Sometimes change is overrated. Take Mazda's roadster, for example. Aside from a few styling updates, it's retained the same formula for the past 20-plus years: compact + affordable + uncomplicated = fun.
Although the Mazda MX-5 Miata hasn't changed much since its debut as a 1990 model, it still delivers the joy and excitement of a new toy. As a daily driver, though, it might leave you feeling sore and cramped.
For 2013, the convertible again comes with a standard manual-folding soft-top and an available power-retractable hardtop. The Club trim is new; it replaces the midlevel Touring model, between the Sport and Grand Touring. All versions also get a lightly restyled front end this year. Compare the 2012 and 2013 models here.
This tiny, two-seat convertible has few competitors. Based on price, its closest challengers are a bit larger, with room for more passengers; they include the Fiat 500C, the Mini Cooper convertible and the Volkswagen Beetle convertible. Compare all four here. The Nissan 370Z roadster is closer to the Miata in size and mission, but it costs nearly $18,000 more.
Destination: Who Cares?!
There's something about a convertible that makes bad music bearable and traffic jams almost pleasant. Put the top down and all your cares go out the window — actually, the roof. In fact, top-down is the only way to drive this car. It goes from claustrophobic to carefree in seconds.
Simply put, the Miata is a hoot to drive. The 167-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder isn't a powerhouse, but it's only moving around 2,500 pounds, so it eagerly scoots from a stop and is strong and smooth on the highway. The six-speed manual that's standard in Club and Grand Touring trims has short, precise throws, and the combination provides an engaging drive. A five-speed manual is standard in the base Miata Sport, and a six-speed automatic is optional in all trims. Mazda recommends premium gasoline, and despite its diminutive dimensions, the Miata's fuel-economy figures aren't very impressive. Five-speed manual models are EPA rated at 22/28 mpg city/highway, and the six-speed manual and automatic are rated 21/28 mpg. (When you drive with the top down, it's sure to be lower still.)
Maneuverability is the Miata's strongest point; the rear-wheel-drive roadster is light and lively, with roller-skate-like agility. Flat, controlled cornering makes off-ramps exhilarating, and quick reflexes help it excel at darting though city traffic. Steering is communicative, with a crisp, precise feel that lends a sense of connectedness to the road.
The Fun Stops Here
But the fun doesn't last forever. For starters, a little too much road comes through in the ride. The car I tested was a new midlevel Club edition, with a sport suspension and 17-inch wheels instead of the standard 16s. Both affect ride comfort. It was on the firm and jittery side; even small bumps induced some choppiness. Elsewhere, the Miata loses some more points in the comfort department. For example, make sure you limber up before climbing in. When the top is up, entering requires a stoop-shuffle maneuver, and once you're seated several small ergonomic issues combine to foil comfort. The seats are nicely bolstered for a snug fit, but they're too firm. The steering wheel tilts up and down, but doesn't telescope.
More annoying, everything is just out of reach. The mirror-adjustment buttons require an awkward stretch, as does a small storage box behind the driver. Oddly, that's also where the fuel-door button is. The location of the cupholders is flawed, too. They sit just behind the shifter, so drinks constantly get bumped in manual versions.
The interior is a study in simplicity, which is both good and bad. If the Miata were a contestant on "The Dating Game," it wouldn't be dark and mysterious Bachelor No. 1. Good-looking? Yes. Complicated? No. The climate controls and audio buttons are clear and easy to use, and there aren't any head-scratching multimedia or navigation systems (one is optional, though). Where simple becomes boring, though, is the décor. There's too much hard black plastic, and Club versions add a strip of shiny body-colored plastic. Mazda was aiming for sporty with this pop of color, but I'd call it cheesy.
At 5-foot-5 I was cozy with the top up, but taller editors felt cramped. Top down, the sky's the limit. One aspect of this car that Mazda did extremely well is the power hardtop. It's quick and smooth and lowers in about 12 seconds with the push of a button. Buyers agree: Mazda says hardtop models outsell soft-tops by a 4-1 ratio worldwide.
The top also gets points for not eating into cargo room, which is miniscule to begin with. With 5.3 cubic feet of volume, there's just enough room for a weekend's worth of luggage — if you pack light. I also fit a few grocery bags back there, but not a full shopping trip for my family. Comparatively, the VW Beetle convertible (7.1 cubic feet) and Mini Cooper convertible (6.0) offer more, but the Fiat 500C nearly matches the Miata's capacity with 5.4 cubic feet. Its backseat does fold, though, which increases the volume to 23.4 cubic feet.
Features & Price
Except for the $20,400 Fiat 500C (the roof of which is more of an accordion panel than a droptop) and the $18,640 Smart ForTwo Cabriolet (don't get us started on this dud), the MX-5 Miata is the lowest-priced convertible out there. My midlevel Club hardtop model started at $28,465 (all prices include destination charges), but the price of entry is much lower. Base Sport models start at $24,515, though equipment is pretty basic. On manual models, for example, power windows are standard, but power locks are not. Opting for the Sport with the six-speed automatic transmission (an additional $2,260) gets you power locks, cruise control, remote keyless entry and steering-wheel radio controls.
If you want leather, you'll have to get a top-of-the-line Grand Touring, which also features automatic climate control, heated seats and a Bose audio system. Bluetooth, satellite radio and keyless start are available in an option package on the Grand Touring.
The Miata hasn't been crash-tested by either the federal government or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It has standard front airbags and seat-mounted side-impact airbags. The passenger front airbag can be deactivated to safely accommodate a child in the seat. There's no top-tether anchor, however, so a forward-facing convertible car seat isn't safe to use.
Thanks to a sizable rear window, visibility straight back is not as bad as in some convertibles with the top up; the view is especially limited in the Beetle, for example. Top down, sight lines to the rear corners are limited because of a windscreen that stretches the space between the head restraints, making it tough to get a clear view of your blind spot. Neither a backup camera nor a blind spot monitoring system is available. Click here for a full list of safety features.
In the Market
There's a lot to love about the Miata, and apparently a lot of people love it: It was named the best-selling sports car by Guinness World Records in 2011 after breaking 900,000 units in global sales.
As a daily driver, the car's ergonomic and space issues would get old fast, but as a weekend toy, the Miata knows how to bring the fun. It's the type of car you want to take for a drive, regardless of your destination. Toys are supposed to be entertaining, and the Miata is a blast.