First drive: 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata [Review]
We, as automotive journalists, operate in an awkward space. When we are reviewing cars, we are tasked with giving our opinion–an undertaking that is fundamentally at odds with what are, for many, deeply ingrained journalistic principles.
We’ve been taught to report facts and explain details in a succinct and digestible manner–to avoid any and all semblance of personal bias. It is second-nature for us to go to great lengths to avoid the appearance of subjectivity. As a result, when we find some aspect of a car appealing, we seek to quantify that characteristic in a way that we can defend logically.
Some publications have even tried to make this characteristic count in numerical scoring (just what is the “Gotta Have It!” factor, and would you say it’s more or less important a category than, say, rear hip room?). And this cuts two ways: it gives the authors enough wiggle room to either give the win to a car they genuinely like despite its on-paper shortcomings or take the crown away from one whose numbers add up but, for whatever reason, the authors wish to shun.
Why play in this grey area at all? Why allow the ambiguity? If only we could simply own up to our opinions.
After all, the best car is not always the right car. What’s so dangerous about saying, “We like this car; we think you might too.”?
Let’s face it: car enthusiasts rarely make buying decisions based on the numbers. Numbers are for bragging rights and forum fights. When was the last time a Consumer Reports article was the deciding factor in a car guy’s weekend toy purchase? Numbers demonstrate many things–outright speed, cornering grip, lap times–but you simply can’t quantify the connection between car and driver.
Pascal (between rigorous defenses of the scientific method) said, “The heart has its reasons which reasons know not of.” Rationality has its place, if you’re trying to decide between a Honda Accord and a Volkswagen Passat.
Let’s get this out of the way quickly, shall we? The 2016 MX-5 is new from the ground up. It’s a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive, two-seater drop top. It’ll do 0-60 in about six seconds and run the quarter mile somewhere in the mid-high 14s, which isn’t bad when you consider the only engine option is a two-liter, 155-horsepower four-cylinder that was essentially lifted straight out of a Mazda3 and re-tuned for premium fuel.
MX-5 engineer Dave Coleman pointed out to program attendees that, “The engine is usually the least important part of a Miata.”
The small engine doesn’t make a ton of torque (148 lb-ft at 4,600 RPM), but it doesn’t need much either. Equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission, the 2016 MX-5 tips the scales at an almost impossibly low 2,332lbs. For those keeping score at home (stop it), that’s basically the same as a 1.8L-equipped first-generation Miata and 100lbs below the outgoing model. If you prefer your top-down cruising a bit more relaxed, a six-speed automatic is also available for a mere 60lb penalty.
The new MX-5 represents a pretty significant visual departure from the previous car. It’s more aggressive and more sculpted just about everywhere (cut it off from both fenders outward and you’d struggle to tell the new car from the old, but that’s cheating). LED headlights are standard on all trims to shorten the front overhang (small lamps = small nose) and some interior sacrifices have been made in the name of size and space. Glovebox? Gone. Center console cup holders? Gone–replaced by modular elbow-bashers, one of which can also be (in)conveniently relocated to a space normally occupied by the passenger’s left knee. Remember: driving matters; riding, not so much.
“Shifting is more important than drinking in a sports car,” Coleman said in our pre-drive briefing.
Mazda’s engineers added lightness, but did they simplify? In a word, yes. The MX-5 is now available in three trims with limited options. The base model is the Sport, which comes standard with LED headlamps (with halogen DRLs), USB charging, 16-inch wheels and a cloth top. Gone are the days of poverty-spec five-speed transmissions and vinyl roofs.
The next trim up is the Club, which is the one you want. This gets you 17-inch gunmetal wheels, LED DRLs, some fancy body trim (special front air dam, rear air dam and lip spoiler) and a Bose audio system, along with a few extra interior upgrades. Most importantly, however, it adds a limited-slip differential, a shock tower brace and a sport-tuned suspension, as long as you keep the six-speed manual. Automatic models need not apply for the fun bits.
As an added bonus, this is the only trim on which the BBS wheel and Brembo brake package is available. The BSS wheels keep the Club’s standard wheel diameter, but feature a different offset to clear the larger brake calipers and are forged for better strength and lighter weight. Adding this package also means an upgrade to advanced keyless entry (hands-free) and some additional visual upgrades. Think of this as the grandson of the first-gen’s R Package.
