The Mazda MX-5 Miata is the best selling two-seat roadster ever, and there's good reason for that. The MX-5 is remarkably fun to drive, regardless of the driver's age, with trouble-free operation, easy care requirements and good fuel economy, at a very attractive price.
The 2010 MX-5 gets a slight realignment in model features and color availability. These changes follow substantial updates for 2009, which included fresh exterior styling, interior enhancements, a stronger, higher-revving engine and increased fuel mileage.
Yet 21 years after its introduction, the basic Miata formula hasn't changed. The MX-5 has been modernized, updated and improved, but its lighthearted spirit remains intact. It still puts a big grin on our collective face, no matter when or where it's driven. With a simple vinyl roof, it starts at about $23,000; loaded with everything, including a convertible hardtop, it barely cracks $30,000.
Its traditional soft convertible top operates manually, and it's very simple to use, without leaving the driver's seat.
The Power Retractable Hard Top features a solid roof that lowers in seconds at the touch of a button. It offers the advantages of a hardtop overhead: reduced wind and road noise, increased security and a sense of solidity. But it folds completely out of sight for stylish cruising, and not a whit of the driving experience has been sacrificed for the hardtop practicality. The Power Retractable Hard Top, or PRHT, is constructed of plastic composite materials
Five distinct MX-5 models, along with two suspension setups and dozens of dealer installed options and accessories, mean lots of choices and potential for personalization. There's a model with cloth upholstery, manual air conditioning, a simple stereo, and a five-speed manual transmission. On the other hand, there's rich leather, automatic climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, a decent automatic transmission, and Bose audio that remixes sound in real time to account for ambient noise with the top down.
The engine delivers 167 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque with the manual transmission, and 158 hp with the automatic. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 21/28 mpg with the manual gearbox.
Some 850,000 worldwide sales later, the MX-5 Miata remains the quintessential affordable two-seater. The 2010 MX-5 is spectacularly good, rewarding its driver with loads of satisfaction and excellent value. It remains the standard by which affordable sports cars are judged.
Mazda freshened the MX-5 Miata's exterior design for 2009, so there are no changes for 2010.
The 2009 styling update made the MX-5 a bit more dynamic looking, and slightly more aerodynamic, with new thin-spoke wheel designs. In front, a new grille shape is complimented by headlight clusters that integrate white turn-signal lenses. More prominently flared side sills connect the wheel wells below the doors. In back, all lights are incorporated under one lens.
In general, Mazda has done a masterful job designing the MX-5. This third-generation Miata evokes the themes of the original 1990 model and the second-generation car of 1999-2005. Yet the current MX-5 is slightly larger in every measure than previous versions, from what's beneath the hood to the interior to the shadow it casts on the road.
The MX-5 design has definitely evolved since the beginning, especially when seen from the side. Sharply sculpted wheel flares appear to be adapted from the high-performance RX-8 coupe, in an example of what the company calls Mazda design DNA. The flared wheel arches also spread wide enough to cover the current Miata's wider track. (Track is the distance between the left and right wheels). It's three inches wider in front, two inches wider in the rear when compared with the previous-generation MX-5. This gives the car a more athletic stance, and it makes the MX-5 look more aggressive and less cuddly than its predecessors.
The convertible soft top is Mazda's best yet, and one of the best anywhere. The standard vinyl top, with its heated glass rear window, collapses into a well behind the seats cleanly and completely, requiring no cover boot. The top looks neatly finished when it's down, with no additional effort. It's manually operated, but so light and easy to use you can raise or lower it with one hand while sitting in the driver's seat. No one will ever pine for power assist, though we do appreciate the upgrade from the base vinyl roof to the woven fabric that comes on the Grand Touring model.
