grew on me.

Fueling up is fairly hard on the pocketbook for a small car. With an automatic transmission, the MX-5 is rated to get 23 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, which isn't bad. But Mazda also recommends premium gasoline, which is pretty pricey these days.

The bottom line: Along with the Chevy Corvette and Porsche 911, this is one of the few test cars I really didn't want to give back. I'd buy one in a heartbeat if I had the cash.


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