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Eighteen years after its late 1989 introduction, the Mazda Miata still puts a big grin on our faces. The Mazda MX-5, as it's now called, has been thoroughly updated twice, including a full re-design for 2006, but its lighthearted spirit remains intact.
This is a car to love, a car that delivers what the English sports cars of the 1950s and 60s promised but never quite managed: a delightful, supremely capable, well-engineered driving experience in a vehicle that starts every time and runs seemingly forever, with near-faultless Japanese quality and reliability.
A Power Retractable Hard Top, a solid roof that lowers in seconds at the touch of a button, is available for the MX-5. Called the PRHT, it provides the advantages of a hardtop overhead: reduced wind and road noise, increased security and a sense of solidity. Yet it folds completely out of sight for stylish cruising. What's more, not a whit of the driving experience has been sacrificed by the addition of hardtop practicality.
Traditional soft tops in cloth or vinyl come standard.
Five trim packages are available, along with two suspension setups and a dozen standalone options. So there are lots of choices, ranging from a $21,000 stripper to a loaded $28,000 model. In any case, the MX-5 is a rewarding sports car at an enticing price.
New for 2008: A six-disc CD changer comes on Touring and Grand Touring models; a seat-height adjustment has been added, and a Tire Pressure Monitoring System comes on all models.
Mazda did a masterful job designing the MX-5. This third-generation MX5 evokes the themes of the original 1990 Miata and the second-generation car of 1999-2005. The current Mazda MX-5 is slightly larger in every measure from previous versions, from what's beneath the hood to the interior to the shadow it casts on the road.
Great designs evolve, but often hark back to a central theme that defines the brand. So it is with the third-generation MX-5. In fact, this third-generation model looks more like the original Miata than the second-generation model did. The overall design is somewhat slab sided, and it's taller and more rounded at the front-end than previous versions. But the ovoid shape of the grille is pure Miata. (The grille on the hardtop models is brightened with a delicate chrome ring around its circumference.) This larger-than-before opening moves more cooling air through the radiator and around the larger engine and combines with a pronounced air dam across the bottom of the lower opening to give the Miata's face a strong chin. So what if it brings to mind a largemouth bass when viewed straight on? It does what it's supposed to do. Compound, projector-beam headlights live in small housings deeply recessed and near to the car's centerline, which emphasizes the Miata's diminutive size. The hood wears a mini-bulge in the center, simultaneously suggestive of a scoop and of a similar bulge on the RX-8.
The MX-5 design has definitely evolved since the beginning, especially when seen from the side. Sharply sculpted wheel flares appear adapted from the RX-8 in an example of what the company calls Mazda design DNA. The flared wheel arches also spread wide enough to cover the new-generation Miata's wider track. (Track is the distance between the left and right wheels). The track is 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. The current MX-5 looks more aggressive and less cuddly than its predecessors.
Taillights retain the basic elliptical outline of Miatas past but, like the headlights, nestle a little closer toward the car's middle. Even the rear license plate housing's contours are round and crisply molded into the surrounding sheet metal. A horizontal black panel beneath the rear bumper echoes the front end's air dam, only this one is braced by twin exhaust tips, adding a look of purposefulness to the tail end.
The soft top is the best yet, and one of the best in all sportscardom. The top, with its heated glass rear window, collapses into a well behind the seats cleanly and completely, in a way requiring no cover boot. That's good, because there are plenty of times when you'd like to drop the top but don't want to take time to snap on a cover. Now it looks neatly finished when it's down, with no additional effort. As with previous models, it's manually operated, but so light and easy to use you can do it with one hand while sitting in the driver's seat. You'll never wish for power assistance. This is distinctly different from, say, the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, whose tops are far more involved to raise and lower.
The Power Retractable Hard Top (PRHT) is a mastery of good design: a cinch to operate, quick to fold, and a miracle of space efficiency. Stop the car, 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 the featherweight car, thus maintaining the MX-5's wonderful agility and balance.
Nor does the retractable hard top impact trunk room: A rear panel a
The MX-5 is roomier than it looks. This latest generation Mazda MX-5 grew in all dimensions and it is more accommodating than before, but it's still a snug fit for full-figured or tall sports car lovers. Rearward seat travel was extended by about an inch, and you can feel it. Before, on pre-2006 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 yielded an additional 1.4 inches in hip room, and it too makes a difference.
Overall, interior quality and appearance are way better than any past MX-5 Miata would have led you to expect. Fit and finish is tight and smooth. Trim panels on the center stack fit flush and look expensively made. Materials are mostly impressive grade; the shiny black trim across the width of the instrument panel has the high-end look of black lacquered furniture. The headliner of the hardtop's roof is finished in a hard flat-black textured covering that, if not luxurious, is certainly tidy.
