For fun, it is hard to beat the 2010 Mazda Miata. With its tight steering and short throw shifter, the car is a driver's dream, and it had us laughing maniacally as we slung it down every curvy road we could find.
But Miata fans will howl at this review, as the Miata's tech, from cabin to under the hood, is only average. Our Grand Touring trim car was about as good as it gets, fitted with Bose audio and a Bluetooth phone system.
The Miata has had plenty of time to gain fans, as the original model showed up more than 20 years ago, and reignited interest in roadsters. This latest model features a huge smile across its front, an intentional arrangement of grille, headlights, and badge. In a recent update, Mazda attempted to butch up the look a little, probably worried about alienating male buyers, by making the fenders more pronounced, but there's no hiding that goofy grin.
Our car also came with a retractable hard top, only available on the Touring and Grand Touring models, which, when up, gives the Miata a decidedly racecar-like roofline. This top is ingeniously designed, as it folds down into a compartment behind the cabin. That means it does not affect trunk space, as does the retractable hard top on the, nor does it change the Miata's weight distribution much.
The Miata's engine, a 2-liter four-cylinder, uses variable valve timing to eke out 167 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque, but Mazda hasn't yet adopted direct injection or forced air to give the car a performance edge. Zipping down the road with the engine revved up, the car sounds like a little buzz bomb, its exhaust note a high growl rather than a sonorous blat.
The small engine has its upside, namely an EPA-rated 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. With all of our high-rpm driving, we stayed at the low end of that range, turning in a final average of 22.2 mpg.
While enjoying the curvy roads, we found the car needed a lot of gear changes because of the close-ratio gearbox. But we were quite happy shifting through the Miata's six gears, as the shifter felt tight and precise. A six-speed automatic is available for the Miata, but actually opting for it would be a crime against automotive kind. The six-speed manual is part of what makes this car fun.
What should be included is the $500 Suspension package, a no-brainer option consisting of sport-tuned suspension, Bilstein shocks, and a limited slip differential. Our car came with this option, making it pliable for everyday driving, yet a good performer in the corners. It is not a perfect compromise, as the car shows some lean when pushed hard in a turn, but we liked how it comfortably damped out the bumps in the road.
The exceptionally tight steering gave us a clue of what the Miata does well. Taking it out onto our favorite roads, we let the engine run high as we downshifted to third gear and took advantage of the sharp turn-in as we got into a corner. At the edge, we felt that lean, but the back end showed little desire to step out, the tires all holding grip very well.
With the top down we enjoyed this testing a little too much, trying to get the Miata out of shape in successive turns, but the tight steering allowed for easy correction even with guard rails whipping by at what felt like extreme speeds.
But a glance down at the speedometer showed that the Miata wasn't going as fast as we thought. As one of our usual testing roads, we know that the better sport cars can take these turns at 70 mph, but the Miata was only doing about 50. Some strange combination of open top, high exhaust note, and sport suspension made the car feel a lot faster than its instruments indicated.