2012 Mazda Miata: The Perfect Car?

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The Mazda Miata is – apparently  – the perfect car.

Or at the very least, an ageless and endlessly appealing car.

It is still selling well, despite no major changes in several years – and despite being not much different, really, in 2012 than it was waaaaay back in 1989 when the first one rolled off the line.

The only other cars I can think of that were similarly long-lived, largely unchanged during their lives and perpetually popular were the old VW Beetle and the Model T Ford.

That’s pretty proud company.

WHAT IT IS

The MX-5 Miata is a compact sized two-seat roadster. It is available with a manual cloth soft top or a power retractable hardtop.

The base Sport model with soft-top and five-speed stick starts at $23,190 (only $80 more than the 2011 model, FYI).

A loaded Grand Touring model with six-speed automatic and the retractable all-weather hardtop carries a sticker price of $26,820 (cheaper by about three grand than the same trim last year!)

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012

Other than the reduced MSRPs for 2012, the Miata’s the same car this year that it was last year. 2012 was originally supposed to the be the year that Mazda released a major update but apparently the tsunami this spring has put that on the back burner until the 2013 model year at the soonest.

WHAT’S GOOD

Still a blast to drive – and affordable to drive, too.

Excellent starting point for a weekend SCCA club racer you can also drive to work on Monday.

As agreeable commuting in heavy traffic as it is darting through S turns out in the country.

As tough and reliable as a Kimber 1911 .45 autoloader.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Like a great sport motorcycle or custom-tailored suit, this car won’t fit everyone. If you’re much over six feet or 200 pounds, this one’s probably not for you.

Base models still come with only a five speed stick. To get a six-speed stick you have to pay about three grand more to upgrade to the Grand Touring version.

This may be the final year before Mazda possibly fixes what aint’ broke.

UNDER THE HOOD

The Miata’s 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine produces 167 hp – same as it has for years. But the little engine has been strengthened internally with a new forged crankshaft and fully floating piston wrist pins, which allows the redline to be increased by 500 RPM to 7,500 RPM.

The base model Sport still comes with a five-speed manual even though most any new car that offers a manual transmission offers a six-speed manual.

A six-speed is available, but you’ve got to pony up $26,820 to get it. On the upside, this transmission features more than just tighter gear spacing for less rev drop between gear changes; it also features carbon coated internal cogs to enhance shift speed/feel as well as the durability of the transmission. For buyers considering weekend club racing, this is definitely the way to go.

A six-speed automatic with Active Adaptive Shift manual mode and paddle shifters comes standard in the mid-priced ($25,550) Touring trim.

With a wider operating range and more favorable gearing through the six-speed transmission, the Miata’s 0-60 time clocks in at about 7.3 seconds.

Gas mileage is pegged by the EPA at 22 city/28 highway for the five-speed-equipped Miata and 21 city, 28 highway for Miatas with the six-speed manual or the six-speed automatic.

It ought to go without saying that all Miatas are rear wheel drive.

ON THE ROAD

The Miata is not so much about high-horsepower or ferocious acceleration as it is about exceptional balance and agility – the quality the Japanese refer to as a rider who is one with his horse.

That pretty much sums it up.

A 0-60 time in the mid 7 second range is definitely not exceptional these days. A Camry is about as quick – and a base 2012 Mustang V-6 or Camaro will blow the Miata’s doors off in a drag race.

But few cars ever made make driving such an intimate, just-you-and-the-car experience as this one does.

The 2.0 liter engine sounds great (even better now, with revised intake tract tuning specifically designed to let the thing sing as the revs climb over 4,000 RPM) and the upgraded six-speed transmission is perfectly matched to it. While most automakers have gone to great lengths to cull all signs of mechanical life from their drivetrains and turn them into electric car-quiet appliances, the Miata will take you right back to the summer of ’69 – the good stuff, without the smelly Hippies. Throw the top back (the optional power hardtop is neat but this car doesn’t need it), point it down the road and just make tracks.

