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The Mazda MX-5 Miata is the best-selling roadster of all time. With sharp handing and a no-nonsense approach to driving, it's no wonder.
For 2009, the MX-5 gains a bit more power and a new look that is either much more refined or much goofier looking, depending on whom you ask.
While available with a powered, retractable hard top, our MX-5 is equipped with the manual Z-shape folding cloth top. The manual top is one of the easiest-to-use convertible tops available today, able to be raised and lowered from the driver's seat in seconds.
Low tech cabin
The MX-5's cabin tech is purposefully devoid of cabin tech, which is disappointing for our purposes, but is a godsend for driving purists looking for a distraction free cockpit.
Starting at the center stack, our MX-5 Miata Grand Touring is equipped with the upgraded seven-speaker Bose audio system of undisclosed power. The system features a six-disc in-dash CD changer that supports MP3 and WMA encoded discs, AM/FM radio, and an analog auxiliary input located at the base of the center stack. Users who want to connect their digital media players will have to make due with that aux-input, as no USB or iPod adapter is available from the factory. A dealer installed iPod kit is available, which will run a steep $300.
The MX-5's cabin tech package is purposely simple, but we'd have at least liked to see a navigation option.
The Bose audio system includes a center channel speaker that improves frontal stereo staging a bit. A pair of rear speakers located near the head rests and automatic volume leveling helps top down audio performance, but not much. The system also features two audio processing modes for top up and top down listening. You can hear it subtly switching modes when you hit the roof release button. This Bose system lacks a discrete subwoofer, so it's not as boomy as some of the other Bose systems we've tested--which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The MX-5 is not available with GPS navigation, which seems to have been left out in a bid to keep the MX-5's cabin driver focused and distraction free. However, we think that navigation would come in handy when trying to find your way home after an afternoon of canyon carving.
A Premium package can be added, which includes an antitheft system with smart-key entry and keyless start, Xenon HID headlamps, Sirius satellite radio, and Bluetooth hands-free calling. The Premium package is available only at the Grand Touring trim level, which means that you can have Bluetooth only on the most expensive of the Miatas.
The Sirius satellite radio system seems to be plagued by the same reception problems that we experienced in the Mazda3 Grand Touring. The system often loses satellite reception, even with clear unobstructed skies. Reacquisition of signal takes a few moments, but the constant interruptions are annoying.
The hands-free calling system is controlled completely by voice and can be set up only when the vehicle is stopped. After pairing a phone using a four-digit PIN, users can manually save contacts to be retrieved by voice key, but we found no way to automatically pull contacts or to use our phone's voice activated dialing feature.
Just enough power
Motivating the proper sports car drive wheels--the rear ones--is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with variable-valve timing. The power plant generates 167-horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. This isn't a huge amount of power or twist, but in the bantam weight Miata, it is just enough. 0-60 comes in a little more than seven seconds, which isn't neck-snapping, but is respectable.
The 2.0-liter engine makes just enough power to make the MX-5 feel sprightly.
Torque is transmitted through a six-speed-manual transmission with a short throw shifter that is an absolute joy to row through the gears. Gear engagement is a bit chunky and you can really feel the teeth of the gears engage through the shifter.
The previously mentioned Premium package adds Dynamic Stability Control to the mix, which helps to keep the power in check when things get slippery. The system has pretty high limits and only interferes when things get really loose. DSC is defeatable with a single button press for when you want to get some tail-out action.
The EPA estimates that the MX-5 Grand Touring with the six-speed-manual gearbox will average 21 city and 28 highway mpg, but if you drive like we do, then you can expect to hover around 23 mpg combined. Oddly, the MX-5 Sport with its "lesser" five-speed-manual transmission actually gains a single city mpg over the more expensive model, possibly because of taller gearing.
Where the Mazda MX-5 Miata really shines is in the corners. The chassis' light weight is distributed at a perfect 50/50 ratio between the front and rear axles. The vehicle is extremely easy to rotate through the turns thanks to its short wheelbase, sport-tuned suspension, and direct steering.
Tightening up the already firm ride is an optional Suspension package that swaps in stiffer springs and Bilstein dampers for a firmer ride. A limited slip differential is also added as part of the package, which makes sure that the power is transmitted to the rear wheel with the most amount of grip.
The name of the game here is balance. The chassis doesn't understeer when pushed, yet is also reticent to oversteer; it simply goes where you point it.
Driving the Mazda MX-5 keeps the driver close to the road, literally and figuratively. The vehicle gives good feedback through the steering wheel, the pedals, the shifter, and the seat bottom. All of the driver's inputs have an immediate effect on the vehicle.
On a twisty mountain road, we were able to make the MX-5 shine. Keeping the revs up with the short throw shifter, the MX-5's low power isn't much of an issue once the vehicle is moving. Approaching hairpin switchbacks, the MX-5's four-wheel disk brakes shaved speed off with drama-free repeatability, while the balanced chassis allowed us to power the rear-wheel-driven roadster out of the turns without fear of spinning off of the mountain.
The MX-5 Miata is truly one of the last pure driving experiences on the road today.
At low speeds around town, the MX-5 is surprisingly docile and well behaved. However, the short wheelbase, stiff suspension, and relative lack of sound deadening make the soft-top Miata a loud and bouncy ride over highway expansion joints and potholes.
To the point, the 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata is quite possibly the purest sports car experience you'll find this side of a $50,000 Lotus Elise.
It's not a high powered vehicle, but it is impeccably balanced and extremely tossable, resulting in a high performance score. With almost no advanced cabin technology available, the MX-5 doesn't earn many points for features. Bluetooth hands-free calling earns back some credit, but not enough to achieve better than mediocre features score.
Say what you will about the MX-5's goofy grinning face, but it is well put together. All of the cabin controls fall nicely into the hand and the retractable soft top is ingeniously designed and remarkably simple to use, resulting in a high design score.
Starting at $22,500 for an ultrabare-bones SV model, it's also one of the cheapest real sports cars available. Our Grand Touring model starts at $26,350 and includes the Bose audio system, leather interior with heated seats, and a canvas folding roof (instead of the vinyl on lower models). Add $1,650 for the Premium package to get Bluetooth hands-free and SmartKey entry and start, and $500 for the upgrades suspension components. Oddly, the Premium and Suspension packages must both be added at the same time and cannot be added separately. Add it all up with a $670 destination fee and you come to our as-tested price of $29,170.
There's not much in the North American market that can compare to the Mazda MX-5 Miata. The Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky come close, but they lag in overall quality. The Honda S2000 matches the MX-5 in quality and slightly exceeds in performance. However, the Solstice, Sky, and S2000 have all been discontinued, which leaves the MX-5 Miata in a class of its own.
|Model||2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata|
|Powertrain||2.0-liter 4-cylinder, 6-speed manual|
|EPA fuel economy||21 mpg city/28 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||22.9 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||part of optional Premium package|
|Disc player||6-disc CD changer w/ MP3, WMA playback|
|MP3 player support||Auxiliary analog input|
|Other digital audio||Sirius satellite radio|
|Audio system||7-speaker Bose premium audio|
|Driver aids||DSC with traction control|
|Price as tested||$29,170|