Ask the Experts: Should You Buy a Mazda MX-5 Miata?
PUBLISHED FRIDAY, JULY 23, 2021
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Few vehicles have as much personality and charm as the Mazda Miata. Known officially as the MX-5 Miata, this diminutive convertible sports car places fun at the forefront. The Miata first burst onto the scene in 1989, and in many ways, the fourth-generation version that's currently on sale is the most impressive of the lot. With its lively steering and handling and easy-to-lower top, the Miata can make even the most mundane commute entertaining.
The Miata does sacrifice some practicality in its quest for purity, however. Is this the right convertible for you? Edmunds' Ryan ZumMallen gives you the details on the latest Miatas and offers his take on what to look for when shopping.
What do I need to know about the Mazda Miata?
This article focuses on the 2016-2021 Miata, which is the fourth-generation car. You might read or hear people refer to this generation of the Miata as the ND, which is Mazda's corporate designation for this generation. The original Miata generation was dubbed the NA, and the lineage progressed through the successive NB, NC, and now ND generations.
There are two Miata versions for this fourth generation: the regular Miata and the Miata RF. The regular Miata has a traditional convertible soft-top roof. It's not power-operated, but the process to lower or raise it is quick and easy.
The Miata RF, which debuted for the 2017 model year, has a power-operated hard-top roof. But not all of its roof disappears into the bodywork as you might expect—only its overhead roof panel and rear window retract. In other words, the Miata RF's bodywork buttresses and horizontal bar behind the passengers remain in place at all times. This fixed bodywork means that the Miata RF has a more coupe-like profile but doesn't deliver quite the same open-air experience as the regular Miata.
What engines does the Miata come with?
Every fourth-generation Miata has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. For the 2016-2018 model years it produces 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque. On 2019-2021 models, the muscle is increased to 181 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque.
The Miata comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission, and a six-speed automatic is available as an option. All Miatas are rear-wheel-drive only.
Ryan's take: As the saying goes, it's better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. With less than 200 horsepower under the hood, the Miata isn't going to blow anyone away off the line. But the magic lies in how the engine operates in concert with the transmission. The automatic is smooth and it's fun to use the sporty paddle shifters, but you'll thank yourself later if you opt for the engaging manual that makes the Miata come alive.
What's the Miata like to drive?
The Miata is sharp, responsive, and fun as all get-out. Compared to the previous-generation NC Miata, the fourth-generation ND Miata is actually smaller and lighter by about 150 pounds. This light and diminutive roadster is easy to control and exciting to toss into turns. There isn't a ton of power under the hood, but it's entirely appropriate given the car's mission. And since the Miata offers a greater level of feedback and driving feel than the vast majority of modern cars on the road, you can easily enjoy yourself without driving dangerously or exceeding the speed limit.
Comfort, however, is not a strong suit of the Miata. While it does provide a smooth ride for a car of its stature, you will certainly feel bumps in the road reverberate through the cabin. Most glaring is the issue of noise, especially if you are driving the soft-top version. While the ND Miata has improved in this area compared with previous models, it remains a noisier car to drive on the highway than most other vehicles.
The Miata is a sports car through and through. To maximize its capabilities, some models come with an upgraded sport-tuned suspension and a limited-slip differential. The former helps you better carve around turns with precision, while the limited-slip differential can enhance traction when you're accelerating at low speeds or out of turns.
Ryan's take: This is why you get this car. Few vehicles are as adept at their stated goals as the Miata. It makes up for a lack of power with a responsive gas pedal and precise and nimble handling. Combine those characteristics with the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, and it's a recipe for excitement no matter your speed.
How is the Miata's storage?
This will be a short section. Storage space is simply not a priority in the Miata. This reality is most evident inside the cabin, where there is one center console cubby that is too small for a smartphone. Between the two seats, there is a larger space that folds down to reveal room for a small handbag, but that is about it. Even the cupholders are small and inconveniently located.
The trunk itself offers only 4.6 cubic feet of maximum capacity for the soft-top Miata and 4.5 cubic feet for the Miata RF. It's enough room for two overnight bags or possibly two overhead airplane cases. But that is about the extent of the Miata's practicality.
Ryan's take: You definitely won't be writing any odes in praise of the Miata's storage capabilities. But who writes poems about trunk space anyway? Sure, you have to pack extra-light, and your takeout bag full of leftovers might not make the trip home. My advice is to simply be mindful of what you're bringing along. We don't, after all, always need to have four accessible travel mugs or a week's worth of workout clothes.