Available Bilstein shocks provide increased compression damping, which eliminates some of the bounciness the previous car was prone to when it encountered a dip in the middle of a fast corner. It now squats and settles with the firmness of a fully-prepped weekend racer. Some of the largest/most aggressive tires ever installed on a factory-built Miata are now available: P205/45R-17 Bridgestone Potenzas. These can be fitted to beautiful new-design 17-inch BBS wheels.

Recaro sport buckets are available, too – plus various dealer add-ons such as a body kit, etc.

Sort-of competitors like the BMW Z4 (and the old Honda S2000) have done their utmost to out-Miata the Miata, but there’s only one original. The Z4 is certainly quicker; the S2000 (with its almost 10,000 RPM powerband) felt more race car-like. But the Miata is still the best-balanced mix of back to basics sports car fun and everyday get-to-work-and-back liveability. It is also affordable (the Z4, which starts at $47,450 – isn’t), comfortable to drive in stop-and-go traffic(the S2000 wasn’t) and plausibly practical, because it doesn’t cost much to buy, feed or maintain.

It gets pretty good gas mileage; it’s known to be very durable; it has high resale value.

Really, what’s not to like?

AT THE CURB

For more than 20 years now, Mazda – wisely – hasn’t seriously messed with the Miata’s classic shape. Just a few minor updates along the way – such as a new trunklid spoiler, wider front and rear ends (with new design headlights) to cut down on wind resistance and cabin noise infiltration at high speed (the drag coefficient, or CD, drops to .032 for the retractable hardtop model).

These changes have been evolutionary and so are very subtle. Like the changes over the years to another Automotive Icon, the old Jaguar XJ-series sedan – which looked more or less the same from the late 1960s all the through the early oughts. The result is that Miatas age very well; an ’89 model still looks current – and the 2012 model will still look great 20 years from now.

Yeah, the Miata’s trunk is handbag puny – 5.3 cubic feet. It comes with the deal when you buy any two-seat compact roadster.

But Mazda built numerous hidey-holes and cubbies into the car’s cabin, including a bin between the driver and passenger seatbacks (this is where the pull release for the fuel filler door is located, too) and four small but serviceable cup holders.

The all-weather hardtop version (which only adds about 70 pounds to the car’s low 2,480 lb. curb weight) is also the least expensive retractable hardtop roadster currently available. VW’s Eos, for example, is the next-most “affordable” retractable hardtop on the market – and it starts at $33,995.  And the front-wheel-drive, two-plus-two Eos isn’t even trying to play i0n the same sandbox as the Miata, as far as being a sports car goes.

All the controls are simple and effective – including the pull-up emergency brake handle. In today’s market,most new cars come with a parking brake (no handle to pull up, just a pedal to push or a button to depress) which means you have no emergency brake in an emergency.  (you also can’t pull “Rockfords” with a pedal-type or push-button parking brake.)

THE REST

Miatas are famous for being be hard to kill, even when subjected to hard use. They can be raced all weekend long, then driven to work every day the next – without trouble, year after year after year. I have a friend who does exactly this with his ’92 – and that car is still his daily driver. He’s had to replace the tires a few times – and the clutch once.

But that’s it.

You rarely hear about anything major breaking – even cars with high mileage that have been seriously flogged.

They just go and go and go.

The other thing is, it’s easier to rationalize a Miata purchase than the purchase of a high-priced, fast-depreciating (and high maintenance and expensive to maintain) BMW, Lotus or similar. No offense. The Z4 and the Elise are great fun. So is the Porsche Boxster. But buying one of those cars is like acquiring a 21 year old girlfriend when you’re 55.

There will be costs involved.

On the other hand, laying out $23k for a Miata isno big deal. The car barely costs more than a decently equipped econo-box. It is an ideal low-cost commuter car – and it’s a helluva lot more appealing than a Prius.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It’s a living legend. Get one before they mess it up.

Throw it in the Woods?

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23 COMMENTS

  1. As a long time owner and 99.99th percentile driver of a Miata, I can’t say enough about this car. Puts some fun in your life and pick one up.

