A Car Like No Other

WESTLAKE VILLAGE, CA – More is not always more. Bigger is not always better. Increased horsepower doesn’t automatically make a car more fun or capable.

Exhibit A is the ’16 Mazda MX-5 Miata, a car that incensed some enthusiasts when it was announced earlier this year it would have a mere 155 hp, far less than rivals such as the 200-hp Scion FR-S.

“There was a lot of outrage, a lot of surprise. Many wanted 200 hp,” says MX-5 Vehicle Line Manager Rod McLaughlin.

It is true that if the convertible Miata had followed the typical course of automotive evolution over the past 26 years of its existence, it probably would be offering a 300-hp V-6 by now. It also would have packed on 1,000 lbs. (454 kg) and would be sporting a $60,000 sticker.

Like people, most car platforms get larger and heavier over time and each new generation requires more power and higher percentages of lightweight materials to counteract the growing heft. This leads to a bigger price tag, the need to attract wealthier buyers, a requirement for fancier cupholders and so on.  

Mazda hasn’t followed this path with the Miata, especially with the fourth-generation model. The cockpit is roomier but the car is significantly shorter, lighter and more focused on fundamentals than ever.

It weighs 150 lbs. (68 kg) less than its immediate predecessor and the 6-speed manual version, at 2,332 lbs., (1,058 kg) is one of the lightest vehicles available in the U.S. and only 182 lbs. (83 kg) heavier than the original ’89 model.

A 50/50 weight distribution and ideal driving position were the top development priorities, with the driver sitting slightly inboard as close to the middle of the car as possible, and the pedals situated directly in front of the feet, not offset as in some sports cars, says Senior Development Engineer Dave Coleman.

The driver also sits lower while the hood height has been pushed down more than 1 in. (25.4 mm), giving a better view of the road. The cabin has more headroom and legroom and will accommodate taller drivers than before, but overall the car is almost 4 ins. (90 mm) shorter.

Despite the car’s concentration on basics, all the options a modern driver wants are available except one: The position of the cupholder is sub-optimal.

“Shifting is more important than drinking. The cupholder will not rule the interior of the car,” says Coleman. Bravo, Mazda.

Fun and Beauty Top Engineering Specs

Instead of laying out benchmarks and specifications, developers of the new Miata resorted to what they call Kansei Engineering, which takes a meditative approach to car development, giving emotional values such as fun and beauty higher priority than traditional engineering indices.

“Instead of zero-to-60-mph (97 km/h) acceleration statistics, Kansei engineering helps us understand how the car feels through the driver’s sense of touch, how it sounds at speed, how it looks with the top folded,” says Takao Kijima, Program Manager for the previous-generation MX-5.

After all, the original Miata introduced in 1989 was no speed demon. It rode on tiny 14-in. wheels and its 116-hp 1.6L engine delivered 60 mph in a glacial nine seconds. A Honda Fit has bigger wheels and more horsepower and torque.

But at just 2,192 lbs. (994 kg) with air conditioning, the original Miata was incredibly light, small and fun to drive. It filled the hole in the hearts of millions of baby boomers left by the demise of affordable British and Italian sports cars such as the Lotus Elan, numerous Triumphs, MGs and Alfa Romeos.

Compared with the first model, the latest ’16 Miata is a rocket, with a 0-60 of about 6 seconds. It also is 1 second faster than the third-generation model. The 2.0L 4-cyl. has 12 less horsepower but 8 lb.-ft. (11 Nm) more torque. While the old engine makes more power at 7,000 rpm, the new engine makes more power from 1,000 to 6,000 rpm, resulting in better all-round performance, Coleman says.

Lightness Beats Brute Force

In a revealing demonstration of how light weight can nullify brute force, auto writers Dan Neil of The Wall Street Journal and Car and Driver’s Ezra Dyer competed at a recent autocross event full of tight turns and giant speed bumps. Dyer drove a 650-hp Corvette Z06 and Neil helmed the new Miata. They turned in exactly the same lap times. However, Dyer says the Z06 was the only car to almost pull a wheelie. 

WardsAuto evaluated the Miata on metro Detroit’s pothole-infested streets in addition to testing it on the crowded expressways and winding canyon roads outside Los Angeles and came away with renewed respect for Mazda’s engineering.

Because of its small footprint, we were expecting ultra-sharp steering and minimal body roll along the lines of the Mini Cooper roadster. Instead, we initially were dismayed by the way the car heels over in tight turns. But the rolling does not have a major impact on tire grip around corners. And, on the highway and rough roads, the pliant suspension makes the Miata feel like a bigger car and provides a far more supple ride than the tightly-sprung Mini Cooper.

The car is rated at 27/34 mpg (8.7-6.9 L/100 km) city/highway for the manual transmission version with the automatic slightly better. In a 100-mile (161-km) leg of our testing where we drove like someone who cares about fuel economy, we logged 34.8 mpg (6.8 L/100 km)) with the 6-speed manual.

Three trim levels are available: Sport, starts at $24,915; Club, a more athletic performance variant begins at $28,600 and Grand Touring, a loaded-up premium version that starts at $30,065.

Competitors supposedly include sporty coupes such as the Scion F-RS and Subaru BRZ, but let’s get real. Those cars are aimed at maturing Gen Y buyers and convertible versions have been nixed.

The majority of Miata customers are empty-nest Baby Boomers, age 55-65. And Mazda officials say Miata’s strongest competition, especially for the pricier versions, doesn’t come from cars but other big-ticket items such as motorcycles, expensive vacations and big-screen TVs. In other words, to some prospective buyers, it’s just another experience that can be purchased.

But spend some time behind the wheel and you’ll find driving the new Miata isn’t just a fling. It is a time machine that transports drivers of a certain age to an era when true sports cars were affordable, everyone was young and beautiful and the future looked bright. And that makes it a car like no other.

 

’16 Mazda MX-5 Miata Specifications

 

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