2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata review: Taking a final spin in our favorite roadster

Mostly, the Miata is about the joy of the drive. With the top down and a good song on the stereo, it's easy to get lost in the drive. Dancing from corner to corner and enjoying the sway of the road, I'd lose entire afternoons delighting in the ocean breeze, the slight smell of cows, the sun on my face, the cool shade of the redwoods -- things that I'd passed hundreds of times while testing hundreds of cars, yet somehow missed.

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The grin should be your first hint that the Miata is a car that just wants to have fun. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The Miata is a car that's just as much fun at the speed limit on a twisty road as it is when testing its handling limits at the track. It's an excellent platform for modifiers who want more performance, but it's just fine the way it is for lovers of the drive. The 2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata is absolutely brilliant.

Optional Power Retractable Hard Top

Of the hundreds of miles that I put on our example of the 2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata, only about a dozen of them were traveled with the top up. Why? Because roadsters are meant to be driving with the top down, that's why. I'm always a bit disappointed when I see someone in with the top up on their Miata or a Boxster on a nice day.

But it can't be sunshine, cool breezes, and non-stop high fives forever, so you'll eventually have to put to top up on your roadster. This is where our optional Power Retractable Hard Top (PRHT) comes into play, rising from a Z-fold in just a under 12 seconds at the touch of a dashboard button and locking into place with a single mechanical latch.

Twelve seconds is pretty quick, but it's a lifetime when compared to the fabric soft top, which I was able to drop in under 5 seconds during a previous test without leaving the driver's seat. The simpler fabric top is also about 82 pounds lighter, $1,900 cheaper, and (in my humble opinion) a bit better looking than the bubble-shaped mechanized roof. The soft top can also be tossed back at a slight roll, where the power hardtop will only go up or down after bringing the vehicle to a complete stop.

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The optional PRHT offers increased security and a quieter cabin than the standard cloth roof. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

However, there are a few advantages to choosing the PRHT model. For starters, the hard top offers better security when parked than the fabric roof and is less likely to be cut or vandalized. The smooth, hard roof also insulates the driver from the elements better, resulting in a quieter ride on the highway and in the rain. I also like that the hard top "Z folds" under its own built-in, color-matched tonneau cover, resulting in a cleaner profile when the top is down.

Regardless of the top you choose, the Miata's roof does not intrude into its smallish trunk when retracted, which is more than I can say about the much more expensive BMW Z4 and Mercedes-Benz SL and SLK.

In sum

The 2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring PRHT is, at $29,450, the most expensive Miata that you can buy in the States, but we've also got the $650 Suspension package, the $1,390 Premium package, and $795 in destination charges. That brings us to our as-tested price of $32,285.

That's not a terrible price, but the Miata's best when kept simple, so loading up a Grand Touring example with disappointing tech seems like a bit of a waste of time. The sweet spot and best bang for your buck for a new Miata is a step down to the Club trim level, which includes the optional suspension and differential upgrades as standard features as well as the six-speed manual transmission, and just add your own tech via the aftermarket. A $300 stereo upgrade will add Bluetooth and USB connectivity for those of us who don't want to clutter up the Miata's small cabin with cables or CDs.

And since the Miata hasn't changed at all since 2008, there are thousands of them in the used car market that are just as well equipped as this new one and just as fun to drive, giving driving enthusiasts an even less expensive entry point for the roadster.

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This generation Miata is best without bells and whistles, so do yourself a favor and skip the disappointing, expensive tech. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The next generation

Revisiting the MX-5 Miata on the eve of its rebirth puts us in the unique position of being able to look back and also to look forward at what we expect from the next generation.

The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata will debut in on September 3, 2014, but we've already gotten a few peeks at the Skyactiv chassis that will underpin it. From this, we know that the next Miata will be lighter, but will also have a slightly longer wheelbase. We also know that Mazda will be switching over to electric power steering for the next generation. Hopefully, Mazda will be able to keep the Miata's fun-loving driving character intact, as the responsive and tactile handling are about 90 percent of what makes the roadster so awesome.

Speculation also points at the next Miata being more powerful and possibly turbocharged. The Miata hasn't seen factory forced induction since the 2005 Mazdaspeed MX-5's production was cut short.

And while the Miata has never been a car that's about a lot of tech, I'm hoping for an update to the roadster's dashboard. I get that Miata enthusiasts traditionally aren't into bells and whistles, and that Mazda will probably want to keep things simple and the driving experience pure, so I'm not asking for much. We'll almost certainly see Mazda ditch the optional six-disc CD changer in favor of standard Bluetooth audio and USB/iPod integration, which would make me extremely happy to be able to skip tracks with the steering wheel controls. A smartphone full of music is lighter than a book of CDs taking up space in the glovebox, so even enthusiasts should be happy about that.

We'll probably also see the addition of navigation as an option -- sorry, purists -- but not many advanced driver-aid features like adaptive cruise or lane-keeping assist, which is fine. The whole point of a Miata is the drive, so I don't really need it driving for me. Since Mazda is partnered with both Apple and Google, I'm also holding onto the tiniest hope for iOS CarPlay and Android Auto integration, though I'll likely be disappointed on both fronts.

My last hope for the next Miata is that Mazda works to keep the price down. The example we've looked at today already pushes the limits of what I think drivers are willing to pay for a low-power two-seater, but I worry that this next turbocharged, navigating, ultralight Miata will push that price even higher with options. Keep it simple and keep it cheap, Mazda, and you'll keep the winning formula intact.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Trim Grand Touring PRHT
Powertrain 2.0L four-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual trans., RWD, LSD
EPA fuel economy 21 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, 24 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy 24.6 mpg
Navigation N/A
Bluetooth phone support Optional hands-free calling
Digital audio sources 6-disc CD changer
Audio system 7-speaker Bose audio
Driver aids N/A
Base price $29,450
Price as tested $32,285

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