    Take some time to learns it’s limits or it will bite you. In the beginning you will believe it can do the impossible, but physics will not be usurped even by this little tarmac magician.

    Mileage …Try 28-40 MPG for the 1.6L models and a bit less every time the engine size goes up.

    Reliability..Like an anvil. My 93′ still has the original clutch and timing belt at 154,000 miles. Cost to repair, on par with an old VW Bug. Just upgraded the brakes with bigger rotors and pads…$118.00 for parts from NAPA. New radiator at 150,000 miles…$85.00 at the ‘Radiator Barn’. Clutch package around $115.00…check the net.

    Engine, tranny, and rear end can stand up to some serious abuse as testified to by ‘Spec Miata’ abuse and the HP numbers that the turbo modified engines produce and put to the ground. An example of the abuse they can take, here…> http://youtu.be/JYY6G1o_E74

    Paint still looks near new at 18 years of age. Interior the same, though I blew out the headrest speakers some time ago.

    My only upkeep for the first 150,000 miles has been brake pads and tires and they both last a very long time even with vigorous driving.

    You can pick up decent early models for as little $2,500. A friend just picked up a very nice 1999 for $4,500, with a hardtop..a highly recommended acquisition. My hardtop goes on the first of October and off the first of May.

    Almost as much fun as a Scoot, and a whole lot dryer and warmer…Grab one today…wait, next Spring, unless you live in the warmer climes. Learning to drive one of these on wet or icy roads isn’t the best idea even if you think you ‘know’ how to drive.

    Thanks for the great article on an automotive treasure, Eric.

    • Amen!

      My buddy down the road has several, including a Frankenstein track day car that is powered by a small block Ford and has a complete Corvette suspension underneath. God help him!

  2. I’ve owned a 1994 Miata (in 1996) and a 2003 Honda S2000 (in 2009). Both were bought at about 30K miles, the former for $11K on a cold December day, the latter for $16K on a nice November day (with inflation, probably evens out … NEVER buy one of these new as they depreciate a lot after a couple of years … each car was bought for about half its new value). At 6’2″ with size 13 feet, the Miata was only bearable for a year and a half. But the Honda fits MUCH better: I have room to wiggle my knees and space between the clutch and dead pedal, and I could wear a cowboy hat with the top up (the latest gen Miata I would bang my head on every bump). There’s a big myth about S2000s in automotive reviews about not having enough torque for stop-and-go, everyday driving. It’s just that: a MYTH!!! It will purr along like a Civic or Accord in commuter traffic at low RPMs, and when the road opens up, rev that redline up to 9000 and let that tiger roar! Considering I get an extra 100 horses with only a 2 mpg penalty, the S2000 is the intelligent choice … and they are becoming more and more of a bargain on the used market.

    • The size thing is interesting! I’m about the same height (but my shoes are size 11) and for me, the Miata fits better. It goes to show that you’ve got to personally test fit your body into whatever car you’re considering. Even people of the exact same height have different length legs/tosos, are wider (or narrower) through the hips and shoulders, etc.

      • Both could use an adjustable telescoping/tilting steering column (which I love about my Mazda 6). The main issue I find for us tall, long-legged people is getting the steering wheel a little closer to the chest and away from our knees so we don’t bump them on the wheel as we work the pedals. Aftermarket steering wheels with column spacers (I used one in a CRX to cure its Italian “gorilla” driving layout, otherwise a VERY roomy small sports car) are available (Momo, Grant) but you lose the airbag. I did get a lowered seat rail kit from Japan for the S2000, which lowers the seat an extra inch and helps a little. The S2000 is quite comfortable on long highway stretches, while the 1st gen Miata my outside thighs were pressed against the door/center console, my knees spread bowlegged and touching the steering wheel, my feet in the slimmest shoes possible and still cramped, and my neck craned down to look out the windshield. (I’m slim to medium build, by the way.)

