The Mazda MX-5 Miata is what a sports car should be: a two-seat roadster with rear-wheel drive that's fun on the street and can be driven to a race track. It's attractively priced, easy to maintain and won't break you at the gas pump. The MX-5 is a superbly engineered sports car when it comes to acceleration performance, brakes, gearbox, suspension, and cornering.
The Mazda MX-5 rewards its driver with loads of satisfaction and excellent value. It remains the standard by which affordable sports cars are judged. With a weight distribution of 51 percent over the front wheels and 49 percent over the rear, the MX-5 offers wonderful agility and balanced handling.
Believe it or not, it's been 23 years since the introduction of the Mazda Miata. Yet in nearly a quarter of a century, the character of the MX-5 has not changed. Although Mazda has improved it and updated it over the years, its spirit remains intact. And it will still leave its drivers grinning.
The 2012 MX-5 has been upgraded with traction and stability control as standard equipment. For 2012, there's also a new MX-5 Special Edition model limited to 450 units. It's a top-of-the-line model available in red or white, with a black power-retractable hardtop and black 17-inch wheels. The 2012 MX-5 Special Edition loaded with features, including a limited-slip differential and a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein dampers.
The current-generation MX-5 was launched as a 2006 model; the retractable hardtop version joined the line as a 2007.
The Mazda MX-5 is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 167 horsepower with the manual transmission or 158 hp with the automatic. Both powertrains are good for 140 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is average, with an EPA-estimated 22/28 mpg City/Highway for the 5-speed manual. The automatic and manual 6-speed transmissions achieve 21/28 mpg City/Highway. While economy cars get better fuel economy, driving a Miata is way more fun than driving a front-wheel-drive compact.
Roof choices on the MX-5 include a simple vinyl top, which operates manually, or a Power Retractable Hard Top (PRHT), which features a composite roof that lowers in seconds at the touch of a button. The hard PHRT offers reduced wind and road noise over the soft top, as well as increased security and a sense of solidity. But drivers concerned with curb weight should note that it does add about 80 pounds to an otherwise very light car.
A variety of MX-5 models, along with two suspension setups and dozens of dealer installed options and accessories, allow for plenty of personalization. Track-day warriors might opt for the model with cloth upholstery, manual air conditioning, a simple stereo, and a 5-speed manual transmission, while those looking for a more luxe experience might choose leather upholstery, automatic climate control, the automatic transmission, and the upgraded Bose audio system, which remixes sound in real time to compensate for ambient noise with the top down.
It's tough to name any direct competitors to the 2012 Mazda MX-5 Miata. This car offers the fun of more expensive roadsters such as the BMW Z4, but without the price tag. Size-wise, the MX-5 has an edge over the Mini Cooper Convertible and the Fiat 500C. But for the price, enthusiasts might also want to look at the Ford Mustang V6 convertible, which offers track-worthy performance with larger dimensions. Those who aren't attached to a topless sportscar might also consider the Scion FR-S or Subaru BRZ.
The 2012 MX-5 Special Edition features new color combinations. There are no design or structural exterior changes to the MX-5 for 2012.
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.
The MX-5 cockpit has no significant changes for 2012. Fit and finish is tight and smooth, and materials are richer than in previous generations. 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. 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 a previous-gen MX-5, a six-foot-tall driver would have to slide driver's seat all the way back. Now there's a notch or two left s. The car's expanded girth yields an additional 1.4 inches in hip room, and it also 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 offers 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. Yet it's very easy to live with.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine revs freely and delivers good throttle response, sending 167 horsepower to the rear wheels and giving 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 its 7200-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 6-speed doesn't quite match the effortlessness of the previous 5-speed, 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 must say: 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 entertainment. The exhaust note was something Mazda's engineers worked very hard at for the original Miata, and we miss its 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 counter-steer 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.
We spent time in an MX-5 convertible running around the bumpy freeways of Los Angeles and found ourselves wondering if we could take this all the time. Running around the city might be cute, and it makes parking easy, but you have to get the MX-5 out into the smooth curves to get what it really offers.
The Miata cruises well, too, though on the Interstate it can wander slightly in response to pavement irregularities or when passing through the wind blast of a large truck. 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 high 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 correspondents Tom Lankard, J.P. Vettraino and Laura Burstein contributed to this report.