2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata review: Taking a final spin in our favorite roadster
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 FR-S / BRZ 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.
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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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
|2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata
|Grand Touring PRHT
|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
|Bluetooth phone support
|Optional hands-free calling
|Digital audio sources
|6-disc CD changer
|7-speaker Bose audio
|Price as tested