        • I’ll second your motion for a tilt wheel in the Miata. That’s about the only thing I really think is missing (although a turbo would be nice).

  3. I recently, for fun, looked around for a more recent Miata (current body style) just to see what folks are paying. These things hold their value like crazy. You can often find used BMW Z3s or Z4s selling for less.

    I suppose the autocross market has a lot to do with it, but not only is this a solid car to own/drive/race, it’s a smart purchase if you ever want to sell in the future.

    Too bad I don’t fit well in them.

  4. I like the Miata. From what I hear, the new one is supposed to just be lighter, and more powerful. Good things, if true. The NC I drove was an 08 or 09 I think, and fell flat on it’s face above 3500 rpms, complete deal breaker for me since I was cross-shopping a rotary, and ended up with an RX7 turbo. Good to hear they cleaned that up.

    • I’ve driven several rotary powered Rxs… lots of fun…. but… would you want to be the owner after about 50,000 miles? Mazda says the sealing issues have been dealt with, but I dunno…. meanwhile, the Miata may be slower, but it is almost unkillable. And if you don’t try to kill it, it’ll usually be tight even at 100,000-plus miles, with many more yet to go…. that works for me!

      • I’m no expert, far from it, but I think the guy who had previously owned my non-turbo RX-7 went a lot farther than 100,00 miles before he had new seals put in and he wasn’t particularly zealous about oil changes either – perhaps every five thousand miles if that. I read somewhere that frequent oil changes are the best maintenance. Perhaps with full synthetic oil after the break-in period the seals will never wear out or even wear for that matter but I’m only guessing. I currently use semi-synthetic and don’t detect any depletion of the oil level between changes.

      • Certainly agree with all that. I have a reliable enough driver that I can splurge when it comes to my fun car. The 7 I had only came with a gutted exhaust, I got a tuned ECU, but it was hell on wheels. However, it literally killed you from the fumes, interior was falling apart, I had to refurbish the coolant system entirely, etc, etc. You definitely have to like working on cars. I’m a sucker for the high RPMs.
        But it was a fun experience. The RX8 vs the Miata? No comparison. Without a turbo a rotary is a waste of time. I actually like the NA Miata best.

  5. Excellent article Eric. As I stated before, I own a ’97 Miata and have fallen in love with her. At first I shared mikepizzo’s sentiments; I thought she was plain and kinda’ slow. But I figured out that you can indeed wind her up to 6500 and 7000 RPM every day, every hole shot and never worry about a thing. I consistently get 30 MPG with mine and when I drive with moderation a little better. I’m 5’11” and 190# so she fits me perfectly. I bought her about 2 years ago for $3K and got the removeable hardtop to boot (which based on eBaY prices means I got the car for about 2K).

    Admittedly, the trunk is small but a polished stainless luggage rack gave me a nice retro look and additional hauling capacity. I took this car from the Kansas City area back home to Tidewater Virginia in 2009. The real fun was in the mountains. I dropped off the interstate and hit the secondary roads through western Virginia and Tennessee; It was a blast! The whole trip cost me less than $250 in gas (including running around Virginia the week I was back home). Let me see you buy a plane ticket and rent a car for that!

    I think methylamine and I share pretty much the same sentiments; the MX-5 is the best compromise for economy, reliability and sportiness available today.

    • In 20 years of writing new car reviews, the Miata is without question the most consistently appealing sporty car I’ve had the pleasure to drive! In addition to its stellar qualities as a car, it has the additional merit of being “cheap fun.” To me, part of the enjoyment of a car or a bike is that it doesn’t impoverish me, or weigh me down with debt. As you mention, you can pick up a used Miata for about what you’d pay to get a boring used economy car – and even a new one hardly costs more than a basic transpo sedan. And once you’ve bought it, the upkeep costs are minimal and the downtime costs almost nonexistent.

      Just drive… and grin!

  6. It’s a matter of taste. I find the Miata to be very unappealing. Granted, it handles well. But acceleration wise, its a real dog….a fat, ten year old dog with arthritis. A “Real Sports Car” should offer handling and power in proportional, balanced amounts….like for instance, Nissan’s Z Car.

