It’s easy to forget there are still cars that are about driving rather than transportation. Cars that make the trip more appealing than the destination.
Such a car is the Mazda Miata. It makes you want to go for a drive even when you don’t need to and makes you want to not get where you’re going before you absolutely have to be there.
There are, of course, other cars that can instill such sentiments. But very few of them (if any of them) are all of the other things the Miata is.
It is a sports car you can drive like a race car that gives economy car mileage and longevity. That holds its value and your interest.
This is probably why the Miata has outlasted and outsold every other sports car that has tried to copy what it has always done better than any of them.
What It Is
The Miata is an unusual Mazda. It is the only two-door, soft-top, rear-wheel-drive, and manual-transmission-equipped car Mazda still sells. That combination also makes it unusual as far as what anyone else sells these days—there are few cars being made anymore, period, and even fewer convertibles and almost none with manual transmissions.
The handful that still are available are much larger and much more expensive. They are also less practical, in part because of their high cost but also their usually thirsty appetite.
This probably explains why the Miata is so popular.
Prices start at $26,830 for the base Sport trim, which comes standard with a manual-folding soft-top as well as a six speed manual transmission.
A six-speed automatic is available optionally.
Club versions, which sticker for $30,290 to start, add a shock tower brace, limited slip differential, and Bilstein shock absorbers to enhance the car’s already nimble handling. Also included are heated seats and an upgraded nine-speaker Bose audio system, three more speakers than come standard in the Sport trim.
Top-of-the-line Grand Touring trims, which sticker for $31,770 to start, get you an upgraded, more insulated soft-top, automatic climate control, leather seating surfaces, heated outside mirrors and automatic headlights, among other amenities upgrades.
There is also the Miata RF for those who don’t want a manual-top. It has a partially (and electrically) opening Targa top, which means a center roof section that slides back but side panels that remain up. The idea is a functional and visual mid-way point in between a convertible and a hardtop.
It is otherwise identical to the Miata roadster, and stickers for $33,045 to start. It comes standard with all of the Club equipment and trim, too. A top-of-the-line Grand Touring stickers for $34,525.
There’s no direct cross-shop for either version of the Miata. The generally similar BMW Z4 has a very dissimilar starting price ($49,700) and comes with an automatically (electronically) folding soft top and an automatic transmission only. The Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang convertibles are available with soft-tops and manual transmissions, but they are much larger, four-seater cars that also come with much larger price tags: $32,655 to start for the Mustang and $31,500 for the Camaro convertible.
The Corvette is a two-seater, offers a manual and a soft top, but it’s a mid-engined V8-powered exotic with an exotic car’s price tag: $66,400 to start.
That leaves the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ twins as the Miata’s only real direct competition. They are about the same size and generally similar in layout, but they are hardtops only and they’re off the market right now. They are supposedly coming back updated for 2022. But for now, the Miata’s got the road all to itself.
Very little, which is very good.
The key to the Miata’s success is not messing with what makes it successful. The current Miata is basically the same Miata, with no significant changes made since the 2016 model year when just a few minor changes were made. Nothing has altered the Miata-ness of the car, which has been largely the same car since its 1989 introduction.
This year, you can get white leather seat covers.
- A true sports car that almost anyone can afford to buy and to drive.
- “Connected” in the old-school sense. Everything this car does you control from the manual soft-top to the manual changing of the gears.
- As reliable as a Corolla and as fun as a Corvette.
What’s Not So Good
- You have to pony up for the Club to get the Bilstein shocks and shock tower brace; it’d be nice if there were available as stand-alone options for the base Sport trim for those who don’t want to pay extra for the heated seats, upgraded stereo and other amenities that come with the Club.
- Touchscreen/mouse controller for the stereo detracts from the otherwise exemplary simplicity of this car’s functionality.
- Wear cargo pants, so you’ll have pockets to keep your stuff in.
Under The Hood
All Miatas come with the same 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine (a 181 horsepower rating, the peak made at 7,000 RPM and the engine willing (and allowed) to rev past that, considerably). This is an engine that was designed to be worked and does its best work behind the standard six-speed manual transmission, which makes revving it not just easy but a pleasure.
You can opt for a six-speed automatic, but very few Miata buyers do so. An automatic Miata is kind of like going for a swim while wearing pants. It can be done, but why would you do it?
The engine is born to run with a very high 13.0:1 compression ratio yet runs fine on regular 87 octane unleaded, which it sips at an almost-economy-car rate. The sticker says you can travel 34 highway miles on a gallon of gas, that being a function of the Mazda’s very light curb weight of just over 2,300 lbs. for the Sport roadster and the tall gearing in sixth, which enables placid low RPM cruising at highway speeds. In city driving, the mileage dips to 26 but the average is still close to 30, which is remarkable for a high-performance roadster and a big part of what makes this roadster one you can afford to drive every day.
The automatic delivers slightly better mileage but at the cost of driving fun. Also, you cannot get the limited slip differential with the automatic—probably for the same reason that you can’t fly a jet if you’re only rated to handle a prop job.
