2009 Mazda MX-5Posted on March 5th, 2009
Twenty years of roadster magic
By Nina Russin
The Mazda-MX-5, nee Miata, celebrates its twentieth birthday this year, with a restyled exterior and mechanical upgrades. Mazda’s two-seat roadster has always been a personal favorite: beautifully styled, and even more fun to drive.
The original Miata was the love child of Mazda’s design studio. Chief designer, Tom Matano, and his colleagues wanted to create a contemporary car reminiscent of classic British roadsters from the 1960s and 70s.
Their design fulfilled that mission with aplomb: retro, yet not derivative. But the Miata’s real ace-in-the-hole was its performance. It was, as it set out to be, a pint-sized bundle of fun, priced within reach of the average buyer.
Since Mazda unveiled the original Miata at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show, the automaker has sold 900,000 cars around the globe. Miata owners have a rabid passion for their cars. If you don’t believe me, visit a local club race on any given weekend, and watch them take no prisoners on the track.
Not a car for everyone
As with any niche vehicle, the MX-5 is a bit quirky. Its performance is about as close to a motorcycle as a four-wheeled vehicle can get.
Ride height is extremely low: keeping the center of gravity close to the ground enhances performance on the featherweight roadster. Curb weight is a mere 2500 pounds. Ground clearance is about four and a half inches.
There is an explosive amount of road noise in the passenger compartment, even with the top in place. That’s intentional: the car’s dual exhaust is tuned to mimic the sound of dual-carbureted sports cars. As a car enthusiast, I find the Miata’s exhaust note more entertaining that ninety-percent of what I can find on the radio- satellite stations included.
Although the MX-5 is available with an automatic transmission, I can’t imagine why anyone in his right mind would buy one. The manual transmission is a joy to use: short-throw shift knob and feather-light clutch pedal. The six-speed manual gearbox on the test car is the perfect mate for the car’s high-revving two-liter engine. It begs to downshift in the corners.
Because the MX-5 is such a small car, it is not a vehicle that every person can fit into. The small trunk will hold a couple of bags of groceries or a medium-size duffle bag. Carrying two people’s luggage on a weekend road trip is a stretch: clothes horses need not apply.
The rear window is extremely small, creating huge blind spots when the top is in place. People who own Miatas will explain that this isn’t a problem: roadsters are designed to be open-air cars. Heated seats and the car’s heater take care of any temperature deficits in the thick of winter.
More durable engine for 2009
This year engineers made some important changes to the MX-5 engine, especially for buyers who plan to take their cars to the track. Redline has been raised from 6700 to 7200 rpm, enabling drivers to get more power out of the car.
To keep the engine durable, the manufacturer added a forged steel crankshaft, forged steel connecting rods, more durable pistons, stiffer valve springs and an engine oil cooler. The camshafts are chain rather than belt-driven, saving the owner a potentially expensive service procedure.
Makes an adventure of the daily commute
Years ago I heard Tom Matano talk about designing the Miata. He talked about the prospective buyer visiting his new car in the garage that night: several times he hoped.
Matano said that after a couple of weeks, the driver might find a longer route home from work: one that involved a few two lane roads, and some decreasing radius turns.
Unlike some sports cars that need to be driven on the track, the Miata is a car that the driver can enjoy driving on surface streets at moderate and legal speeds. Driving through the foothills of my neighborhood at forty miles-per-hour is quite a lot of fun.
Part of the car’s appeal is its ideal front-to-rear weight balance: 52/48. The engine is positioned front midship on the rear-wheel drive chassis. Engineers minimized weight in the body by using aluminum hood and trunk lid, as well as aluminum components in the suspension and brakes.
Because it has such a small footprint, the MX-5 is an ideal autocross car. The nice thing about autocross, as opposed to other types of racing, is that participants can set up a course in the average-sized parking lot, assuming that the parking lot is relatively empty.
A suspension package on the test car adds Bilstein shocks, sport suspension tuning and a limited-slip differential. The grand touring model comes standard with front and rear stabilizer bars and a strut tower brace to enhance steering response.
As much fun as the MX-5 is to drive around town, it’s less fun on crowded highways. The car’s low ride height makes it harder to see around other vehicles, especially in Phoenix, where many are large trucks. Fortunately, the Miata has plenty of power to make evasive maneuvers. Its four-wheel disc brakes also work extremely well.
Gas mileage is good, but not exceptional for a car of its size. Fuel economy for the test car is twenty-four miles-per-gallon on average. The MX-5’s high compression engine requires premium fuel.
Designers did an excellent job of equipping the MX-5’s small interior with all of the basic necessities. The leather upholstery on the test car is attractive, and I found the seats to be quite comfortable. My six-foot tall husband was able to sit comfortably in the passenger seat.
The steering wheel is small in diameter, similar to a race car. Redundant audio and cruise controls on the steering wheel allow the driver to stay focused on the road.
The test car comes with keyless entry and ignition. The driver can open the doors using a small button on the door lever, and start the car using a keyless switch on the steering column.
There is an overhead reading lamp next to the soft-top release latch. A twelve-volt powerpoint on the center stack recharges electronic devices on the go.
There are two lockable storage compartments inside the passenger cabin: the glove box, and a compartment behind the center console.
Bottle holders in the doors are big enough for a twenty-ounce bottle. Cupholders in the center console will hold smaller cans.
The test car has an upgraded audio system, part of an options package that also includes keyless entry, xenon headlamps, Sirius satellite radio and Bluetooth connectivity .
Designers maximized trunk space by equipping the car with an inflator kit rather than a conventional spare tire.
The grand touring grade tested comes with antilock brakes, side impact airbags and a tire pressure monitoring system. Base price on the test car is $26,350, not including a $670 delivery charge. The new MX-5 is available for test drives at Mazda dealerships nationwide.
Likes: An affordable, fun-to-drive sports car with iconic styling.
Dislikes: Lack of cargo space
Model: MX-5 Miata Grand Touring
Base price: $26,350
As tested: $29,170
Horsepower: 167 Hp @ 7000 rpm
Torque: 140 lbs.-ft. @ 5000 rpm
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: N/A
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 21/28 mpg city/highway
Comments: The manufacturer recommends using premium fuel.
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