It’s easy to forget there are still cars that are about driving rather than transportation. Cars that make the trip more appealing than the destination.
Such a car is the Mazda Miata. It makes you want to go for a drive even when you don’t need to – and makes you want to not get where you’re going before you absolutely have to be there.
There are, of course, other cars that can instill such sentiments. But very few of them – if any of them – are all of the other things the Miata is.
It is a sports car you can drive like a race car that gives economy car mileage and longevity. That holds its vale – and you interest.
Which is probably why it has outlasted – and outsold – every other sports car that has tried to copy what it has always done better than any of them .
The Miata is an unusual Mazda. It is the only two-door, soft-top, rear-wheel-drive and manual-transmission-equipped car Mazda still sells. That combination also makes it unusual as far as what anyone else sells, these days – as there are few cars being made anymore, period – and even fewer convertibles and almost none with manual transmissions.
The handful that still are available are much larger – and much more expensive. They are also less practical, in part because of their high cost but also their usually thirsty appetite.
This probably explains why the Miata is so popular.
Prices start at $26,830 for the base Sport trim, which comes standard with a manual-folding soft-top as well as a six speed manual transmission.
A six speed automatic is available optionally.
Club versions – which sticker for $30,290 to start – add a shock tower brace, limited slip differential and Bilstein shock absorbers to enhance the car’s already nimble handling. Also included are heated seats and an upgraded nine-speaker Bose audio system, three more speakers than come standard in the Sport trim.
Top-of-the-line Grand Touring trims – which sticker for $31,770 to start – get an upgraded, more insulated soft-top, automatic climate control, leather seating surfaces, heated outside mirrors and automatic headlights, among other amenities upgrades.
There is also the Miata RF – for those who don’t want a manual-top. It has a partially (and electrically) opening targa top, which means a center roof section that slides back but side panels that remain up. The idea being a functional and visual mid-way point in between a convertible and a hardtop.
It is otherwise identical to the Miata roadster and stickers for $33,045 to start. It comes standard with all of the Club equipment and trim, too. A top-of-the-line Grand Touring stickers for $34,525.
There’s no direct cross-shop for either version of the Miata. The generally similar BMW Z4 has a very dissimilar starting price ($49,700) and comes with an automatically (electronically) folding soft top and an automatic transmission only. The Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang convertibles are available with soft-tops and manual transmissions, but they are much larger, four-seater cars that also come with much larger price tags: $32,655 to start for the Mustang and $31,500 for the Camaro convertible.
The Corvette is a two-seater, offers a manual and a soft top – but it’s a mid-engined V8-powered exotic with an exotic car’s price tag: $66,400 to start.
That leaves the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ twins as the Miata’s only real direct competition. They are about the same size and generally similar in layout – but they are hardtops only and they’re off the market right now. They are supposedly coming back – updated – in 2022. But for now, the Miata’s got the road all to itself.
Very little – which is very good.
The key to the Miata’s success is not messing with what makes it successful. The current Miata is basically the same Miata, with no significant changes made since the 2016 model year – when just a few minor changes were made. But nothing that altered the Miata-ness of the car, which has been largely the same car since its 1989 introduction.
This year, you can get white leather seat covers.
A true sports car that almost anyone can afford to buy – and to drive.
“Connected” – in the old-school sense. Everything this car does you control – from the manual soft-top to the manual changing of the gears.
As reliable as a Corolla – as fun as a Corvette.
What’s Not So Good
You have to pony up for the Club to get the Bilstein shocks and shock tower brace; it’d be nice if there were available as stand-alone options for the base Sport trim – for those who don’t want to pay extra for the heated seats, upgraded stereo and other amenities that come with the Club.
Touchscreen/mouse controller for the stereo detracts from the otherwise exemplary simplicity of this car’s functionality.
Wear cargo pants – so you’ll have pockets to keep your stuff in.
All Miatas come with the same 2.0 liter DOHC four cylinder engine, which comes with a 181 horsepower rating, the peak made at 7,000 RPM and the engine willing (and allowed) to rev past that, considerably. This is an engine that was designed to be worked – and does its best work behind the standard six speed manual transmission, which makes revving it not just easy but a pleasure.
You can opt for a six speed automatic – but very few Miata buyers do so. An automatic Miata is kind of like going for a swim while wearing pants. It can be done – but why would you do it?
