By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The Mazda Miata is — apparently — the perfect car. Or at the very least, an ageless and endlessly appealing car.
It is still selling well, despite no major changes in several years — and despite being not much different, really, in 2012 than it was waaaaay back in 1989 when the first one rolled off the line.
The only other cars I can think of that were similarly long-lived, largely unchanged during their lives and perpetually popular were the old VW Beetle and the Model T Ford.
That’s pretty proud company.
WHAT IT IS
The MX-5 Miata is a compact sized two-seat roadster. It is available with a manual cloth soft top or a power retractable hardtop.
The base Sport model with soft-top and five-speed stick starts at $23,190 (only $80 more than the 2011 model, FYI).
A loaded Grand Touring model with six-speed automatic and the retractable all-weather hardtop carries a sticker price of $26,820 (cheaper by about three grand than the same trim last year!)
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
Other than the reduced MSRPs for 2012, the Miata’s the same car this year that it was last year. 2012 was originally supposed to the be the year that Mazda released a major update but apparently the tsunami this spring has put that on the back burner until the 2013 model year at the soonest.
Still a blast to drive — and affordable to drive, too.
Excellent starting point for a weekend SCCA club racer you can also drive to work on Monday.
As agreeable commuting in heavy traffic as it is darting through S turns out in the country.
As tough and reliable as a Kimber 1911 .45 autoloader.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Like a great sport motorcycle or custom-tailored suit, this car won’t fit everyone. If you’re much over six feet or 200 pounds, this one’s probably not for you.
Base models still come with only a five speed stick. To get a six-speed stick you have to pay about three grand more to upgrade to the Grand Touring version.
This may be the final year before Mazda possibly fixes what aint’ broke.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Miata’s 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine produces 167 hp — same as it has for years. But the little engine has been strengthened internally with a new forged crankshaft and fully floating piston wrist pins, which allows the redline to be increased by 500 RPM to 7,500 RPM.
The base model Sport still comes with a five-speed manual even though most any new car that offers a manual transmission offers a six-speed manual.
A six-speed is available, but you’ve got to pony up $26,820 to get it. On the upside, this transmission features more than just tighter gear spacing for less rev drop between gear changes; it also features carbon coated internal cogs to enhance shift speed/feel as well as the durability of the transmission. For buyers considering weekend club racing, this is definitely the way to go.
A six-speed automatic with Active Adaptive Shift manual mode and paddle shifters comes standard in the mid-priced ($25,550) Touring trim.
With a wider operating range and more favorable gearing through the six-speed transmission, the Miata’s 0-60 time clocks in at about 7.3 seconds.
Gas mileage is pegged by the EPA at 22 city/28 highway for the five-speed-equipped Miata and 21 city, 28 highway for Miatas with the six-speed manual or the six-speed automatic.
It ought to go without saying that all Miatas are rear wheel drive.
ON THE ROAD
The Miata is not so much about high-horsepower or ferocious acceleration as it is about exceptional balance and agility — the quality the Japanese refer to as a rider who is one with his horse.
That pretty much sums it up.
A 0-60 time in the mid 7 second range is definitely not exceptional these days. A Camry is about as quick — and a base 2012 Mustang V-6 or Camaro will blow the Miata’s doors off in a drag race.
But few cars ever made make driving such an intimate, just-you-and-the-car experience as this one does.
The 2.0 liter engine sounds great (even better now, with revised intake tract tuning specifically designed to let the thing sing as the revs climb over 4,000 RPM) and the upgraded six-speed transmission is perfectly matched to it. While most automakers have gone to great lengths to cull all signs of mechanical life from their drivetrains and turn them into electric car-quiet appliances, the Miata will take you right back to the summer of ’69 — the good stuff, without the smelly Hippies. Throw the top back (the optional power hardtop is neat but this car doesn’t need it), point it down the road and just make tracks.
Available Bilstein shocks provide increased compression damping, which eliminates some of the bounciness the previous car was prone to when it encountered a dip in the middle of a fast corner. It now squats and settles with the firmness of a fully-prepped weekend racer. Some of the largest/most aggressive tires ever installed on a factory-built Miata are now available: P205/45R-17 Bridgestone Potenzas. These can be fitted to beautiful new-design 17-inch BBS wheels.
Recaro sport buckets are available, too — plus various dealer add-ons such as a body kit, etc.
Sort-of competitors like the BMW Z4 (and the old Honda S2000) have done their utmost to out-Miata the Miata, but there’s only one original. The Z4 is certainly quicker; the S2000 (with its almost 10,000 RPM powerband) felt more race car-like. But the Miata is still the best-balanced mix of back to basics sports car fun and everyday get-to-work-and-back liveability. It is also affordable (the Z4, which starts at $47,450 — isn’t), comfortable to drive in stop-and-go traffic (the S2000 wasn’t) and plausibly practical, because it doesn’t cost much to buy, feed or maintain.
It gets pretty good gas mileage; it’s known to be very durable; it has high resale value.
Really, what’s not to like?
AT THE CURB
For more than 20 years now, Mazda — wisely — hasn’t seriously messed with the Miata’s classic shape. Just a few minor updates along the way — such as a new trunklid spoiler, wider front and rear ends (with new design headlights) to cut down on wind resistance and cabin noise infiltration at high speed (the drag coefficient, or CD, drops to .032 for the retractable hardtop model).
These changes have been evolutionary and so are very subtle. Like the changes over the years to another Automotive Icon, the old Jaguar XJ-series sedan — which looked more or less the same from the late 1960s all the through the early oughts. The result is that Miatas age very well; an ’89 model still looks current — and the 2012 model will still look great 20 years from now.
Yeah, the Miata’s trunk is handbag puny — 5.3 cubic feet. It comes with the deal when you buy any two-seat compact roadster.
But Mazda built numerous hidey-holes and cubbies into the car’s cabin, including a bin between the driver and passenger seatbacks (this is where the pull release for the fuel filler door is located, too) and four small but serviceable cup holders.
The all-weather hardtop version (which only adds about 70 pounds to the car’s low 2,480 lb. curb weight) is also the least expensive retractable hardtop roadster currently available. VW’s Eos, for example, is the next-most “affordable” retractable hardtop on the market — and it starts at $33,995. And the front-wheel-drive, two-plus-two Eos isn’t even trying to play i0n the same sandbox as the Miata, as far as being a sports car goes.
All the controls are simple and effective — including the pull-up emergency brake handle. In today’s market, most new cars come with a parking brake (no handle to pull up, just a pedal to push or a button to depress) which means you have no emergency brake in an emergency. (you also can’t pull “Rockfords” with a pedal-type or push-button parking brake.)
Miatas are famous for being be hard to kill, even when subjected to hard use. They can be raced all weekend long, then driven to work every day the next — without trouble, year after year after year. I have a friend who does exactly this with his ’92 — and that car is still his daily driver. He’s had to replace the tires a few times — and the clutch once.
But that’s it.
You rarely hear about anything major breaking — even cars with high mileage that have been seriously flogged.
They just go and go and go.
The other thing is, it’s easier to rationalize a Miata purchase than the purchase of a high-priced, fast-depreciating (and high maintenance and expensive to maintain) BMW, Lotus or similar. No offense. The Z4 and the Elise are great fun. So is the Porsche Boxster. But buying one of those cars is like acquiring a 21 year old girlfriend when you’re 55.
There will be costs involved.
On the other hand, laying out $23k for a Miata is no big deal. The car barely costs more than a decently equipped econo-box. It is an ideal low-cost commuter car — and it’s a helluva lot more appealing than a Prius.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s a living legend. Get one before they mess it up.