The Mazda MX-5: 'Pure fun to drive'

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by By TOM VOELK / Special to KING5.com

NWCN.com

Posted on August 6, 2009 at 10:33 AM

Updated Friday, Oct 23 at 3:06 PM

Video: The Mazda MX-5: 'Pure fun to drive'

This could be the easiest car profile I've ever done. Or the hardest. The Mazda MX-5 has no competition. It is a brilliant two-seat roadster, pure of form and intent. Its sole purpose is to make people grin from ear to ear with deft performance and telepathic handling. Its biggest flaw? The snug compact cabin (for some). There. That's the review in a nut shell. And yet

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OK, full disclosure. I am an MX-5 owner. A Miata actually. Bought in its debut year, my 1990 car has been road tripped to Denver, Minnesota and Manitoba. For 19 years it has offered up perfect service and hours of fond memories involving winding country roads (not counting two encounters with The Law). The battery has been replaced four times, the top twice. Other than that, routine maintenance is all that's been required. And it's because of this love affair I'm finding it difficult to be professional, to be objective. But here goes

Fresh faced fellow

For 2009, the MX-5 Miata gets a new front fascia and tail lamps that add some aerodynamic improvement. The cabin and engine get some tweaking as well. My tester, a top-line Grand Touring model with nearly all available options, is as plush as my 1990 car is spartan. The big deal is the addition of a power retractable hardtop a few years back. For $2,600 there's now a solid answer to the idiots who didn't check the unlocked doors before slicing my top. While I still prefer the profile of the soft top, I certainly appreciate the elegant 12-second push button operation of the solid version. For those going for the manual ragtop you still have the option of a removable hard shell topper.

Mazda really wants you to call this roadster MX-5, which is how most of the world has always known it. Its third name was Eunos Roadster in Japan. Think that sounds funny? Friends of mine in Tokyo think Miata is the equivalent of Mildred. MX-5 is the only badge that graces the trunk lid now but the website and window sticker detailing the long list of equipment on my tester says " MX-5 Miata." Asked directly about the name, Mazda's response is the equivalent of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" position. The most important label? "Best-selling two-seat sports car in the world," which has been bestowed on MX-5 by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Grins for sale. Cheap.

The MX-5 SV starts at $22,500, though an extra $1,000 for the Sport gives you AC and leather wrapped wheel. Add $2,600 for the power hardtop. Everything else is gravy. My Grand Touring model stickers for 31 grand. Expensive when compared to its own kind but a bargain considering a BMW Z4 now starts at 46K.

Simply put, the Mazda's performance is unbeatable in the bang-for-your-buck department. A proper rear-drive sports car, MX-5 feels hard wired right into a driver's brain stem. This roadster is pure fun to drive, the closest thing you'll ever get to a form fitting jet pack. Every corner produces an involuntary smile. Those who are afraid of its demure size miss the point entirely, cut and thrust driving through dense urban traffic is terrific sport.

The double wishbone suspension gets its ball joints repositioned and damping re-tuned. Opt for the $500 Sport Tuned Suspension and Bilstein Shocks and limited slip differential come along for the ride. Thus equipped the ride quality is still quite tolerable, not something that can always be said about sport setups.

Highway cruising? Well, there are far more comfortable road trip vehicles than MX-5, but this car isn't aimed at the Lexus crowd. The direct steering is a little darty on long highway slogs but the new car is much more tolerable than my old one. With a rigid body, MX-5 has not shimmied, creaked or rattled in the week I've flogged it.

New one sounds like the old one

Scoot is provided by an updated 2.0-liter 167-horse four cylinder with a revised engine note that sounds much like my classic Miata. There's 500 more RPMs when zinging up to redline now. A new steel crankshaft keeps booming and resonance to a minimum. Stoplight to 60 takes 7 seconds, pretty quick for a car that's never been about drag racing. Enthusiasts will revel in the short throw 6-speed manual transmission (lower models get a 5-speed). This gear box is still one of the best in the biz regardless of price. A 6-speed automatic is available.

I'm seeing 23 MPG in mixed driving but considering my driving style, that's pretty good (EPA rating is 22 city, 28 highway). While engineers were proud that the old car drank standard fuel, MX-5 now prefers premium. A revised stability control seems to feather in more gracefully now. Turned off, I can easily rotate the rear end with a touch of the throttle on my favorite hard bend on the drive home. Terrific anti-lock disc brakes all around offer up great modulation and stopping power.

A car you wear

The snug cabin is like a well tailored suit if you're of average size. Larger folks may feel like their tailor wants them to shed a few pounds. Tall drivers will bemoan the lack of telescoping steering wheel. Mazda has done their best to provide a bunch of small cubbies, which is more than you can say for Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky (may they RIP along with Honda S2000). Automotive fashionistas take note:Nnew sliver trim stretches across the instrument panel.

All of the controls are easy to use. iDrive? MMI? Comand? Those " user interfaces" are shunned for simple knobs and buttons. Do I hear the sound of applause? Auto climate control and heated seats are standard in a Grand Touring. Multiple air bags including side torso units are a big reassurance in a small car. Bluetooth for phones is available, and so is Sirius satellite radio. A navi system is not.

With the hardtop up there's a little bit of storage behind the seats but it's tough to get things in and out of the small space. Remember to clear it out when stowing the top. Better yet, just keep stuff out of there.

Gripes? A plain AUX audio jack for the nice Bose sound system is fine, an integrated iPod interface would be better. Drinks placed in the center console mounted cupholders get in the way of the shift action, but those who like to be hydrated while they row the gears can stash drinks in the helpful door mounted units.

Thinking of a road trip?

The MX-5 has a huge trunk. And if you believe that I'd like to interest you in some prime American Motors stock. Actually for the car's size the cargo hold isn't too bad and it's nicely trimmed. In my standardized test, two warehouse packs of TP will wedge in, and I do mean wedge. I felt compelled to buy the two packs I've smooshed up (Costco is gracious enough to let me borrow this stuff every week). Keep in mind my wife and I drove cross country in a Miata complete with luggage, backpacking tent and sleeping bag. Yes, one sleeping bag. We were newlyweds. There's no spare tire, just a repair kit. Space saving scissor hinges mean the entire trunk can be used.

There's a reason why the Miata or MX-5 or whatever you want to call it has passed the test of time. The little car that was the first to revive the 2-seat roadster back twenty years ago has survived to see the demise of its competitors. With over 850,000 sold, it's safe to say the MX-5 Miata is a success. Sales have cooled from the white hot rate of the early 90s. Perhaps buyers have forgotten what fun this Hot Wheels car is. If you're looking for a great time at a reasonable price, nothing else can touch it.

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