The engine is born to run – with a very high 13.0:1 compression ratio yet runs fine on regular 87 octane unleaded, which it sips at an almost-economy-car rate. The sticker says you can travel 34 highway miles on a gallon of gas, that being a function of the Mazda’s very light curb weight of just over 2,300 lbs. for the Sport roadster and the tall gearing in sixth, which enables placid low RPM cruising at highway speeds. In city driving, the mileage dips to 26 but the average is still close to 30 – which is remarkable for a high-performance roadster and a big part of what makes this roadster one you can afford to drive – every day.
The automatic delivers slightly better mileage but at the cost of driving fun. Also, you cannot get the limited slip differential with the automatic – probably for the same reason that you can’t fly a jet if you’re only rated to handle a prop job.
The engine is mounted front to back, the Miata being a rear-drive car. This is functionally desirable (in a sports car) both when it’s moving and when it’s not. As when you raise the hood, to work on the engine. Though the Miata is a small car, there is plenty of room under the hood for the engine – on either side. You can easily lay hands on all the vitals – not that this is necessary more than very occasionally. But when you must, you can – which is a huge relief vs. the sideways-mounted engines in front-drive sporty cars that have one side of the engine inaccessibly snugged up against the firewall, which makes laying hands on anything that side of the engine an exercise in knuckle-busting ingenuity as well as a test of patience.
Beside which, the Miata’s engine position looks good when you raise the hood. And Mazda knows it. There’s no ugly black plastic cover to cover up something unpleasing to the eye. Instead, the engine lays fully exposed, with a beautiful cast aluminum cam cover serving as the centerpiece. Mazda also fully paints the underside of the hood, so it glistens as much as the topside. Most car companies don’t spray clearcoat on the underside (or the underside of the trunk) to save a few bucks, figuring no one cares.
People who buy Miatas do – and so it shows.
On The Road
If you want to remember what it was like to enjoy driving again, take a drive in this car. It does not “assist” you – with anything. It is up to you to shift the gears – and to keep the car in its lane. There is no tug on the steering wheel, to countermand your steering inputs (as happens in cars equipped with Lane Keep Assist, if you dare to change lanes or turn off the road without signaling first). The engine stays on until you turn it off. There is no automatic start-stop “technology.”
There is only you – and the car.
And gauges, by god. Mechanical needle tach and speedo, which dance along with the inputs made by your right foot and right hand, your left leg serving as conductor of this opera. The top does not leak – rain – but you can hear the world outside, rushing past. Which makes you not want to feel asleep, as if in bed.
With the top down, you are in the world – a part of it. Rush’s classic song, Red Barchetta, is this car’s anthem. Sans only the real wood. But the scent of country air, the glint of the landscape, every nerve aware – it’s all there.
It is difficult to convey the experience in words. It must be . . . experienced. The direct, connected feel of the gears engaged, by you. The revs building, as demanded – also by you. When to shift? That, too, is entirely up to you. Mazda leaves the engine free to spin to beyond the redline – which indicates it is capable of it and that you are capable of knowing when to back off, stab the clutch and grab the next gear.
There is no car that is better balanced than this steel and glass ballerina, which pirouettes through the curves as the dancer it is. Throttle up, post apex and feel your way through; if you like a little tail-out roostering, just give it a bit more throttle – and let off when you want it to snap back. But as expert as this car is, you do not need to be an expert to enjoy it – as is the case for some others, that need a push into a Zone where you had better know what you are doing if you want to come out of it all in one piece.
The Miata is great fun at any speed. On the track – or headed to work. Just ambling along – or gung-ho.
It is approachable and likable.
It is also economical, a quality that makes it perfectly reasonable to buy a Miata for the everyday drive. It is a car that doesn’t burn much more gas than many economy cars and because it is so lithe and compact, it snugs easily into parkings spots – where it can be left unattended with much less worry than might attend the leaving alone, curbside, of a new Corvette or Z4 BMW.
The Miata is a very small car – something very few cars are, anymore. It is only 154.1 inches stem to stern, which for some sense of proportions is more than two feet smaller, foot-print-wise, than a compact-sized sedan like the current Honda Civic (182.7 inches long).
You don’t so much as drive the Miata as wear it. This being part of the connectedness of this car. You and it merge into one. The passenger is an afterthought – as evidenced by the hilarious insert-here cupholder that dangles off the right-side of the car’s center console into the passenger’s space. You can take someone along for the ride but this car is fundamentally an intimate date for two.
Further evidence of this intention being the 4.9 cubic foot trunk, which means you’ll probably need the passenger seat for your stuff. Still, the trunk is more usable than the specifications suggest. I was able to easily fit four bags of drainage gravel in there. It isn’t wide, but it’s fairly deep.
