The answer is always Miata. Yes, it’s a tired cliché and might point to my lack of creativity but the Mazda MX-5 (I’ll always know it as Miata) remains one of the purest expressions of a sports car you can buy today.
Loved by auto journalists and car enthusiasts the world over and misunderstood by so many others, this small roadster recently celebrated its 30th birthday. And unlike virtually every other vehicle for sale today, it has stayed true to its original formula of a simple, lightweight sports car. Nothing extra, equipped only with what is required to enhance joy behind the wheel.
An MX-5 is the epitome of what can be done with a singular and focused vision, a symbiosis between human and machine. It goes against the grain of the mega power and luxury syndrome that has infected nearly every corner of the industry.
Now in its fourth generation, the ND MX-5 is an island. If you want a new roadster in the $30-40K price range, it’s the only choice. Bowing in 2016, Mazda took the MX-5 back to the drawing board, applying their gram strategy to virtually every nut and bolt cutting weight wherever they could. The resulting effort produced a car that weighed only about 100 lbs more than the original did when it debuted in 1989.
Considering that the MX-5 now has bigger wheels, additional airbags, more safety equipment, and a much more robust structure, the relatively small weight gain is downright impressive. It’s one of the main reasons an MX-5 is so good to drive. If you’ve never experienced one, getting behind the wheel for even a short time will feel like a revelation.
My tester was a base 2020 Mazda MX-5 GS but it didn’t feel Spartan by any means. You get exactly what you need, supportive buckets, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a close-ratio 6-speed manual gearbox, perfectly spaced pedals, and a manually-operated soft-top that can be lowered in seconds. All the controls are simple and straightforward and help keep your attention on the road, where it belongs.
Being that it’s 2020, you also get modern convenience items like a 6-speaker stereo with speakers in the driver’s headrest, a 7-inch Mazda Connect infotainment system, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It even comes with a reverse camera, blind-spot monitors, a lane control system, and automatic high beams.
With 181 hp and 151 lb-ft of twist from its SkyActiv 2L 4-cylinder, the 1,080 kg MX-5 scoots off the line like it has a much bigger engine under the hood. Go for the brakes and the relatively small binders are responsive and powerful. The open chassis feels stout, and the standard suspension is forgiving and largely shrugs off road imperfections.
Sports cars today are about generating big numbers but the MX-5 doesn’t care. Sure, it’ll still run from 0-100 km/h in under six seconds and will hold on to the road much longer than expected given its skinny 205-section tires, but look too deeply into the MX-5’s performance numbers and you start to lose the point.
The MX-5 has never been a numbers car. It is a smile car, and one of the best you can get at any price. Because it doesn’t have a million horsepower and massive levels of grip, you can enjoy it all the time, and on nearly any road. The revised SkyActiv motor is an eager-revving unit and produces gobs of induction noise as you wind it up to it’s 7,500-r.p.m. redline.
With the roof down, you can clearly hear throttle blips as you grab a lower gear with the best manual gearbox in the world. Spending extra to get the 6-speed automatic here is pure blasphemy. The Mazda designed transmission makes it feel like you’re manipulating the selector forks and synchromesh gears with your bare hands. Pedals are placed perfectly for heel and toeing and the linear, natural clutch pedal is so easy to use that a manual MX-5 should be made available at every driving school to train students.
The steering is light and talkative but not geared so fast that it feels darty. Near 50/50 weight distribution makes this little rear-wheel drive roadster a neutral handling car that rotates around the driver’s hips. Generous but controlled body roll ensures the chassis remains undisturbed by mid-corner bumps but it also lets you drive the MX-5 all day without getting beat up, a common issue with the too-stiff sports cars on the market. Enter a corner with a bit too much speed or under braking and the rear quickly starts to let go, but in a predictable and easy to catch manner.
Even when you dial it back the MX-5 remains a joy. Every drive, no matter how short becomes an occasion, a moment to look forward to. And because it’s as light as air and has a small little engine it doesn’t even burn a lot of fuel. My driving, which was mostly spirited, registered a hybrid-like 6.5L per 100 km.
But my job requires me to find shortcomings and as minuscule as they may be, they do exist. The MX-5 is tiny; we’ve mentioned that once or twice. At 6-feet tall, I fit just fine, but if you’re much taller than that, you might find it tight. There’s also very little storage space and the passenger footwell is compromised by a rather large hump that might make it uncomfortable for someone sitting there. It is also quite blustery in the cabin above 100 km/h and noisy if you have the top up. But you shouldn’t care about any of that. The MX-5 is a driver’s car and about as perfect as they come.
While everything is getting too powerful and too complex, the MX-5 is a reminder that true driving bliss is about getting back to the basics. It exists for one thing and one thing only—to put a smile on your face. And for that, we love it and hope it sticks around forever.
The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.