Here is a tonic – for those who still see cars as more than just . . . transportation:
Mazda no longer offers an automatic transmission in two out of three versions of the 2022 Miata, the company’s much more than mere transportation car.
An automatic is still available – optionally, if you swing that way. But – in contrast to the general practice – it is only available in the most expensive trim.
As it used to be, with automatics – which were designed to make driving a more passive activity, for those who just want to get there and back.
But that’s precisely what the Miata’s not all about.
What It Is
The Miata is a two-seat convertible sports car that’s been in continuous production since1989 – outselling and outlasting numerous rivals along the way. Probably because it hits the sweet spots of fun – and affordability.
Plus, practicality – in that it’s as easy to drive as it is easy on gas. It’s an everyday car that makes the everyday drive something much more than just another drive.
Prices start at $27,650 for the base Sport trim – which comes with everything a sports car ought to come standard with, including a manual transmission and a one-hand-throw-it-back soft-top.
The Club trim – which stickers for $31,150 – is even sportier. It comes standard with the same manual transmission and free-revving 2.0 liter engine that spins to more than 7,000 RPM – plus a limited slip rear differential, strut tower brace, Bilstein shocks, wider (17 inch) wheels, plus some additional niceties, such as heated seats and an upgraded nine speaker Bose stereo.
The Club can be optioned with a Brembo/BBS/Recaro package that adds higher-performance Brembo brakes, BBS light-alloy wheels and . . . Recaro sport buckets.
But sportiest of all is the fact that neither of these two Miatas is available with an automatic transmission.
If you want one, it’s only available – at extra cost – in the Grand Touring trim, which stickers for $32,650 with the manual and $33,150 with the optional six-speed automatic transmission.
Because of the intersectionality of its price-features as well as the intangibles, the Miata has few, if any direct competitors.
The VW Golf GTI is a four-door and a hardtop car.
There are no other rear-drive, soft-top, manual-equipped sport cars. At least, none you can buy new for less than $28k. Or for that matter, less than $50k – which will just barely buy you a soft-top BMW Z4.
But not with a manual transmission – as the current Z4 is automatic only.
The main functional change for 2022 is an upgrade to the Miata’s suspension. All trims come standard with Kinematic Posture Control, which uses light braking pressure (automatically applied, via the ABS) to the inner rear wheel during high-speed cornering. This reduces body roll by subtly altering weight transfer/loading to the opposite wheel. Mazda says this also provides for more “linear” steering feel.
More fun than sports cars that cost twice as much – precisely because more people can have fun in this car.
You drive this car. If you want “assistance,” you need a different car.
Everything a car of this type ought to be – that none of its rivals are.
What’s Not So Good
The 12V power point socket for your radar detector is awkwardly located in the passenger side footwell.
Every Miata trim comes standard with the same 2.0 liter four cylinder engine – a size of engine that’s become very common in other cars of all types. The Miata’s engine is nothing like any of them, though – because it does not make its full 181 horsepower until it is revved to 7,000 RPM – encouraging the person driving the Miata to do just that.
It is easier to get to 7,000 RPM in a Miata, too.
Because each gear change is controlled by you – via the standard (and de facto) “mandatory” six speed manual transmission that is the only transmission available in two out of three Miata trims. You can hold first until you reach 7,000 RPM – and beyond. The willing engine loves a fast dance. Then, second – until third is needed. Up to fourth, fifth and sixth – as you like. And it’s up to you to decide when to go down a gear – or three.
It’s true that most modern automatics have what is styled a “manual” function, too. But it is an electronic rather than mechanical function. The computer allows some degree of manually-activated say-so over up and downshifts. But it is programmed to over-ride your button-pushing when your inputting is at odds with its programming. The automatic will automatically upshift – or not allow a downshift – when what you’re asking it to do is “outside bounds,” as for example beyond the allowable rev range or road speed for that gear, according to the computer.
It is also not possible to slip the clutch with an automatic transmission and by dint of the initial non-mechanical connection between the engine and automatic transmission (which is connected hydraulically, via a fluid coupling – the torque converter) there is less immediate immediacy. This is an important intangible, one that transcends lifeless data, such as how quickly to 60 (in this case, 5.6 seconds) and how much gas does it use (which isn’t much; more on that below).
Automatics have gotten very good; they are extremely “efficient.” They work really well with high-torque engines, due to the torque-multiplying effect of the torque converter. But small engines that make their horsepower at high RPM do their best – their most enjoyable – work when they are paired with a manual.