Another aspect of intimacy is the top, which you can literally just toss back whenever you feel like it. Most modern roadsters have electronic-lowering tops, which lower when and how the programming decrees it. You usually have to stop, completely – and then wait for the electric motors to do their thing. In the Miata, just unlock the catches at the top of the windshield, throw – and stow.
If you prefer something fancier, there’s the RF – which has electronic/automatic retraction.
Nothing is perfect in this world and the Miata is not exception. The one thing that mars the car’s otherwise Zen is Mazda’s Multi-Media Interface (MMI), which involves multi-step processes to do things – like change the radio station – that could be more easily done one-step, as by turning a knob. With MMI, you must first select the function – for example, the << and >> to go up or down the dial. And then activate the << or the >> to go up or down. And then, find the right input, next time you need to do it again.
This contrasts markedly with the simple, Zen-functional rotary knobs you turn left or right to raise or lower the AC’s cold or the heater’s heat. If the Miata had similar controls for the stereo, it would be Zen perfect.
The Bottom Line
This car harkens back to a better, vanished time. When cars were fun because we connected with them – as opposed to being connected to impersonal, peremptory technology. If you want to remember what it is was like – and snatch back a piece of it – this is the car that’ll bring back those memories.
And help you make some new ones, too.
. . .
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Have you looked at, owned or driven the ultra-lights? One of the most popular was the 1957 Lotus super 7, it was the 2nd most copied car on the planet (the Cobra was number 1), 160 companies made copies of the super 7, the Caterham was the only legal copy, they sued everyone else, they bought the rights from Lotus. A super 7 clone a Donkervoort with a 400 hp Audi 1.8 20vt 4 cyl., 1200 lb curb weight, had the lap record at the nurburgring for street legal cars in 2003 and 2004 7 min 13 sec.,Tesla Model S Plaid Nürburgring 7 min 35 sec….slow compared to super 7 clone Donkervoort…. . The newest Donkervoort is the first street car that will corner at 2G’s. A super 7 clone a Dutton with a 434 ci chev V8 with a 2 speed auto trans. is the quickest kit car on the planet (1/4 mile), it ran 8.90 sec in the 1/4 mile. The super 7’s are cool they weigh 1/2 as much as a Miata or Cobra, the ultimate direct analog, unfiltered, raw, visceral driving experience, they are great track cars. I bought a super 7 clone and love it, I always loved small light cars, the super 7 is perfect. These cars are very green they use 1/3 of the materials to build compared to the average vehicle, they are very fuel efficient, lightweight, so they are easy on brakes and tires, easy to wrench on, very low depreciation, collectible. Buy one you will love it, or at least drive one, the ultimate driving experience.
some ultra light track cars
What a great car, and great review. Thanks Eric.
I think Mazda ‘not messing with success’ is the key.
The car has been a staple in the AutoX racing world for a long time.
Question as to compare, say, against Mustang GT convertible with manual transmission. One of these days, I might splurge on a fun car. However, I cannot get over the 400+HP of the Mustang. How does the Miata, with half the HP of the ‘Stang, compare? Just in the general fun category, no racetracks, etc. But I’m still in my working years and commuting with sub 200 HP cars suck. I would imagine I’d still be commuting, so anybody can do a passing move w/400+HP. How does a small sports car, like the Miata, stack up?
These are two profoundly different, yet similar cars. Both rear-drive convertible coupes. But the Mustang is a huge, heavy car in comparison. Also a more acceleration-focused car. It is a broadsword to the Miata’s rapier. You wear the Miata, as I mentioned. The Mustang feels like a suit of armor. It is in some ways more practical, having rear seats and more trunk. But it is considerably more expensive and uses much more fuel (with the V8).
I liken driving the Miata to riding my motorcycle; it is a very direct, involving – connected – experience. You work the car; you become one with it. The Mustang is easier to drive fast because of its immense power but it is also a car you have to drive faster to feel as connected with. This presents problems on the street. You have to kick it up so much that you risk severe repercussions if anything goes wary (or a cop is coming the other way).
I recommend a test drive of both, one after the other – and then you’ll have an idea what I mean!
That was a beautiful review, Eric. You poured in a lot of love and adoration.
I also got a chuckle out of you picking up drainage gravel in your press Miata. Way to put her to the test.
It’s nice to have a car that kick starts my heart once in awhile… and, hopefully, that came through in the review. Cars are supposed to be about emotion as much as function. It is so sad to me that, in the main, they have become appliances. That shows, too, when I write about such… .
I love that getting the higher trim actually gets you a car with better performance. A pet peave of mine is when cars have a “sport” trim that doesn’t do anything to make the car sportier. GM is particularly bad at this.