The Power Retractable Hard Top is a cinch to operate, quick to fold, and a miracle of space efficiency. Stop the car and put it in neutral (or Park for the automatic). Pop a single handle at the top of the windshield, touch a button on the dash, and in 12 seconds the top has contorted itself into the same well the soft-top uses. The hardtop is made of lightweight materials: sheet molding compound on the outside and glass fiber-reinforced polypropylene on the inside. The entire apparatus including electric motors adds less than 80 pounds to an impressively light car.
Other weight-saving measures include an aluminum hood and trunk lid, aluminum suspension components, and extensive use of high-strength and ultra high-strength steel in the basic body shell. These design features help maintain a sports-car appropriate weight balance of 51 percent over the front wheels and 49 percent over the rear in the hard top. That, in turn, promotes the MX-5's wonderful agility and handling balance.
In the wake of interior updates to mark its 20th anniversary, the 2010 Mazda MX-5 Miata cockpit has no significant changes for 2010.
Improvements introduced for 2009 still seem fresh, and largely welcome. Those upgrades include better seats, new colors and new graphics for the gauges. The center console has been redesigned for more flexible storage and better comfort, with a padded armrest behind the gear shift.
Fit and finish is tight and smooth, and materials are richer than they've ever been. Trim panels on the center stack fit flush and look expensively made. The base cloth upholstery is nice, with lightly woven, smooth-finish bolsters and waffle-weave insets. Depending on the weather, the cloth upholstery can be more comfortable than leather, which comes standard in the Grand Touring models. The hardtop roof's headliner is finished in a hard, flat-black textured covering that, if not luxurious, is certainly tidy. Overall, interior quality and appearance are way better than old-time Miata faithful will expect.
The MX-5 is roomier than it looks, too. The current generation grew in all dimensions, and it's more accommodating than ever, even if it can still be a snug fit for full-figured or really tall drivers. Rearward seat travel has extended by about an inch, and you can feel it. In older MX-5s a six-foot driver would adjust the driver's seat all the way back. Now there's a notch or two left in the travel. The car's expanded girth yields an additional 1.4 inches in hip room, and it too makes a difference.
Seats are neither overly firm nor too plush, but they are properly bolstered for the type of driving the Miata invites. The seat shape has been refined for better lower-body comfort, while the backrest still delivers body-hugging lateral support. For taller drivers, thigh support is acceptable at best, and there is still no lumbar adjustment. The tilt steering wheel helps at least a little, and the seat-height adjustment is a welcome addition. The properly stubby shift lever is where it should be. The hand brake sits on the passenger side of the drive tunnel.
A single set of power window buttons is located on the center console aft of the shift boot. The center stack hosts intuitively positioned stereo and air conditioning knobs, buttons and recessed toggles that are easy to grasp and manipulate. A power outlet conveniently placed at the base of the center stack waits for a radar detector or cell phone. Four air registers are spaced across the dash in a dark silver panel. They swivel with a surprisingly expensive feel.
All gauges are analog, with a large, round tachometer and matching speedometer straddling the steering column, shaded from all but trailing sunlight by an arched hood. Fuel level is reported in a small circle to the lower left, coolant temperature to the lower right, and oil pressure (thank you very much!) by a matching triplet positioned top center between the tach and speedo. It's the kind of engine monitoring sports car drivers love.
Headlights are managed by a stalk on the left side of the steering column, windshield wipers and washer by a stalk on the right. On the Touring model and above, the horizontal steering wheel spokes have cruise and secondary audio controls.
The premium sound system has a function Bose calls Audiopilot. It goes beyond simple speed-sensing volume control by actually re-mixing the sound coming out of the speakers to help the stereo punch through the ambient wind and road noise that accompanies open-air motoring. Oversize speakers dominate the forward part of the door panels.
Water bottle holders are molded into the space between the speakers and the door pulls/armrests. There's a decent amount of storage for a small, two-seat car: A lockable glove box that's surprisingly roomy, storage in the center console, and bins behind each of the seats with the soft top (they're sacrificed in Hard Top models).