At the top of the heap (sort of, and we’ll get to that) is the Grand Touring. It’s loaded, as you might expect. The GT gets an insulated headliner, auto-dimming mirrors, leather seating surfaces, an upgraded Bose system (more speakers) and rain-sensing wipers along with additional cosmetic upgrades. But unlike previous years, the GT model is no longer a real enthusiast option. There’s no LSD and no sport suspension here, and the BBS/Brembo package is not available on this trim. No longer is an “all boxes checked” Miata a guarantee that you’ll get the fun parts. Buyer beware.
The good part
You made it.
Mazda’s MX-5 media drive took us on a tour of the area surrounding the Angeles Crest Highway, which is an over-the-river-and-through-the-woods type route through the San Gabriel Mountains outside (you guessed it) Los Angeles. The roads were fast, winding and full of cyclists. Picture an hours-long autocross course where you can’t see the corners and the cones have minds of their own. Mazda chose wisely.
The Miata is a rock star on these roads, encouraging and forgiving even the worst journalistic shenanigans. From the snick-snick gearbox to the low curb weight and yes, even the somewhat unimpressive powerplant, everything came together perfectly.
If you’ve pushed the previous-generation Miata hard, doing the same with the 2016 will feel odd at first. The rear suspension has been re-engineered to change initial turn-in characteristics. Where the outgoing car would step out slightly on turn-in before taking a seat, the new car skips the former and goes straight to the latter. While the suspension is communicative and responsive, it’s not particularly firm (no matter what you may have read, stock Miatas have always been soft), so you’ll feel the weight transition as the MX-5 settles in its line, but there’s no hip-check first. The 2016 tucks and goes, which is a far more intuitive to drivers of all skill levels.
With the Club model, we found that the Bilsteins made for a relatively harsh ride at low speeds and over broken pavement. We expected that to translate to a more hunkered-down feeling at speed, but that wasn’t so. The 2016 rolls–as the Miata always has–and that’s a shame, but it’s not a yacht-like sensation by any means. In cars with plush suspensions and tons of travel, the driver can often feel the slack being taken up in the suspension in response to steering inputs. Not so here. Small inputs result in small course corrections, not just chassis heave.
The steering is also lighter on-center, but more progressive. There’s no need to shuffle-steer on even the tightest corners along this route, and a gentle grip at 9:00 and 3:00 delivers excellent feedback. The driver always knows what the Miata is doing, good or bad.
What of the intangibles? If you’ve never driven a Miata before, this is the most difficult part of the experience to impart. If you’ve driven one Miata, you’ve driven them all in a way. The 2016 brings the best of modern engineering to a formula to which the car has held true since its debut in 1990, back when autojournos, still reeling from the retreat of British roadsters, used words like “rorty” to describe the character of an engine.
It is not the best numbers car for the money. It’s not the sharpest handler ( Subaru BRZ/ Scion FR-S). It’s not the quickest ( Ford Mustang, probably). It’s not the most comfortable or anything remotely approaching practical ( Volkswagen GTI). You can barely fit human beings in it, let alone their accoutrements.
The best way to describe the Miata’s character is “willing.” It’s the car you can always count on to show up and give 100%. Can it beat its peers around a track? Probably not, but it’ll try. Can it out-accelerate the Camry in the next lane? 50/50, but it’s game. It may fail, but it’ll have fun doing it. And it’ll always come back for more.
Leftlane’s bottom line
The 2016 MX-5 is a Miata through-and-through. Bearing in mind all context and caveats, it’s bar-none the best kicks-for-cash value out there. We like this car; we think you might too.
2016 MX-5 Miata Sport, base price: $24,915; Destination, $820
2016 MX-5 Miata Club, base price: $28,600; BBS and Brembo Package, $3,400; Destination, $820 (As-tested price: $32,820)
2016 MX-5 Miata Grand Touring, base price: $30,065; Destination, $820. (As-tested price, $30,885)
Exterior photos by Byron Hurd.
First drive: 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata [Review] Reviewed by Byron Hurd on July 31 Mazda’s fourth-generation roadster is leaner and meaner. Rating: 4.5