No-frills fun. The 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata, now in its fourth generation, has been dancing along back and curvy roads for 30 years now. In all that time it has managed to stay true to its original formula: a lightweight, no-frills, affordable roadster. While other sports cars have put on the pounds of middle age, the Mazda Miata is still the lithe little two-seater the world has come to love.
Decent power, finally. Miatas might be known for their handling, but their engines were never so universally lauded. That finally changed last year, when Mazda saw fit to thoroughly revise the Miata's 2.0-liter four-cylinder. The updates brought a sense of verve to the powertrain that older models lacked.
Most apparent to anyone who's driven a pre-2019 Miata is the revised engine's newfound willingness to rev. The whole engine feels lighter, as if all the rotating pieces have gone a diet. The tach spins freely up to the 7500 rpm redline, which is up from the 6800 rpm limit in the early fourth-generation cars. The powerplant finally feels like it read the Miata manifesto on lightness.
It's not just a freer-revving engine, though, it also brings an ample amount of power to the table. This is almost unprecedented: aside from the turbocharged Mazdaspeed models of 2004 and 2005, the Miata has always been at least a touch underpowered. That's finally not the case, as the 181 horsepower feels appropriate for this 2,400-pound roadster.
Paired up with the engine is a six-speed manual transmission or six-speed automatic. The automatic does what's asked of it without much fuss or fanfare, but it simply doesn't offer the satisfaction of the stick shift. Punch in the clutch, grab the stubby shifter, snick it into the next gear, and get back on the throttle – a satisfying antidote for today's tech-heavy age that could be prescribed by therapists.
Practical considerations. For the right person, the Miata could be practical, but that person abhors carpooling, doesn't know snow, and only buys one bag worth of groceries when they shop. For the rest of us, the Miata comes with inherent limitations that can make it difficult to live with as a daily driver.
We're just not talking the lack of a back seat, either. There's the trunk that holds just 4.6 cubic feet of cargo. An interior that refuses access to anyone over 6 feet. Don't forget the claustrophobia that can set in when the soft top is in place. It's tempting to laud the Miata as one of the few remaining uncompromised sports cars, but diminished livability is the flip side of that romantic notion.
Still, those frustrations come with the territory for this micro-sized roadster. Measuring just 154 inches bumper to bumper, the Miata is about as small as it gets. Such dimensions mean this is also a narrow car, with just 52 inches of shoulder width between the door cards. But drop the top and any concerns over width or room fall away; infinite head room makes up for any occasional shoulder rubs.
Any other quibbles we could lob at the Miata's interior are minor. There's still no standard Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, though it's found on the Grand Touring and Club trims. The 7-inch screen houses an infotainment system that's more frustrating than intuitive, and its rotary controller is placed awkwardly close to the shifter. Cupholders could be nearer at hand and the 12-volt outlet is too well hidden.
But all these complaints – save perhaps the infotainment – can be overlooked in light of the car's intended mission. The sheer amount of fun that's on tap atones for any inconveniences found in the clumsy cabin design.
Safety-first features and other niceties. Safety remains a priority for Mazda engineers. For 2020, the Miata gets an injection of active safety equipment in the form of low-speed automatic emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring. The latter is particularly helpful when the top is up. Lane departure warning and rear cross-traffic alert are also standard.
That's a short list compared to what's found in many sedans and crossovers, but surprisingly good for a cheap sports car. The comparably-priced Toyota 86, for instance, doesn't offer any active safety equipment. Neither does the Subaru BRZ. A Ford Mustang offers optional active safety equipment, but nothing comes standard. Ditto for the Chevrolet Camaro.
Despite the surprisingly plentiful array of safety features, the Miata's list of comfort and convenience features is a bit dismal, especially when we're talking about the top-spec, $32,615 Grand Touring trim. Standard features at that price point include leather upholstery, heated seats, navigation, and adaptive headlights, but the list of notable goodies stops about there. For perspective, that $32,590 is about how much an optioned-up four-cylinder Mustang or Camaro will run you. Spoiler alert: the pony cars will be a lot better equipped.
The questionable value of the Grand Touring leaves us hankering for the Club trim. Though there may be 17-inch wheels and upgraded seats over the base Sport model, the Club is more about what's underneath the bodywork: stiffer springs, a limited-slip differential, and a bigger strut tower brace for increased rigidity are really what you're paying for here.
Is it worth the premium over a Sport? We'd say so. Hustle the Miata along some spaghetti-shaped roads and you'll quickly notice the sum of these upgrades.
Final thoughts. As the automotive industry continues to further blur the line between digital and analog, the 2020 Mazda Miata is a refreshing throwback to simpler days. It's a back-to-basics roadster that prioritizes feel over data, engagement over lap times.
The only other car that comes close to capturing this is the sports coupe sold as the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ. Yet even those twins don't have the same magic of the ragtop Mazda.
When it debuted in 1990, the Miata was intended to be a nostalgic paean to the old European roadsters of the 1960s and 70s. Now it has become an icon itself, a homage to the joy of driving for driving's sake. It's as much an automotive antidote to the complexities of modern life as the Jeep Wrangler.
Perhaps, when the encroaching hand of autonomy finally clenches all the auto industry in its fist, the Miata will be sent up to that great road course in the sky, dying as the Dodge Viper did – in unwavering allegiance to a set of values that time rendered obsolete. But until that fateful day, the Miata endures, a perennial favorite for all the right reasons.
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