What's the Miata's interior like?
Because it's so small, the Miata is simple and straightforward inside. There is a chic minimalism to the design, accentuated by soft-touch surfaces and attractive materials throughout. Even the upper door trim is painted in the exterior body color, making it more visually appealing than standard plastic. Cloth seats are standard, while comfortable leather versions come with the Grand Touring trim.
Still, owners will have to make some concessions. The car sits low, and getting in requires a drop into the seats, especially for those who stand 6 feet tall or taller. Once inside, there is not much headroom when the roof is closed, and the pedal position requires drivers to stretch their legs out in front of them compared with other cars. The upside is that forward visibility is free and clear. Just be sure to use your mirrors to eliminate rear and side blind spots.
Ryan's take: I'm 6 feet tall, and the Miata interior is about as cramped as I'm willing to accept. If you're taller than me, this car may simply not be the one for you. That said, it fits many drivers like a glove—which is kind of the whole idea anyway. For the enthusiast-minded, the Brembo®/BBS®/Recaro® package adds some fantastic sport seats. For the prim and proper, the Grand Touring has surprisingly supple leather surfaces. Take your pick!
How's the Miata's tech?
All 2016-2021 Miatas come with a 7-inch touchscreen mounted to the top of the dash. Mazda added Apple CarPlay® and Android Auto™ smartphone integration for the 2020-2021 models. The touchscreen is easy to reach and it's also easy to scroll through the menus, though the touch function is frozen while the car is in motion. If you need to control it while driving, there's a central dial you can twist and push for just such occasions. Other controls for the air conditioning and, on higher models, automatic climate control are clearly labeled and also easy to use.
A few driver assistance aids are available for the Miata. In general, your odds of getting them increase as you shop for a newer Miata or for a more expensive trim level. The main ones available for the Miata include blind-spot monitoring (can notify you about cars lurking in your blind spots) and lane departure warning (can alert you if you unintentionally start to drift out of your lane). Notably, Mazda added available low-speed forward collision mitigation (can warn you of an impending collision and automatically apply the brakes in certain scenarios) for 2019 and newer Miatas.
Ryan's take: Personally I prefer dials and controllers over poking at a touchscreen, and the dial in the Miata has a metal outer trim that feels great to click into position. The screen is bright and easy to use, and the driver aids—though they are few—are noticeably helpful in such a small car.
What other cars should I consider?
In the kingdom of affordable fun, there aren't many contenders to the Miata's throne. Most other two-seat roadsters are actually luxury cars. So models such as the Audi TT, BMW Z4, and Mercedes-Benz SLC are heavier and more expensive—and, as a result, less fun to drive.
There's also the Mini Cooper Convertible, a fun little two-door that's bursting with personality. It's got nimble handling and a classy interior for those who prefer refinement to the Miata's playful nature. Another option is the Fiat 124 Spider, which is a Mazda Miata that's been restyled on the outside and fitted with a new engine on the inside. The 124 Spider is a wallet-friendly alternative, but it lacks in comfort and execution compared with the Miata.
Ryan's take: I like the Fiat 124 Spider for its funky Italian looks. But then, I also pick the spiciest chicken wings knowing full well they will probably bring me to tears. So while the 124 Spider is exciting and different, your life will probably be easier if you go with the Miata. There is a great selection to choose from on the used market, and each trim is packed with everything you need and very little you don't. The Mini is a great choice too if your idea of driving fun involves more cruising than corner attacking.
If I decide on a Miata, which one should I buy?
The Miata comes in three trim levels: Sport, Club, and Grand Touring. The Sport is the most basic version, but it still packs in a lot of standard equipment.
The Club is our pick for adrenaline-seeking drivers because it includes the aforementioned sport suspension and limited-slip differential when you get the manual transmission. You should know that some models have the Brembo/BBS/Recaro package, which upgrades the brakes, wheels, and seats for the highest overall performance possible.
Finally, the Grand Touring is the most premium of the bunch. It has a leather interior, navigation, and automatic climate control among other niceties. This is the Miata for drivers who like to have fun but appreciate the finer things at the same time.
Ryan's take: How to choose? Each one is so enticing. The Club provides the most bragging rights due to its track credentials, and the Grand Touring adds that extra dash of Mazda luxury that works so well at its price. My pick, though, would be the base Sport. It has the same power and the lowest weight of the bunch. Maybe it doesn't set the fastest lap times, but something about tossing the lightest Miata into corners and around on-ramps alike is awfully appealing.