Neither the soft top nor the retractable hard top impact trunk room. With the hard top, a rear panel aft of the front seats raises to allow the top to drop into the well, and covers it back up once it's snuggled in place. That's a blessing because the MX-5 has little trunk space to begin with. That's not unusual with cars of this type, of course, and many luxury brand sports cars have tops that fold into the trunk, further exacerbating the problem.
The trunk's 5.3-cubic-foot capacity is shaped for a few small, soft bags. It's just enough to get a couple traveling light through a weekend trip, and it takes a decent load of groceries. Mazda says the floor is deep enough for a case of tall, 1.5-liter beverage bottles. The spare tire was left out more to save weight than to add space for golf clubs.
The Mazda MX-5 Miata is blast, plain and simple, and the blast seems to just keep getting bigger. While this little roadster is very easy to live with, blast in the MX-5 context means driving satisfaction in its purest form, with the top down and the engine winding. In the two-seat sports car context, the Miata delivers fun as well as cars that cost four or five times more.
A big reason for the MX-5's bigger blast is steady improvement on the basic, successful formula. The most recent round of substantive mechanical changes came for 2009, in conjunction with the Miata's 20th year on the market. Its suspension was retuned and roll centers were lowered. The six-speed manual transmission's synchronizers were enhanced to smooth shifts. The valvetrain and other internal components in its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine were strengthened, and an oil cooler was added. The changes gained just one horsepower (up to 167 hp max with manual transmission), but they broadened the torque band and raised maximum rpm by 400.
These are exactly the sort of improvements driving enthusiasts love, and the MX-5 delivers on the promise they suggest.
A responsive throttle sending that 167 horsepower to the rear wheels gives the MX-5 a nice kick in the back end. We'd peg its 0-60 mph time in the mid six-second range, and that's plenty quick, especially for a car with a relatively small, fuel-efficient engine. Yet it's not just the quickness that satisfies. The MX-5's four-cylinder loves to rev, nonstop, gladly bouncing off it 7,200-rpm limit. It always feels strong and healthy, even at the redline, and never raucous, tinny or overworked.
Shifting gears with the manual gearbox is a delight. The Miata has historically offered about the best-shifting gearbox on the planet. Its crispness and light effort have been pretty much the gold standard in manuals. The current generation's six-speed doesn't quite match the previous five-speed's effortlessness, but it's close, and improvements introduced for 2009 have moved it a long way in the right direction. The throws are delicate and light, and the lever goes just where you want it, as if wired to your brain.
The automatic transmission does well in stop-and-go traffic. In Activematic manual mode, gears are selected either by tapping the shift lever forward or back, or with steering wheel-mounted paddles. The Activematic function works as it should, too, declining to shift up even with the engine zinging along at its electronically limited redline, or to shift down no matter how hard you stomp the gas pedal. Shifts are smooth, but noticeable, in either mode. In all, the automatic works surprisingly well, but we offer this caution: if you really must have an automatic, you might consider another car. The MX-5 only achieves full glory with a clutch pedal and manual transmission.
Playing with the gears in a sports car should entertain not only in how the car moves down the road and through curves, but also aurally, in what you hear as well as what you feel. The current MX-5's exhaust sound is a bit less satisfying than in previous generations, sounding more buzzy than throaty; except under hard acceleration, when it finally generates the sounds of entertainiment. The exhaust note was something Mazda's engineers worked very hard at for the original Miata, and we miss that classic sports car sound.
Mazda's engineers definitely worked overtime to keep this third-generation MX-5 from gaining performance-dulling weight, and it shows. Liberal use of lightweight and high tensile metals, along with fresh thinking in such basics as how much a rearview mirror weighs, kept weight to within 22 pounds of the second-generation Miata. Dropping the spare tire helped, but the MX-5's designated dieticians still faced added calories from the larger engine, the head-and-thorax side-impact airbags, more robust side-impact hardware, larger wheels and those stylish seatback hoops. This is a crucial reason the car remains true to its fun-loving roots. It's better, but it's not dulled.