And that is probably why, in this car, the manual transmission is the only transmission option in two out of three trims. Mazda knows that an automatic Miata is like listening to Vesti la giubba on an AM radio with one (bad) speaker. It is an affront to the art of the thing. Automatics do not sing. There is nothing to feel.
The Miata’s available (if you must) automatic is a six speed automatic – not one with eight or nine (god help us, ten) speeds, none of the extras needed except as far as “compliance” with federal fuel efficiency mandatory minimums. It works well, to the extent that an automatic – any automatic – works in a car such as this.
Speaking of fuel economy: One of the many greatnesses of this car is that it uses little of it – with either transmission. With the manual, the rating is 26 city/36 highway. With the automatic, 26 city and 35 highway. With either, you’re driving a car that uses only a bit more gas than many current-year economy cars. A Toyota Corolla, for instance, rates 30 city and 38 highway.
And while the Corolla is a superlative appliance, it’s no Miata.
Where to start? How about not wanting it to end?
Driving the Miata is what driving was all about, once – when the trip was as important as the destination and you went to some lengths to prolong the former.
This car connects you to the drive as you both become part of it. With the top down – just unlatch and throw it back – you are in every moment, as each passes into the next.
The sounds of the engine mingle with the sounds of the road, even to the extent of hearing the gravel bits as they pass underneath the tires, to be spat out behind as the detritus of your passing. Your eyes take in just as much, as the view surrounds you. Cruising along in fifth, your left elbow rests on the top of the door, feeding the light but precise power steering the necessary minute course corrections . . . the next moment, you’re heel-and-toe’ing it through the esses, both hands (and feet) fully occupied.
And you are born again.
There’s no turbo to boost the power down low. It’s up to you to wring the power out of the thing – and that’s precisely what it was made for. Clutch in, your right foot holding the brake. Then over to the gas, bringing up the revs at the same time your left makes the connected between flywheel spinning and those gears winding. Off the clutch, the hammer down. In an instant, 7,200 RPM – and time for second.
This car wasn’t designed to be a commuter car primarily – obviously.
But it can be used for that.
It is light – just 2,745 lbs., almost 1,000 pounds lighter than a Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ, which accounts for why it’s still quicker than they are, despite not having the 228 horsepower they have. It is geared such that there is almost always enough gumption for getting going.
It is perhaps the only expert’s car that can also serve as a learner’s car, because of its easygoing, unponderous nature. I taught my 17-year-old niece the art of the clutch in this car.
And now she understands Vesti la giubba, too.
At The Curb
This may be a sports car, but it has the multi-demographic appeal that the original VW Beetle had. Men and women, young and old. Everyone seems to like this car. Perhaps because it is so very likable.
And not just because it is a nearly perfectly sports car. It is also a very practical car, in the spirit of the Old Beetle. Like the latter, the Miata is purposely simple. It has a pull-up emergency brake rather than an electrically-activated parking brake. You want to drop the top? Unlatch the catch and throw it back. Even the seemingly inescapable LCD display is minimalist.
But it goes deeper than that. Here is a purpose-built sports car that also rivals the fuel efficiency of an economy car. That doesn’t have or need artifices such as turbos (to make up for being too heavy, which it isn’t) that has a three-decades-long track record of being among the most reliable/durable cars ever made. The Beetle had the virtue of being easy and cheap to fix. The Miata has the virtue of not needing fixing. Change the oil faithfully and the 2.0 engine will give you nothing but smiles for 200,000 or more miles. These things are hard to hurt and almost never break – even when subjected to regular track days.
It is the perfect sports car in that it is the always-works sports car.
There has to be something . . . right?
Yes, there is one thing. The 12V power point – essential hook-up for the radar detector that ought to be standard equipment in a car such as this – is located absurdly, deep upside the dash on the passenger’s side footwell. It is impossible to reach it from the driver’s side and the only way to see it from the passenger side is to get out and shove your face under there, maybe holding a flashlight. Why Mazda chose to put it there rather than somewhere accessible to the driver, such as the center console – as is usually where it’s found – is a mysterious, perplexing thing.
Perhaps to give car journalists something negative to say about this car.
The Bottom Line
There’s a reason why the Miata has been in production without interruption for more 33 years – while so many others have come (and gone) during those years.
All you have to do is drive one to understand why that is.
. . .
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