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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 the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ, 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.
Around a corner, the MX-5 Club also exhibits just a tad less roll and a bit more stiffness than the standard setup found on Sport and Grand Touring models. The difference is nearly imperceptible until you notice that the roadster is just a bit more eager to waggle its rump when chucked into a corner and better maintains traction should you decide to push that waggle into a proper slide. No, those Club upgrades don't instantly the Miata into a track car, but they do add an edge that enthusiasts and autocrossers will appreciate.
Dave Coleman, vehicle development engineer at Mazda R&D, tells me that the MX-5 was built from the driver's seat up to ensure that this is the best MX-5 ever as far as seating position, ergonomics and space are concerned; particularly for taller drivers. (I'm not a taller driver, so I'll take Dave's word for it.) This means that special attention has been placed on making sure that the pedal placement is perfectly centered with the seat and steering wheel, and that the steering wheel and shifter feel good in the driver's hand.
The roadster's A-pillars have been positioned to offer the most unobstructed view of the road and the low-slung hood lets the driver look right down at the road ahead of the car, enhancing the sensation of speed as the road seems to rush right up to the windshield. Even the tech was designed with the driver in mind, featuring headrest mounted speakers with the optional Bose audio system and an unobtrusive Mazda Connect infotainment suite.
The position of the physical controls for the Mazda Connect is both good and bad. The large knob and bank of shortcut keys are positioned on the center stack, just aft of the shifter, which is a good thing in the automatic Miata, because they're easy to reach from the driver's seat, but not so good when driving the six-speed manual. I noticed that on the 3-4 shift, my forearm would often depress the large knob causing an unintentional input.
Cover your ears, Miata purists, we have to talk about tech for a bit. I promise, I'll keep it short.
The base Miata Sport features a basic audio system with a single-line display; Club and Grand Touring examples upgrade to the aforementioned Mazda Connect infotainment system. Look to the Mazda3 or CX-3 review for a more detailed dive into Mazda Connect infotainment, the system here is identical. The Grand Touring trim level adds navigation to its Mazda Connect feature set and a basic loadout of driver aid technologies including steerable adaptive front lighting, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and lane departure warning. None of these systems are strictly necessary on the Miata, but some drivers will find them nice additions.
Mazda's trim level organization is a forked one. The Club model gets all of the performance upgrades, while the Grand Touring gets all of the driver aid features. It is, therefore, impossible to get everything in one car -- there's no such thing as a fully loaded 2016 Miata. In Mazda's defense, Miata drivers tend to be casual cruisers looking for a relaxed roadster or enthusiasts who want the performance without the gizmos. However, there's a small gap in the Miata's lineup for those purists who want the performance upgrades of the Club, but don't want a color screen in the dashboard.
OK, purists, you can uncover now. Over the windy canyon roads that snake through the Angeles National Forest in Southern California, the 2016 Miata is in its element. The route never straightens, so the Miata's moderate power never becomes a handicap and the constant bending of the road up and down the mountainside highlights the responsiveness of the steering, the excellent and neutral grip, and the forgiving and stiff chassis. For a fan of nimble sport compacts, spending hour after hour exploring the mountains in the fourth-generation Miata is pretty close to Nirvana.
Mazda has taken the spec sheet, the performance chart, and the Internet forum bench racing and tossed them all aside for the fourth-generation Mazda Miata. Instead of just giving us more power, more trunk space and a better 0-60, the automaker has instead built the best driving experience -- and perhaps the most faithful homage to the first two generations of Miata -- that it could muster.
Yes, the roadster is a quick little ride, but I think it's more important that the playful 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata is just so much fun. Mazda has built a true driver's car that's delivers the joy of driving, not just bigger numbers.
Speaking of numbers, let's have a look at the price tag. The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata starts at $24,915 for the base Sport model. The performance oriented Club model adds styling and handling upgrades for $28,600 and the high-tech (for a Miata) Grand Touring tops the range at $30,065.
In the UK, the Miata ranges between £18,495 and £23,295, while Australian MX-5s fall between AU$35,776 and AU$45,642. In these markets, the roadster is offered with a different range of engines (including a smaller 1.5-liter mill) and different trim levels and packaging, so intercontinental comparisons aren't exactly apples to apples.