Look at the 2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata head-on, and the grille and headlights sort of resemble a big grinning face. With good reason: Since it was introduced as a 1990 model, the Miata (Mazda tried to use the global MX-5 name exclusively, but gave up when Americans wouldn't stop calling it a Miata) has faced down multiple challengers.
As it did when the car was introduced, the Miata once again has this narrow but lucrative little segment of the market all to itself.
So what cars have come and gone? Challengers include the Mercury Capri, which was built in Australia but had a Mazda engine. Toyota brought back, and then dropped, the MR-2. General Motors took aim at the Miata with the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, and came the closest to hitting the mark, but the good-looking cars were rushed into production, and weren't around long enough to earn the refinement they deserved. Sure, there have been pricier alternatives such as the Porsche Boxster and Lotus Elise, but those are outside the budget of most Miata customers.
It doesn't hurt that the Miata has proven to be, from day one, astoundingly reliable. Mazda got the Miata right from the beginning, and unlike most vehicles that have been in production for over 20 years, there are no "bad" Miata models to avoid. You can find a serviceable used one for under $3,000, parts are plentiful and comparatively inexpensive, and Miata owners are among the most helpful there are when it comes to schooling fellow owners.
Arguably the most important aspect of all this, to Mazda at least, is how the Miata has gathered loyal customers under the brand's umbrella. So many of them stick with the brand if they need a four-door, moving to the Mazda3 or Mazda6, or if they need an affordable minivan, the Mazda5. And Mazda has kept its part of the bargain by offering sedans and even minivans that emphasize a fun-to-drive level that exceeds the competition, which appeals to a customer moving over from a Miata. And Mazda's presence in amateur road racing and autocross is the largest of any manufacturer, and the company supports its racers with incentives, technical help and even prize money.
Unfortunately for Miata customers, the car is no longer cheap, even in its lowest-level model. The base price is $23,110, and with shipping you are still under $24,000, but barely. The good news is even at that price, the base Sport model still has the majority of the bits and pieces that make the Miata what it is; all have the same 2.0-liter, 167-horsepower four-cylinder engine, but the base model has a five-speed manual transmission, instead of the more popular six-speed. That said, the five-speed is rated at 22 mpg city, 28 mpg on the highway, while the six-speed is rated at 21/28. Cheaper, and better mileage? Yeah, the five-speed is fine. A six-speed automatic transmission is offered, but if any car cries out for a manual, it's the Miata.
The base model still gets you air conditioning, power windows and a good six-speaker sound system. Not enough? The more deluxe Touring model starts at $25,450, and the top-of-the-line Grand Touring model is $26,710. Our tester was a Grand Touring Miata, and yes, the leather upholstery and Bose sound system were nice, as were the larger 17-inch tires and alloy wheels. But there's a purity to the Miata that makes the base model attractive – certainly the optional power retractable hardtop is wonderful, but the manual fold-down top is so easy to use that the retractable top is an unnecessary luxury. In fact, take every option, and the Miata's price rises to almost $34,000, pretty much erasing the "affordable" designation.
Inside, the Miata's instruments and controls are easy to use and the seats are comfortable, but there has never been any argument that space is pretty tight. The trunk is small but useful, something that you couldn't say about the Solstice, Sky or MR-2. Handling is delightful, but the highway ride, unless you are a true believer, may be too rough and noisy. Certainly the Miata is capable of long-distance traveling, but it isn't my first choice.
As a daily commuter, though, the Miata is one of the best friends you can have, especially if you can find a few winding roads on the way home. Your smile is likely to match the one on the Miata's grille.
2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Base price: $23,110
Price as tested: $29,655
EPA-rated mileage: 21 mpg city, 28 mpg highway
Engine: 2.0-liter, 167-horsepower four-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Length: 157.3 inches
Wheelbase: 91.7 inches
Parting shot: The competition keeps setting 'em up, the Mazda keeps knocking them down.