The Mazda MX-5 Miata is a staple of just about every list of great driver’s cars, especially those that include a price constraint. It’s rear-wheel drive, lightweight, handles with supreme balance and grace, and its engine revs up to 7,500 rpm. You certainly can spend more for a car — the Miata starts under $30,000 — but it’s hard to match it for pure driving engagement. And driving engagement is the reason you buy an MX-5, as it's unfit for almost any other automotive purpose.
Like any quintessential driver’s car, the Miata is best enjoyed with a manual transmission. Mazda designed the cockpit for it, making it remarkably easy to move your right hand from wheel to knob, and even offering cup holders you can detach and move out of the way About half of Miata buyers opt for the stick; indeedm you need to do so to get the fancy Brembo BBS brake / Recaro seat package that's newly available for 2020.
Yet Mazda, for some unknown reason, sent me an automatic car to review. I knew I had an MX-5 coming, but didn’t read the fine print...and found myself face to face with the dreaded PRND shifter.
Still, it was my job to review the car, transmission be damned, so I cast my affrontery aside and drove it for a week. It was 70 degrees and sunny at the time, perfect weather for a MX-5. And I’m here to tell you — as someone who has never daily-driven an automatic — I enjoyed it. Here’s why.
You can still shift the MX-5 yourself with the automatic
Most sports cars are going automatic. Indeed, the fancy eight-, nine- or even 10-speed units in many of them are more capable than a human. Besides, eight gears or more is too many to bother shifting manually.
The MX-5 has six forward gears, which is a far more wieldy number. Shifting +/– with the PRND shifter isn’t as smooth or gratifying, but it gets the job done. And in Sport mode, the automatic does a solid job holding lower gears to let you burst away.
You can still enjoy the Miata’s brilliance
You can't drive most sports cars anywhere near their limit on real roads. In the 181-horsepower MX-5, you can get much closer; you might get a ticket, but you won’t get arrested. Nothing about the gear shifting prevents you from enjoying the incredible road feel or letting it hold that line coming out of a corner with absolute precision.
Heavy traffic is not as much of a hazard in our era of working from home, but I still took the MX-5 to pick up Middle Eastern takeout on a Friday and got caught in some. Most of the tune, I drove the car in manual mode, but I knocked the car into automatic for those few minutes of bumper-to-bumper. I did so when I had to cut over two lanes and make an abrupt right-hand turn to a side street behind the restaurant. I did it again when I was just lazy entering my neighborhood on the way back. It was, admittedly, nice.
The Miata is still one sexy sports car
Like many Mazda products of late, the MX-5 looks spectacular. The latest generation is muscular but proportional. My tester was painted an alluring shade called Soul Red Crystal. Even with the front air dam and rear lip spoiler of its appearance package, the Miata somehow doesn’t crossover into cartoonish territory. The face may have a bit of a How to Train Your Dragon vibe, but only if you stare too hard at it.
Also, remember, the Miata has doors. Everyone can see how much fun you’re having, and no one can see what your left foot is doing.
Would I buy an automatic MX-5 instead of a stick-shift one?
2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF
Powertrain: 2.0-liter inline-four, 6-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Torque: 151 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: 26 mpg city, 35 mpg highway