The base cloth upholstery is nice, with lightly woven, smooth-finish bolsters and waffle-weave insets. Depending on the weather, the cloth upholstery's waffle-like weave can be more comfortable than leather. Leather is available on the Grand Touring model. The Special Value edition's urethane steering wheel and shift knob wrappings are obviously not leather, but they're not offensive, either.
The soft top is an exemplar of simplicity and ease of use. Release a single latch at the center of the foremost bow and with one hand push the top back into its recess behind the seats. To reverse the process, reach back with one hand, grab the latch and pull, and the top rises out of its well and settles onto the top of the windshield. Tug down, engage the latch, and it's done.
Seats are neither overly firm nor too plush, properly bolstered for the type of driving the Miata invites but with only acceptable thigh support. Be ready for noticeable lumbar, too, for which there's no adjustment. The tilt steering wheel helps at least a little, and the new-for-2008 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, behind which a neat retracting cover conceals two cup holders. 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 the hard, shiny black panel that changes to brushed aluminum with the Interior Trim Package. They swivel with a surprisingly expensive feel.
All gauges are analog, with a large, round tachometer and matching speedometer straddling the steering column and shaded from all but trailing sunlight by an arched hood. Fuel level is reported in a small circle to the lower left, coolant temperature by one 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 panel that sports car drivers love. Headlights are managed by a stalk on the left side of the steering column, windshield wiper and washer by a stalk on the right side. On the Touring model and above, cruise and secondary audio controls utilize the horizontal spokes of the steering wheel. The on/off switch for the stability control system shares space with a pair of switch blanks in the lower dash by the driver's door.
The premium sound system has a function Bose calls Audiopilot that goes beyond simple speed-sensing volume control by actually re-mixing in real time the sound coming out of the speakers to help the stereo punch through the ambient wi
Mazda's engineers worked overtime to keep the 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 mounting accessories to the engine and even 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.
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. But 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 because concentrating too much of the mass around the yaw axis can make a car unstable, but you get the point. And so did the Mazda engineers. The engine in this latest version 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. Relocating the battery from the trunk to under the hood positioned it closer to the yaw axis.
What all this has accomplished in pursuit of the ideal 50/50 front/rear weight balance is, well, if not perfection, then close, depending on how the Miata is loaded. With two people buckled in, Mazda pegs the current Miata's weight distribution at 50/50. With their luggage, it tends to a rear bias; empty, with a full gas tank, it tends to a front bias.
So much for what gratifies the left brain. What's so cool about all this shifting around of mechanicals and components is, it works.
The MX-5 is a blast to drive. A highly responsive throttle sending 166 horsepower through a responsive six-speed gearbox give it a nice kick in the back end. The 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 running along a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the Big Island of 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. This is with the electronic stability control deactivated. With it active, it's still fun, just not as much.
Ordering the sports suspension buys a firmer ride and increased feel of the road, but not to the point of discomfort.
We haven't had the opportunity to drive any models with the 16-inch wheels, standard tires, and five-speed manual, but from experience with previous-generation Miatas, we'd expect a similar dynamic personality, albeit at lower thresholds.
The Miata cruises well, too, though on the Interstate it wanders slightly in response to pavement irregularities or when passing a heaving semi. When it must, the MX-5 c
The Mazda MX-5 Miata remains the quintessential affordable two-seater, and holder of the sales record for convertible sports cars. The latest generation is spectacularly good, both sweetly rewarding to drive and an excellent value. The available retractable hardtop is ingenious and extends the MX-5's allure. The Miata formula has been copied, most recently by the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. They're good, but the MX-5 is more fun to drive. The all-around capability and grin-per-mile factor of the MX-5 remains what all affordable, two-seat roadsters will continue to be judged against.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from Kona, Hawaii, with Rich Ceppos reporting from Detroit, Michigan.
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2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata$23,995 | 10,939 mi
2013 Mazda Miata MX-5$25,995 | 13,279 mi
2009 Mazda Miata MX-5$15,995 | 45,397 mi
2008 Mazda Miata MX-5$11,971 | 75,079 mi
2008 Mazda Miata MX-5$15,993 | 13,643 mi
2008 Mazda Miata MX-5$16,650 | 47,494 mi
2006 Mazda Miata MX-5$11,995 | 96,511 mi
2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata$12,888 | 48,078 mi
2006 Mazda MX-5$19,435 | 50,001 mi
2006 Mazda Miata MX-5$20,499 | 27,179 mi
2003 Mazda Miata MX-5$7,995 | 86,782 mi
2002 Mazda Miata MX-5$8,999 | 114,000 mi
2001 Mazda Miata MX-5$7,495 | 53,807 mi
2000 Mazda Miata MX-5$9,950 | 56,727 mi
1995 Mazda Miata MX-5$3,995 | 112,913 mi