I agree, though I would prefer it if some of these items – the shock tower brace and Bilstein shocks, for example – were available separately for the buyer who just wants more capability, not the additional amenities. Indeed, as I consider the press car Miata I’m driving, I think: Wouldn’t it be great if one could “delete option” the LCD touchscreen – and the mouse/trackpad controller in the center console? I’d much rather have a simple stereo in the dash – and use the space made on the center console by eliminating the control for the LCD screen for a small cubby to hold keys and such!
A bare-bones “club racer” version would be the ticket. AC and power windows; that’s it. Maybe not even AC, to save weight and cost. This car can get away without it. If it had operable wing vents, it’d be fine without it. And probably 50-75 pounds lighter and $1,000 less expensive. Manual everything else. The base Sport is very close to this, as it is – just nix the stupid touchscreen.
I agree, Eric. I hate the stupid iPad in every car. But it’s not the fault of the manufacturer, it’s to comply with the stupid rear-view camera rule that is now required on all cars. (Of course, the mfgrs are complicit in the steal, but that’s the playing field where the game is played)
Based on an article you wrote years ago, I bought a Miata and used it as my daily driver for 5 years (120,000 miles). It was the most fun, comfortable, fun, cheap, fun, reliable car I’ve ever had. I actually looked forward to my 70-mile commute twice a day. It’s not as powerful as a V8 but getting to 100mph is quick and easy and you’re so low and connected to the car that even 60mph is a real rush. Over 100k miles and the only repair was a thermostat. Ten bucks and ten minutes and I was back on the road.
I’m in New England and so bought a set of extra wheels and put snow tires on ’em. Ten minutes with a floor jack and I was set for winter. I drove this little guy year-round, only staying home on the worst blizzard days.
Every once in a blue Moon, I am tempted by a new car. The Miata always tempts me. I cannot say enough in favor of it. The thing puts a smile on my face just thinking of it. Driving it takes it to another emotional level. And then there is the sensibility of it. Inexpensive. Very easy on gas. Low maintenance and very long-lived. Much as I enjoy cars like the Hellcat Redeye I drove a few weeks back, I’d much rather own a Miata.
Sounds like a really fun car to drive. My question for Eric or anyone else who knows. I recently purchased a 2002 T-bird, I am 6’3″ 200 pounds. If I were any bigger I would not fit in the T-bird. I have about two inches clearance/headroom and just the right amount of legroom. Anyone who knows what is the biggest person that can comfortably fit in the Miata with the top up?
I had intended to keep my T-bird forever. As a Sunday driver it is great therapy. I am coming to the conclusion that many parts won’t be available or easy to source, unless they are fabricated, which as of now is outside my wheel house. Are the Miatas parts more readily available since it has been in production so long.
Thanks to anyone who knows. the answers.
Why ya gotta go write timely articles Eric? Here I am trying to let go of a recent decision and here you are trying to make me regret it. No fault of yours, but I just sold my Miata 2 weeks ago. A 1990 made in Dec 89. I owned it for 19 years. It is truly sad to let it go because I probably will never get to shift a manual tranny again.
Quote: “It is difficult to convey the experience in words. It must be . . . experienced.” No truer words have been said. I think the best way to describe it is what a miata forum member called their car back in the day, “rollerskate”.
Jay Leno has a great vid on the net about the Miata too. He inherited one from his brother and loves it.
Funny, but that’s what I called my Miata, “My rollerskate”! Because it really felt more like you wore it than got in it.
not only is it a manual its the worlds best manual. A pure delight to shift. If theres a better one made I’d like to see it. Back when the germans still made them – maybe – but I dont plan on getting a volkswagen gti. The engine sounds like a blast to drive. Not too powerful so that you have to wind it – perfect! Tough to justify for interstate driving but if I had some two lanes around heck yeah.
Two-finger shifting. Short throw. Plus, it somehow knew which gear you wanted. If you are in fourth and wanted to downshift, you just pushed it up and it would go into third. If you wanted to upshift, it would go into fifth. The Japanese call this “Jinba Ittai”, “the oneness of horse and rider”, to describe the sensation.
That sounded like marketing fluff, but putting some miles on this thing, I can see what they mean.
I have to wonder what it costs to insure this elegant vehicle from a more civilized time. One of the big reasons for all the automation and driver assist is that the assumption is automobiles are inherently dangerous, so you get a discount. No automation, no discounts, and probably a higher base rate. Without the giant A pillar and reenforced roof rollover “protection” the crash test ratings are probably lower. It’s pretty much impossible to have side curtain airbags if there’s no door frame. And add in that it is often tuned up for racing. Of course there will be the theft problem. It was fairly common back in the 90’s to see ragtops with a knife slit and missing stereo. Now that the cities have solved petty crime by ignoring it I imagine a convertible is an invitation.
