Editors' note: CNET's first drive review has been updated to include impressions of the manual transmission version of the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata, and then updated again and scored after extended testing of the Miata Club trim level on CNET's home turf.
In a word, the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata is "playful." My first 24-hour stint behind the wheel of the all-new fourth-generation roadster revealed that Mazda is less concerned with all-out performance and more focused on delivering a unique and engaging driving experience. Extended follow-up testing has cemented that sentiment. Despite the roadster's weekend racing pedigree, Mazda approaches the new Miata as a road car first and builds its experience around delivering the sensation of speed.
You might notice, for example, that the MX-5's ride is a bit more compliant than your average sport compact's "track-tuned" suspension. The softer setup lets the suspension absorb midcorner bumps with grace and allows a bit of body roll when cornering. That roll gives the driver the sensation of carving corners at any speed and helps you feel how hard you're pushing the car around a bend. This feel helps make the roadster more predictable, which builds confidence and encourages more speed.
In most cars, roll also brings a reduction in grip as the car leans over, but the roadster's double-wishbone suspension prevents this downside by keeping the tires planted and maintaining consistent and predictable grip through the corner. The MX-5's body is even stiffer than before, which gives the suspension a good platform under which to work, which makes the movements of the suspension even more consistent and predictable.
The result is handling that's engaging and very responsive, but without a punishing ride over the cracked and pockmarked pavement that you'll often encounter on the best twisty backroads. The MX-5 is a grin-generating machine that I was able to effortlessly guide through apex after apex. The roadster's suspension soaks up bumps, rather than skipping over them, which makes the car feel more planted under dynamic driving conditions. Driver mistakes that would result in over or understeer are easily recognizable and even easier to correct. Chucking the Miata into a corner becomes a rewarding adrenaline rush, rather than a mildly terrifying one.
Looking at the numbers, you might also notice the Miata has less power than last year. Its 155-horsepower Skyactiv 2.0-liter is down about 12 ponies from last year and, on paper, this is disappointing. But the Miata doesn't live on paper and the roadster has never been a great powerhouse. On the road and in practice, the new chassis' lighter curb weight and meatier midrange torque curve conspire to make the new Miata feel as responsive as ever. At times, it even feels more torquey than before. The engine is eager to please and swings the tachometer needle like a happy puppy. Sure, there were one or two uphill blasts where I wished for just a bit more power, but for the most part I was pleased with the performance.
The new Miata is also the most efficient model yet, boasting an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) estimated 30 combined miles per gallon. That's up from fuel economy numbers that have hovered around 24 combined mpg for three generations.
The six-speed manual and automatic transmission options have revised gear ratios to better take advantage of all 148 available pound feet of torque, which is available lower in the power band than before. There was always enough power to make the Miata feel quick and zippy. Like theand , this isn't a driving experience that's built around overwhelming power. Rather, the Miata rewards the driver who embraces the nimble handling, makes smart gear choices and conserves their speed and inertia through the twisty bits. The Miata wants you to carry speed through the turn, not just pile it on after the apex.
My initial example was a Grand Touring model equipped with an automatic transmission and paddle shifters. Even without the third pedal, the Mazda was a blast to drive. The automatic transmission is not a terrible gearbox for a casual mountain cruise or slog through traffic. It's smooth and its shifts are reasonably quick when set in the Sport mode. Gear changes happen at logical points with rev-matched downshifts and programming that prevents upshifting midcorner. However, I found that when the road got really twisty, I preferred to choose my own ratios with the paddle shifters. And all the time I was thinking, "This would be so much better with a proper manual transmission."
CNET editor Chris Paukert found during a subsequent drive that the six-speed manual transmission model proved the hunch. The Miata's light, progressive clutch take-up and hand-in-glove shift action offers some of the sweetest, most easily coordinated gear changes anywhere, at any price. The added level of engagement offered in three-pedal models suits the character of this roadster perfectly. Even if the automatic transmission may end up providing slightly quicker acceleration, the quality of that progress is significantly less immersive and satisfying than the do-it-yourself option. Need another reason to keep your hands and feet busy? The manual version saves you $1,075.
The Miata's brakes feature an excellent and progressive feel. I liked that they didn't have too much initial bite, which made them easy to modulate -- loads of bite is good for stopping distance tests, but on the road it reduces pedal sensitivity.
In a follow-up test, I was able to spend a week with a more performance-oriented Club model which sees upgraded Brembo brakes, a stiffer Bilstein suspension with a front brace, and a limited slip differential. Interestingly, the upgraded brakes a tad less initial bite than the standard stoppers, but boast even better pedal control and more fade resistance. Again, here's Mazda placing practical driveability over spec sheet brag-ability.