    I’d rather be seen in a minivan than a Miata, any day. If I’m going to go that slow, might as well be able to haul a lot of cargo too.

    • I appreciate different strokes/different folks – no argument on that score. And I also like the 370Z a lot. Except it’s several thousand dollars more to buy and probably costs a lot more to insure, too!

  7. I am the proud owner of a 1990 Miata. It is everything you say it is and more. Love that car.

    I have had to make a few repairs: Wheel bearing hubs, light switches, power window motors, and an oil leak or two. But you have to expect stuff like that with a 20 year old car. She’s paid for, fun to drive, and reliable. I don’t mind spending some on repairs. There has been nothing major with the engine and it still seems to run like new.

    Plus I love the cool pop-up headlamps.

  8. I bought my ’92 Miata a year ago–for 2500 bucks!– to save track wear-and-tear on the M5. These days, I drive it more than the BMW because it’s just So Much Fun.

    And yes–they’re bulletproof. Part of the pleasure of owning it is knowing that even if I do something amazingly stupid like accidentally grab 2nd gear when I was going for 4th and frag the engine–no big deal, go to the local Mazda-only junkyard and pick up a new core for $750, add a few hundred for a basic rebuild and voila back on the road.

    There’s not a part of this car you can’t work on, easily.

    The suspension is a thing of beauty; how many sub-$25K cars brag front and rear double-A-arm suspension? The engine is a gem, and if you feed it decent oil (that being Royal Purple) I think it would run at redline until the sun exhausts its hydrogen.

    If I could only find a four-seat version of this exact car I’d happily lose every stoplight drag race the rest of my life for the pleasure of carving corners in a light, perfectly balanced little joy of a machine.

    • The guy I mentioned in the review – my neighbor down the road – runs the snot out of his and it …just won’t die.
      I hope Mazda doesn’t mess with a winning recipe; some tweaks, ok – but I hope they don’t go for a major 180 redesign that changes the basic goodness of the car.

  9. I’d love to own a Miata, or MX-5, or whatever it is they’re calling it these days. Unfortunately, as this article correctly observes, the little Mazda is designed to accommodate folks of short to just-average height. At 6’3″, I’m forced to keep shopping (I’m literally unable to sit behind the wheel of the cramped S2000.)

    I always had plenty of legroom in my MGBs. I wonder if the expansive footboxes in those little roadsters was a result of the original designer not being constrained by the need for crumple zone designs intruding on the passenger compartment.

    • When I used to go to the chicago auto show regularly if I was going with someone whom I had not gone with before I would sit in a Miata for them. Not only is there no room for my legs my entire head is typically _above_ the windshield.

      Some years ago I went to a Mazda autocross event for the then new mazda 6. One of the side attractions was to drive the Miata through an overly twisty autocross course. I could barely work the clutch and I alternated with my head above the windshield and scrunched down looking through it. The car really handled well… but I can’t drive like that for more than a few minutes 😉

    • I know the feeling. The newer body style is slightly longer and wider than the previous gens. I’m 6’3″ and can just barely fit in and drive a late model Miata, but it wouldn’t be doable for racing or daily driving. Just enough to help family deliver the car across town.

      For what it’s worth, I fit fine in the Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky. But they’re just not the same quality.

    • I’m almost 6’5″, and I can fit into my S2000. I modified the seat to lower it about 2 1/2 inches.

      It’s even more fun than the Mazda, and I got my pristine example with 28,000 miles for $18,000 from a doctor who didn’t drive it much for ten years. It’s by far the best automotive purchase I’ve ever made.

  10. I can’t be the only one who thinks the new Mazda Miata looks remarkably like the Bugeye Sprite.

    That’s appropriate. It’s the same kind of automobile, namely an authentic sports car at a bargain basement price, barely more the cost of an boring econobox.

    Mazda, keep making the MX-5. Don’t mess with success. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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