Upside is that it probably won’t be a primary vehicle for most buyers these days, so there won’t be a lot of miles logged. And most of the buyers will probably know how to properly operate the thing, especially if they know what that third pedal does. But mostly I think the scales tilt toward the target audience being the 50+ crowd. That multi-line discount on the policy probably makes it inherently safer than a WRX.
I’m curious as to the headroom as well on the newer miata, I thoroughly test drove a late 90s model once as I was seriously considering buying it. Had to pass on it though, at 6’3″ the top of the windshield was exactly at eye level, just wasn’t a comfortable car. Ended up buying a late 80s Toyota MR2, now that was a fantastic little car, probably the most nimble car I’ve driven. Something about coupes that’s endearing, 15 years and 3 kids later rolling 5 deep in my 2dr Riviera. The complete antithesis of the miata, like driving a luxurious sofa down the road lmao
Nice review. Makes me want one. I know of some people who own older ones and absolutely love them. The closest I’ve ever come to that is a 1970’s MGB ragtop. It was pure joy to drive. I can only imagine the Miata is That Much better.
…If saner days ever return.
I bought a new Miata in ’97 and kept it nine years, which speaks well for it. Currently drive a 2020 Z4 and, at 73, hope I’m still able to drive it after nine years. No point arguing which is best; they are both great cars!
Mazda’s really are fun to drive, my 2003 Ford Escape was a collaboration with Mazda (see Tribute) and it shows, I call it the go-cart of SUVs.
Took the daughter’s 2015 Mazda 6 for spin this morning what a kick, 35 corners at 50 = fun! Wish they still had the V6 that with the six speed would be a monster.
‘No car is better balanced than this steel and glass ballerina, which pirouettes through the curves as the dancer it is.’ — EP
Shake, mama, shake:
“I shall now select my Empress!” he said, looking down on the cowering people. “Let the first woman who dares rise to her feet claim her mate and her throne!”
A moment passed, and then a ballerina arose, swaying like a willow.
Harrison plucked the mental handicap from her ear, snapped off her physical handicaps with marvelous delicacy. Last of all he removed her mask.
She was blindingly beautiful.
“Now-” said Harrison, taking her hand, “shall we show the people the meaning of the word dance?”
— Kurt Vonnegut, Jr — Harrison Bergeron
Ha! I just re-read this story last weekend.
(I’ll refrain from spoiling the tragic event that immediately follows the passage you quote.)
That story sticks in my brain, even though I read it 50 years ago; very strong, succinct message. Someone made a pretty good 20 minute movie of it starring Armie Hammer (Lone Ranger movie) in ’09.
Meant 40 years ago – not quite in my 60s.
Damn it Eric! Now you done it! By proclaiming that the Miata was fun and a joy to drive , now Uncle aka “the feds” will mandate this car out of existence! The government headed by a senile, hateful bastard and his band of Marxist revolutionaries will see to it that the unwashed masses are all made to be miserable but equal just to be fair. If you like a little 2-seat convertible that’s made for driving, better get it now while you can!
‘a senile, hateful bastard and his band of Marxist revolutionaries will see to it that the unwashed masses are all made to be miserable but equal just to be fair’ — Allen
Pete Buttitwitch and his merry band of California CARB staffers have got you well dialed in:
‘He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good — no better than anybody else would have been, anyway.
‘They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in.
‘George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another post to his Facebook feed scattered his thoughts.’
— Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Harrison Bergeron [slightly updated]
I know, Allen… I had the same ugly thought a moment after I touched the button to publish the article!
One other thing, Eric. You, by your own admission, are not a small man. Even those of great stature can drive comfortably for extended periods. There’s no need for a “big” car to have this much fun.
The Legend Continues…
Amen, Mark –
I should have mentioned that. My 6ft 3, 220 self fits easily and comfortably in this car. If I fit, almost anyone will!
“The generally similar BMW Z4″ except for curb weight, unless the Z4 has radically changed over the years, the Z4 is almost 1000 lbs heavier. Has Mazda managed to increase headroom enough for guys as tall as you to be comfy in it?
I first drove one about 20 years ago, and it was love at first gear change. Been daily driving one ever since. However, I’m not 6’3” either. Really a most pleasant way to dispose of the stress of work on the way home. Especially if you happen to find room to DRIVE it.
Are you daily driving a Z4 or Miata?