Stay with me here. The Mazda MX-5 Miata might not be a supercar by typical standards, but when it comes to driving dynamics, dollar for dollar, this car can't be beat.
The Mazda Miata is a supercar. No, it doesn't have an obscenely powerful 12-cylinder engine, its top speed doesn't eclipse 200 mph and it's not wrapped in aerospace-grade carbon-fiber bodywork. But trust me, nearly everything about this machine is super.
This little Japanese roadster delivers more driving enjoyment than some exotic cars that cost 10 times more. Truth be told, I'd rather have one of these than literally any new Maserati. Sure, Lamborghinis are nice, but they aren't as pure as the humble Miata. Even Acura's NSX, which in its current form is rocket-fast and extremely capable, falls short of the simple joy this Mazda can deliver. If dynamics are a top priority, dollar for dollar, this car can't be beat.
I absolutely adore how the Miata drives. It's so natural, direct and intuitive. It feels more like an extension of your body than your own right arm. The interaction between its clutch, accelerator and shifter deliver this unparalleled connectedness. The leftmost pedal is nicely weighted, being neither too heavy nor feather-light, plus it has a broad engagement range, which makes my midlevel Club test car effortless to drive. The stubby shifter, which allows you to stir the standard six-speed manual transmission, is crisp, with short throws and zero vagueness. It's just a shame some powertrain vibration can be felt through its leather-wrapped knob. Finally, the engine responds immediately to even minute accelerator-pedal inputs, which makes achieving perfectly rev-matched downshifts child's play.
Miatas sold in America are energized by a 2.0-liter engine that makes its power the old-fashioned way. Without any forced induction, this little four-pot is blessed with an incredibly linear powerband, one that's free of any hiccups or stutters as it climbs with fury from idle to the 7,500-rpm redline. Output measures 181 horsepower, while torque clocks in at 151 pound-feet. Those figures may sound a little weak, especially in a world where you can get a Toyota Camry with more than 300 ponies, but trust me, that's plenty of giddy up in the Miata, which only weighs around 2,341 pounds in Club guise. A little extra torque might be nice, but this really isn't even a complaint. Short gearing helps keep that powerplant on the boil and the driver smiling from ear to ear.
One amazing thing about this car is how quickly the engine slows down. Clutch in and the tachometer needle drops instantly, a rarity in modern vehicles with electronic throttles. This supercar responsiveness contributes to the Miata's smooth and easy drivability.
Of course, this roadster can also be had with a six-speed automatic transmission. But even if you're not terribly experienced dancing the three-pedal shuffle, I encourage you to go with the stick because the Miata is just so easy to shift and drive, plus the automatic is rather out of character for this car.
When fitted with a manual gearbox, expect 26 miles per gallon city and 34 highway. Combined, my tester is rated at 29 mpg, though the computer readout indicates better than 34, an amazing figure considering how frequently I've been visiting the engine's upper limits.
Acceleration is effortless, though this Mazda probably isn't quite as quick as it feels. On more than a few occasions, I find myself going about 5 mph slower than the posted limit because the Miata gives you such a sensation of speed. The engine is buzzy and kind of loud, plus with the top up there's tons of wind noise, especially on the highway. This car's stiff suspension elicits a bit of cowl shake on bad roads, too, and all these things conspire to make it seem like you're going faster than you actually are.
Of course, should you overcook a corner or spot a cop hiding out beneath an overpass, the brakes are ready, willing and more than able to pull back on the reins. Club models with the manual transmission can be fitted with a $4,470 package that adds heated Recaro sport seats and Brembo front binders with red calipers all around. This package also adds stylish sill extensions and forged, 17-inch BBS wheels.
Manual-equipped Club models also gain a few other upgrades of note. They feature a front strut-tower brace, an induction sound enhancer and a limited-slip differential. But more significant than any of that stuff is the sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein dampers. Normally, Miatas are fairly soft and forgiving, but my tester's ride flirts with brutal. Really, it's unnecessarily stiff, which reduces not only comfort but driver confidence.
Ride quality may be questionable, but the Miata's steering is superb, crisp and direct, with near telepathic precision. Tackle corners at irresponsible speed and the car responds with enthusiasm; the 50:50 weight distribution makes it feel like the vehicle is rotating about an axis that falls right where butt is planted. At first, the wheel's thin rim seems a bit too small for your hands, like there's not enough meat there, but after a few miles in the saddle it feels completely natural. The tiller is merely wispy, which is in keeping with the rest of the car's engineering ethos.
The standard Miata comes with a fabric roof that tucks away in one smooth motion. Just pull the header-mounted lever and push the top rearward until it locks into a well behind the seats. That's it. Once sunburn sets in or rain clouds threaten, it pops up just as easily. If you prefer less interior noise and having an actual roof over your head, consider the Miata RF, which features a power-retracting hardtop and a sticker price that's a few grand higher.
This car's interior is attractively designed and mostly functional, though I do have a few complaints. For starters, there's very little storage space. Like some Aston Martins, there's no traditional glovebox -- all your stuff has to go in the trunk, a couple tiny cubbies on the center console or in a bin between the seatbacks. But as a taller person, my biggest gripe is about the Miata's size. I just don't fit in it very well. If I were six inches shorter it'd probably be perfect, but the seats' limited adjustability and pavement-scraping lower cushion make it less than ideal on extended trips.
All Miatas come standard with a Mazda Connect multimedia system and a 7-inch display. As in other products built by this automaker, that infotainment system is pretty substandard, with a Byzantine layout, unattractive graphics and a touchscreen that shuts off while the vehicle is in motion. Making things worse, the rotary control dial and the volume knob are mounted too far back on the center console, rendering them very awkward to use. At least you get a pair of USB ports as well as Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, the former of which is not even available in some Ferraris.
As for driver aids, there aren't too many, but for 2020 a very vocal lane-departure warning system, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are standard across the range. More advanced features including adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist are not offered no matter the price.
Speaking of dollars and cents, my Arctic White MX-5 Miata Club model checked out for right around $35,705, including that one option package and $945 in destination fees. That's kind of a lot of money for such a small car. You could get a Ford Mustang GT or Chevy Camaro SS, both of which have potent V8 engines, or even a bare-bones BMW 2 Series coupe for a similar amount. But none of those models, not even the somewhat similar Toyota 86, are going to provide anywhere near the same driving finesse as this little Mazda.