Pros: Turn-on-a-dime handling; easy to operate soft top; excellent reliability record; affordable price
Cons: Small trunk; cramped interior; best audio options limited to the most expensive trims; average crash test ratings
Since its inception, the Mazda MX-5 Miata has been dedicated to the driving enthusiast in all of us. Sure, a number of cars in the Miata's price range can thrill their drivers, but only a handful can do it as effectively as the Miata. It's a combination of the car's low price, excellent repair record, go-kart-like handling, iconic styling and open-air roadster appeal that makes the Miata such a fantastic buy. In fact, the only car that comes close to the Miata is MINI's all-new Cooper Roadster, and it doesn't have the Miata's 23-year history to back it up.
Is the Miata tiny? You bet. Is its trunk little more than an oversize glove box? Absolutely! But there is something magical about this car. It's a throwback to the days of the great British roadsters from Triumph and Lotus, but without the horrible reliability worries that accompanied them. The humble 2.0-liter engine isn't big on power, but at a mere 2,400 pounds, how much power does the Miata really need? Besides, the Miata's brilliance resides in its ability to carve up twisting S curves without a care in the world, not in its ability to rocket away from stoplights like some heavy-handed muscle car.
Comfort & Utility
In the MX-5 Miata, comfort is relative to the size of the person sitting behind the steering wheel or in the passenger's seat. Those over six feet tall will find their legs cramped, and with their seat pushed all the way back there is no room to recline the backrest. They'll also likely be eyeing part of the road over the top of the windshield and bumping their head against the cloth top. If upon entering the Miata you discover you just need another half-inch of headroom, opt for the retractable hard top. It provides year-round driving comfort and a bit more headroom than the softtop model.
The Miata's soft top is a marvel of engineering, so light and well balanced that it can be raised and lowered using only one arm while sitting inside the car. The available power retractable hard top is equally impressive, occupying the same small well space as the soft top when lowered. Speaking of space, there isn't much extra room inside the Miata, save for a small compartment between the seats and a rather small glove compartment. If you're the type who needs to carry lots of little odds and ends (or four Blackberrys), you'll need to learn to organize more efficiently or downsize your stash.
Getting in and out of the Miata can pose a challenge. The seats sit very low, and the tiny doors don't offer much of an opening. Maybe it's just easier to hop in over the door, Batman style. Once situated, you'll find a tight but well-executed cockpit with all controls within fingertip reach. The shifter for the manual transmission (you gotta have a manual transmission) is perfectly situated for rapid-fire gear changes. Seat comfort is fine on short drives, but push past three hours, and you'll feel your bottom end start to fatigue. Higher-end trims offer leather seating and heated seats, two features that will be welcome on open-air drives.
If you're looking for the latest and greatest in high-tech automobile gadgetry, the Miata probably isn't the best choice. About the most high-tech offering is Bluetooth phone connectivity and Mazda's Advanced Key keyless entry, both of which are offered only on the top-of-the-line Grand Touring trim. The Grand Touring models also have standard seven-speaker Bose audio system with AudioPilot 2 technology, which constantly adjusts sound to compensate for exterior noise (such as wind) and vehicle speed. Unfortunately, although every Miata does come with an auxiliary audio input jack, there is no USB hookup to control a portable device such as an iPod. There is also no navigation option.
On the performance side, manual models can be fitted with the Suspension Package, which adds Bilstein performance shocks and a limited-slip differential.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The MX-5 Miata's 2.0-liter engine develops a very respectable 167 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque. Cars equipped with the six-speed automatic have a slightly lower output: 158 hp. Even with two adults on board, the lightweight Miata zips along with no trouble. Passing maneuvers require constant downshifting, but once you get the tachometer needle in the sweet spot, the Miata bolts like a rabbit from its hole.
Base Sport trims are equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, while the Touring and Grand Touring employ a six-speed gearbox. All three trims can be equipped with Mazda's six-speed automatic transmission and its steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Fuel economy for the Miata is rated at 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway regardless of transmission choice.
The Miata is equipped with all the required safety features (ABS, traction and stability control, front airbags) and additional equipment such as side impact airbags and integrated roll bars behind the seats. Still, the car's small size, low profile and lack of a fixed roof means that certain types of collisions could expose the occupants to more serious injury. Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor NHTSA has crash tested the 2012 Miata, so it's hard to say definitively how the car will hold up in an accident. We did find crash test data dating back to 2002, in which the Miata scores four out of five stars in the government's front-end crash test and three out of five in its side impact test.
Whatever criticism is leveled against the MX-5 Miata goes out the window once you get the car out on the open road. It might be a cliché to say the Miata is endowed with go-kart-like handling, but that's exactly what it feels like. With almost no hood or trunk overhang to negotiate, the driver is made to feel as though the only things between him or her and the road are a steering wheel and a windshield.
The Miata responds instantly to the most modest steering-wheel input. Cornering is nearly flat, and recovering from an overly enthusiastic maneuver is as easy as letting off the throttle while working the wheel until the car corrects itself. In such scenarios, the electronic stability control is a welcome safety feature, but when you just want to have a little naughty fun, the stability program can be switched off.
We love the Miata's manual transmission, which is so tight and precise that it can row through the gears with little more than a flick of the wrist.
Other Cars to Consider
MINI Cooper Roadster - The MINI Roadster offers the same driving dynamics as the Miata, but its looks - and its price - are polarizing.
BMW Z4 - The Z4 is priced far above the MX-5 Miata, but it offers a similar driving experience with more power and more prestige.
Volkswagen Eos - The Eos can't compete with the Miata on the track, but if you're looking for an affordable, comfortable convertible experience, the Eos is more accommodating and has more high-tech features.
If you can afford the added cost, we suggest the Touring or Grand Touring hardtop models. The top doesn't add much weight to the car and allows the Miata to be driven year round. If you're a die-hard softtop fan, we'd go for the Touring model with the Suspension Package.