Have you ever had a moment where you think, "This is really all that I'd need to be happy?" That's exactly how I feel when sliding into a Mazda Miata, but we'll come back to that.
This isn't the first time that this generation of Mazda MX-5 Miata has graced the Car Tech Garage, but it will be the last. 2014 is the last model year of the third-generation Miata before it will be replaced by the upcoming fourth-gen model. With that in mind, we're taking one last look upon one of our favorite low-tech cars before looking forward to its future. Along the way, we'll also be looking back at the highlights of the Miata's 25-year history.
Everything you need for the drive...
The roadster's engine room persists virtually unchanged since the third-generation Miata's debut in 2005. At its heart is a 2.0-liter variant of Mazda's MZR four-cylinder engine, outputting 167 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. That's a reasonable amount of power for this 2,593 pound compact, but if you're the sort of driver that thinks the/ needs more power, you'll probably be disappointed by the lack of "oomph" from this power plant.
The engine sits longitudinally and pretty far back in the engine bay, so that the majority of its weight is located behind the front axle's centerline, which helps contribute to its 51/49 weight distribution, but we'll come back to that when it's time to talk handling.
Just inboard of the driver's knees is the gearbox. The Miata is available with a six-speed automatic transmission and a five-speed manual at the most basic "Sport" trim level, but the gearbox to get is the six-speed close ratio manual. With its short throw and mechanical feel, this transmission is a joy to row with a deliberate effort that makes the driver feel connected to what's happening behind the scenes. This "connectedness" is one of the overarching themes of the Miata.
Power exits at the rear end, as befits a proper sports car, but not before being divided between the rear wheels by our example's optional limited slip differential.
Multiport fuel injection and variable valve timing net the frugal Miata driver an EPA estimated fuel economy of 21 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, and 24 combined mpg. What's interesting is that because the Miata's driving character heavily emphasizes conservation of momentum through agile handling rather than brute force, the MX-5's efficiency doesn't really suffer much during an afternoon of canyon carving. I handed the keys to the MX-5 over to our video staff after a week of tackling twisties and traffic jams with the trip computer indicating 24.6 mpg.
...And nothing you don't
Cabin tech is practically nonexistent at the base level Miata, but that's in keeping with the roadster's simple, driver-focused message. Even this Grand Touring model is modestly spartan where amenities are concerned.
Standard Grand Touring tech includes a seven-speaker Bose audio system with a 6-speaker in-dash CD changer, a 3.5mm analog auxiliary input, and AM/FM radio. You've got steering wheel audio controls, an automatic dimming rearview mirror (a useful additions when you're sitting eye level with most SUVs' headlights), and automatic climate controls (which is less useful on a car that's meant to be driven with the top down). We're talking cutting edge tech...for 2005, but the Miata's interior offerings haven't been changed much since this generation's launch.
Building on the standard offerings is the optional $1,390 Premium Package, which add an anti-theft alarm system with smart keyless entry and keyless start. The headlamps are upgraded with Xenon HID projectors and the Bose stereo gains SiriusXM satellite radio tuning and Bluetooth hands-free calling.
Even fully-loaded, there are still a few glaring omissions from the Miata's dashboard experience. For starters, there is no navigation option. There's no smartphone integration. Most disappointing is that there isn't even Bluetooth audio streaming or USB connectivity or iPod controls.
I get that Mazda and Miata enthusiasts want to keep things simple with the MX-5, but I'd expect Bluetooth and USB to be standard on a new 2014 MY car, but here you don't even get them as part of a nearly $1,400 options package. Do yourself a favor and skip the Premium package altogether and just add your own tech via the aftermarket. You'll end up with a much fuller list of features for significantly less than Mazda's asking -- or just ignore the stereo altogether and enjoy the drive.
Hitting the road
It's easy to see how Mazda has managed to sell nearly a million of these little roadsters. There's simply nothing else like it on the road today.
"Listen" and the MX-5 will tell you everything that you need to know about how much grip is available, how its rotating around its nearly 50/50 weight distribution, and how much harder you can push it. There's excellent fingertip feel to the steering and great seat-of-the-pants communication between the driver and the chassis. With only 140 pound-feet of torque on tap, going fast means maintaining speed through apexes rather than powering through the exit. Fortunately, with great grip and, perhaps more importantly, balance, the Miata gives you exactly what you need to carve a corner with precision.
The feeling of jinba ittai -- rider and horse as one body -- is a bit cliche when describing Mazda's roadster, but it's also very accurate. Partially because there's not much to the little Miata and partially because Mazda's engineers have worked to maintain the purity of its driving, the roadster is especially responsive to your inputs to the throttle, brakes, and steering without feeling nervous, jerky, or too high strung. It simply goes where you point it and does what you ask without much drama.
The Miata's ride is an interesting blend of approachable and athletic. It's low power and slightly soft-edged ride make it a pretty good cruiser for those who just want a casual open-air roadster. This is a car that has good athletic bones, so it doesn't have to overcompensate with super stiff springs or an obnoxious exhaust note. Even with the optional Bilstein sport suspension and rear LSD, the Miata's ride retains its composure and a level of comfort that will keep the person in the passenger seat happy, and not fatigue the person in the driver's seat on longer trips.
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.