The engine is mounted front to back, the Miata being a rear-drive car. This is functionally desirable (in a sports car) both when it’s moving and when it’s not. As when you raise the hood, to work on the engine. Though the Miata is a small car, there is plenty of room under the hood for the engine on either side. You can easily lay hands on all the vitals—not that this is necessary more than very occasionally. But when you must, you can, which is a huge relief vs. the sideways-mounted engines in front-drive sporty cars that have one side of the engine inaccessibly snugged up against the firewall, which makes laying hands on anything that side of the engine an exercise in knuckle-busting ingenuity as well as a test of patience.
Beside which, the Miata’s engine position looks good when you raise the hood. And Mazda knows it. There’s no ugly black plastic cover-to-cover up something unpleasing to the eye. Instead, the engine lays fully exposed, with a beautiful cast aluminum cam cover serving as the centerpiece. Mazda also fully paints the underside of the hood, so it glistens as much as the topside. Most car companies don’t spray clearcoat on the underside (or the underside of the trunk) to save a few bucks, figuring no one cares.
People who buy Miatas do and so it shows.
On The Road
If you want to remember what it was like to enjoy driving again, take a drive in this car. It does not “assist” you with anything. It is up to you to shift the gears, and to keep the car in its lane. There is no tug on the steering wheel, to countermand your steering inputs (as happens in cars equipped with Lane Keep Assist, if you dare to change lanes or turn off the road without signaling first). The engine stays on until you turn it off. There is no automatic start-stop “technology.”
There is only you and the car.
And gauges, by god. Mechanical needle tach and speedo, which dance along with the inputs made by your right foot and right hand, your left leg serving as conductor of this opera. The top does not leak rain, but you can hear the world outside, rushing past, which makes you not want to feel asleep, as if in bed.
With the top down, you are in the world—a part of it. Rush’s classic song, Red Barchetta, is this car’s anthem. Sans only the real wood. But the scent of country air, the glint of the landscape, every nerve aware—it’s all there.
It is difficult to convey the experience in words. It must be experienced. The direct, connected feel of the gears engaged, by you. The revs building, as demanded, also by you. When to shift? That, too, is entirely up to you. Mazda leaves the engine free to spin to beyond the redline, which indicates it is capable of it and that you are capable of knowing when to back off, stab the clutch and grab the next gear.
There is no car that is better balanced than this steel and glass ballerina, which pirouettes through the curves as the dancer it is. Throttle up, post apex and feel your way through; if you like a little tail-out roostering, just give it a bit more throttle, and let off when you want it to snap back. But as expert as this car is, you do not need to be an expert to enjoy it as is the case for some others—that need a push into a Zone where you had better know what you are doing if you want to come out of it all in one piece.
The Miata is great fun at any speed. On the track or headed to work. Just ambling along or gung-ho. It is approachable and likable.
It is also economical, a quality that makes it perfectly reasonable to buy a Miata for the everyday drive. It is a car that doesn’t burn much more gas than many economy cars and because it is so lithe and compact, it snugs easily into parking spots where it can be left unattended with much less worry than might attend the leaving alone, curbside, of a new Corvette or Z4 BMW.
At The Curb
The Miata is a very small car—something very few cars are, anymore. It is only 154.1 inches stem-to-stern, which for some sense of proportions is more than two feet smaller, foot-print-wise, than a compact-sized sedan like the current Honda Civic (182.7 inches long).
You don’t so much as drive the Miata as wear it. This being part of the connectedness of this car. You and it merge into one. The passenger is an afterthought as evidenced by the hilarious insert-here cupholder that dangles off the right-side of the car’s center console into the passenger’s space. You can take someone along for the ride but this car is fundamentally an intimate date for two.
That’s you and it.
Further evidence of this intention being the 4.9-cubic foot trunk, which means you’ll probably need the passenger seat for your stuff. Still, the trunk is more usable than the specifications suggest. I was able to easily fit four bags of drainage gravel in there. It isn’t wide, but it’s fairly deep.
Another aspect of intimacy is the top, which you can literally just toss back whenever you feel like it. Most modern roadsters have electronic-lowering tops, which lower when and how the programming decrees it. You usually have to stop, completely – and then wait for the electric motors to do their thing. In the Miata, just unlock the catches at the top of the windshield, throw, and stow.
If you prefer something fancier, there’s the RF, which has electronic/automatic retraction.
Nothing is perfect in this world and the Miata is no exception. The one thing that mars the car’s otherwise Zen is Mazda’s Multi-Media Interface (MMI), which involves multi-step processes to do things like change the radio station that could be more easily done one-step, as by turning a knob. With MMI, you must first select the function, for example, the << and >> to go up or down the dial. And then activate the << or the >> to go up or down. And then, find the right input, next time you need to do it again.
This contrasts markedly with the simple, Zen-functional rotary knobs you turn left or right to raise or lower the AC’s cold or the heater’s heat. If the Miata had similar controls for the stereo, it would be Zen perfect.
The Bottom Line
This car harkens back to a better, vanished time. When cars were fun because we connected with them – as opposed to being connected to impersonal, peremptory technology. If you want to remember what it is was like, and snatch back a piece of it, this is the car that’ll bring back those memories.
And help you make some new ones, too.
Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.