Just as significant from the driver's seat is how the car's mass is distributed. The lower the mass is in the car's chassis, the lower the car's center of gravity and the more stable its ride and handling. Especially important for a sports car, the closer weight is clustered around what engineers call the vertical yaw axis the better.
Imagine a broomstick with two five-pound weights attached. It weighs about 10 pounds regardless of where the weights are positioned. Put the weights at the ends of the broomstick, and try to spin it like a baton. It's not so easy to get started, and once started it's difficult to stop. But move the weights next to each other at the center of the broomstick, and starting it spinning and stopping it requires much less effort. This is a simplification, but you get the point. And so did the Mazda engineers. The engine in the current MX-5 was moved rearward more than five inches from its relative location in the previous (pre-2006) model. The gas tank was moved forward and lowered in the chassis. What's so cool about all this shifting around of mechanicals and components is, it works.
The MX-5's wide track and low center of gravity enable it to corner flatter than should be possible. With balance so close to perfect with two people on board, and with the sporty, asymmetrical-tread tires on the Touring and Grand Touring models. the MX-5 holds its line through corners like it was highway striping paint.
Quick, left-right-left transitions on a winding two-lane along a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii succumb to nearly perfect steering response: light but not twitchy, with good feel regardless of the speed. Crank in more steering to keep it off the rock wall on the outside of a tight switchback, and the rear tires step tentatively sideways. A touch of countersteer and a soft feathering of the gas and the tires stick again, and away you go. What a rush.
And all that is with the electronic stability control activated. With its recent updates, Mazda programmed more latitude into the system, allowing the MX-5 to slide a bit more before the electronics try to reign the slipping in. It's also with the standard suspension. Ordering the sports suspension buys a firmer ride and increased feel of the road, with the same controllable balance, but not a higher level of discomfort.
The Miata cruises well, too, though on the Interstate it can wander slightly in response to pavement irregularities or when passing a heaving semi. When it must, the MX-5 can crawl along with stop-and-go traffic with no complaint. Clutch effort is so light, your left leg never gets tired.
With the top up, there's a little flutter of the unlined fabric at extra-legal speeds. Wind noise is well muted, although the rear window shivers a bit. Cowl shake, which afflicts most convertibles, is virtually nonexistent, a benefit of bracing the strut towers against the cowl, rather than against each other across the engine bay.
As for wind bluster with the top down, the small quarter windows inboard of the side mirrors can keep the interior calmer, though having them up looks a bit geeky. We could discern no difference with or without the mesh blocker panel in place between the seatback bars.
A PRHT hardtop model we tested on Michigan's rutted roads proved quieter than the soft top version. The solid roof pays sound-deadening dividends, and the radio is a lot easier to hear than in the convertible when its fabric top is up. The extra measure of top-up quiet enables you to enjoy the MX-5's exhaust accelerating hard through the first three gears. Still, the hardtop's cabin isn't nearly as hushed as the average sedan's. Road noise emanates from the rear wheels and comes up through the top's storage well behind the seats, and there's some wind flutter around the rear corners of the side windows. But the roof is squeak-free, and adds to the sense of solidity in what is already a very stout-feeling automobile.
Brake feel is solid, thanks to improved brake system rigidity and strengthened brake hoses, making repetitive and smooth stops a breeze. But the pedal pressure required is very light around town, necessitating a get-used-to-it period before your right foot learns how lightly it needs to tread.
This Mazda MX-5 Miata remains a car to love, delivering what the English sports cars of the 1950s and '60s promised but never quite managed: A delightful, capable, well-engineered driving experience in a vehicle that starts every time and runs seemingly forever, with near-faultless quality and reliability. Its optional retractable hardtop is ingenious, and extends the MX-5's appeal. The Miata formula has been copied, but measured by all-around capability and grin-per-mile factor, it hasn't been surpassed.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from Kona, Hawaii, with J.P. Vettraino reporting from Detroit, Michigan.