Several years ago, Mazda’s divorce from its 30-year-plus partner, Ford, deprived the Japanese brand of critical economies of scale. Many who loved the company’s affordable fun cars were worried that with the gravy train of low-cost access to platforms and drivetrains gone, Mazda would be in trouble.
With the race to develop ever more efficient engines and lower curb weights driving up manufacturing and development costs for all manufacturers, Mazda’s future seemed uncertain.
Fast forward to today and if there is one car that showcases how much Mazda still has to offer, it would be the 2016 MX-5 Miata.
Let’s take a closer look at this icon built by the boys from Hiroshima.
In 1990, the debut of the Mazda MX-5 Miata marked a revival of the affordable rear-wheel-drive sports car in a stripped-down roadster format. It was an instant hit and buyers lined up outside Mazda dealerships and happily forked out for over sticker prices.
Many were there due to nostalgia, recollecting fond memories from their 1950’s and ‘60s British convertibles, but wanting to not be left stranded on the side of the road. The promise of Japanese reliability was a big part of the appeal.
Four iterations later and this latest “ND” generation MX-5 Miata still continues to be unique. Most cheap, fun-to-drive convertible sport cars have all but died out (RIP, Honda S2000), leaving Mazda with the market to itself.
Eco-friendly driving fun
The latest Miata’s story is all about thrifty performance. Not only does its tidy size and diminutive weight make it even more fun to drive, but also its miserly fuel consumption is another huge benefit. Despite taking the car on my favourite back roads more than once, I never saw more than 9L/100 kms of average consumption.
Transport Canada’s full numbers shake out to the following for my manual transmission tester: 8.8L/100 kms in the city and 6.9L/100 kms on the highway.
Surprisingly, this was almost bang on with my real world observations, which is a rarity as published fuel ratings are conducted in a laboratory setting only.
Now that we’ve gotten all of that boring practical stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the driving experience.
Living (and driving) in the moment
Did you know that the name “Miata” derives from Old High German for “reward”?
Mazda’s engineers know that the Miata is an incredible special iconic machine. That’s why they obsessed over every single detail in order to keep the latest iteration as true to its predecessors’ ethos as possible.
Not simply wanting to just improve upon the last generation NC Miata, the Miata team wanted to recall the specific first generation model which the company regards as the most true to the idea of what a Miata ought to be.
This meant chopping off three inches on the ND when compared to the NC, and reducing the wheelbase by six-tenths of an inch.
In a day and age of ever expanding interior dimensions and curb weights to match our ever-expanding waistlines, Mazda has firmly put their foot down and said this must end here.
The result is at the new car is more than two inches shorter in length than the first generation NA Miata, and only two-tenths of an inch shorter. What a remarkable achievement.
Weight has also been significantly reduced, with a savings of around 220 pounds compared to the NC thanks to aluminum components and the increased use of high-strength steel.
This makes the 2016 model only 100 to 200 pounds heavier than the original car that made its debut in 1990, despite additional creature comforts and modern safety equipment.
Mazda’s engineers didn’t just slap on the aluminum at random. This was done strategically in areas furthest from the car’s centre of gravity as possible, so as to keep the bulk of the mass as close to the ground and middle of the chassis as possible.
The level of attention to detail is astounding when you also consider that the styling was done for form, not just for function. Mazda wanted to get the hood as low as possible, which is why the projector-beam LED headlamps look the way they do.
The combination of the Ceramic Metallic paint job and the black mirror caps gave my test car an aggressive Robot Panda look to it.
The ND’s engine has also been moved 13 millimetres lower and 15 millimetres further back, effectively making the Miata a front mid-engine car since the power plant now sits full behind the front axle.
Even the manual cloth top uses aluminum components, and has been engineered to allow for simple one-handed opening and closing without getting out of the driver’s seat. Mazda has not made any announcement yet about the return of the power folding hardtop.
Like all of my test cars, I spent much of my time in the Miata for my day-to-day routine. Yes, the trunk is miniscule and only good for a couple of weekend bags. Yes, the sun visors are plastic. Yes, the cupholders are comically small as is the centre console (cubby is a better word). No, there’s no space for an iPhone 6 Plus, nor is there a glovebox for your insurance paperwork.
There is another larger storage space in the rear bulkhead, but the owner’s manuals take up much of that available space. Also, the 2016 MX-5 must have the world’s most hidden 12-volt outlet, buried deep recesses of the passenger-side footwell, against the firewall. I can’t remember the last time I had to crack open the owner’s manual to find a 12-volt outlet!
As a daily driver slogging through traffic, the Miata won’t wow you. Its lack of space and road noise with the top-up can be annoying, and tiring. However, most of these little annoyances are forgotten when you drop the top.
Top-down driving was so important to Mazda that they designed the A-pillars and door trim to specifically direct air over the top of the car and yet also to channel it in through the sides so that the driver feels a pleasant breeze.
Even the audio speakers have been integrated into the headrests so that you won’t have to crank the stereo when listening to “Highway to Hell” or on a hands-free call (at which point the sound only comes through the driver’s headrest).
Speaking of music, under the hood is Mazda’s 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G inline-four cylinder producing 155 hp and 148 lbs-ft of torque. Yes this is a decrease of 12 hp, but the increase in 8 lb-ft more of torque in a car that weighs 200 lbs less means that it feels even faster than before.
The six speed transmission is so sure and precise that you’ll never miss a shift. You’ll just be thanking the Mazda engineers for the centre-mounted tachometer as this is one engine that is eager to rev up to the redline.
The ratios are close and even so there are plenty of chances to visit the 7,500 rpm redline (at which point you will whoop with joy).
The Miata has always been a very fast car on twisty roads and the MX-5 is deceivingly quick. Unlike most BMWs which are a bore even at 90 km/hr, the MX-5 makes you feel like you’re bombing down the highway at 100 km/hr when you’re actually only doing 80 km/hr.
Body roll is there but left on purpose so that you’ll be able to feel the grip and speed and adjust as necessary.
The end result is that you’ll get out of the Miata and think you’re a better driver than you probably actually are. But that’s ok because over time you’ll become a better driver from learning how to hustle it.
The chassis is so communicative with its subtle feedback cues and seat of the pants feel that the Miata feels rewarding even at perfectly legal speeds.
The MX-5’s recipe is one that many can enjoy. The ingredients are simple. Start with a lightweight rear-wheel-drive roadster that is choked full of driving delight, price accessibly, with famed Japanese reliable and manual transmission availability.
This recipe has proven to be so popular that arguably nothing else and no one else has been able to stay the course.
The latest Miata has gone back to its roots, much more like the original car that came out in 1990, but with the cleaner emissions, fuel economy, conveniences, and safety of a modern car.
If you’re looking to pinch your pennies but yet give your facial muscles a workout when driving a car on a twisty country back road, the latest MX-5’s winning recipe will keep that grin on your face!