In 1989, Mazda built the Miata. They channeled the ethos of ’60s icons like the Triumph Spitfire and Lotus Elan and championed the virtue of lightweight agility over brute power — and with it, Mazda breathed new life into open-top motoring. Since then, over the past 25 years, the Miata has garnered the status of both giant-slayer and car of the people. When pitted against big horsepower, on both short tracks and tight, twisty roads, more often than not, the Miata comes out on top.
Even when the rest of the industry and some direct competitors followed the trends of adding more power and weight, increasing size and displacement, Mazda stuck to what it’s always done right — landing the perfect balance between power and weight. Mazda is so dedicated to this power-to-weight ratio that, since the newest generation is 148 pounds lighter than the last, Mazda went and lowered the power output to 155 horsepower from previous generation’s 167 horsepower. It was a decision so against the grain that even longtime Miata devotees were up in arms. But, all it takes is a spirited launch, a first-to-second-gear shift, and a single corner to dissolve any doubts.
I took the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata ($29,429) on a two-day, 325-mile road trip from L.A. to Santa Barbara to Pebble Beach. Making my way up the Pacific Coastal Highway, passing through Malibu, the intensely scenic coast made a strong case to keep to the highway, but the tangled web of canyon roads that lie just to the east looked too enticing on the GPS not to make a detour — I cut a hard right up Latigo Canyon road, eventually finding myself on Mulholland Highway. On the long, winding climb of nonstop switchbacks and canyon-cliff roads, I finally feel the MX-5 in its happy place. And even if the 2.0-liter SKYACTIV inline-four had more than 155 horsepower at its disposal, I’d never have the opportunity to use it; the road never stops doubling back on itself for long enough.
On the long, winding climb of nonstop switchbacks, canyon-cliff roads, I finally feel the MX-5 in its happy place.
The Club model I’m driving has tuned Bilstein dampers, Brembo brakes and 17-inch BBS wheels. The stiffer suspension kills most of the body roll you’ll find in the Sport and Grand Touring trims, but Mazda say they purposely left some body roll in the Club so that any hard corners you do take you feel more involved. Bouncing from apex to apex, carving rising banked hairpins and then cutting down even tighter ones, “involved” would be a gross understatement. The MX-5 feels alive, but never out of control. And part of that is down to the weight loss; there’s just less to toss from corner to corner. It’s so approachable and forgiving to drive, it makes novice drivers feel great and great drivers feel legendary.
But then, there’s never been a poorly handling Miata; they’ve only gotten better over the years in that department. The car’s only downfall has been its looks. The soft and passive looks of the first two generations and the bubbly lines of the last have always pigeonholed the Miata as a “hairdresser’s car”. In reality, it’s always been a racer’s car, and a handful of Miatas can always be found on any given track day. Eliminating the stigma of the previous three generations was the main goal of the designers; making the fourth-generation Miata more appealing right off the showroom floor, and not just to secondhand buyers looking for a car to autocross with. The lines were sharpened, and the curves given more muscle; the look of the car finally matches the race track potential and aggressive ways the car can actually be driven.
Under the Hood
Engine: 2.0-Liter Inline-Four
Transmission: Six-Speed Manual
Torque: 148 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 6.1 seconds
MSRP: $29,429 (base) $32,950 (as tested)
Coming over the hills and down into Monterey in the middle of Car Week, the whole Monterey Peninsula is filled with Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, muscle cars, all classic and new. And oddly, cruising into downtown Monterey, I’m the one getting all the nods of approval and thumbs up from enthusiasts passing in traffic and pedestrians on the sidewalk. Because when it comes to people who love true drivers’ cars, the Miata was always either an open love affair or a guilty pleasure. Whether you wanted to be seen in one or not was the tipping point, but there was never any doubting the icon’s performance once you tried it for yourself. Now that it looks as sharp as it drives, no one needs to hide their Miata amore.