Mazda's energetic MX-5 Miata still fun after all these years

Sunday, May 10, 2009
The 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata is now in its 20th year of production. (Associated Press)

The cute little Mazda MX-5 Miata isn't the lowest-priced roadster in America anymore. Its U.S. sales haven't topped 17,000 in nearly a decade.

But gosh, the two-seat Miata -- now marking its 20th year -- is still a lot of fun, especially now that suspension changes make the diminutive, 13-foot-long car even more poised during energetic driving.

Mileage is improved slightly, too, and most noticeably, the Miata's exterior looks sportier and more grown up than that of its predecessor.

In fact, the rear-wheel drive, 2009 MX-5 Miata arguably packs more driving enjoyment into a small, affordable package than any other car on the market. No wonder so many buyers favorably compare its nimble handling and overall character to British roadsters of old.

But better than those roadsters, the MX-5 Miata is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports magazine, with a "very good" reliability rating.

Sure, the Smart fortwo convertible has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price of $17,635 compared with the MX-5 Miata's $22,420.

But the fortwo looks odd, not sporty, and it gets just 70 horsepower out of its one-liter, three-cylinder engine. It's also not offered with a manual transmission.

Meanwhile, the Miata's 2-liter, four-cylinder engine puts out a credible 167 horses and 140 foot-pound of torque at 5,000 rpm to provide spirited driving that matches the look of the car.

Indeed, the MX-5 Miata is the second-lowest priced roadster on the market after the Smart fortwo.

The Miata's specs don't do the car justice. Drivers have to experience what 140 foot-pounds of torque can do for a soft-top car that weighs less than 2,500 pounds.

It's not just that the Miata scoots. It pulls forward with gusto and keeps going.

I love working the six-speed manual gear shifter in the Miata. It's one of the most satisfying and gets even better for 2009 with new carbon coating on some synchros for improved gas mileage -- up to 21 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on highways.

Mazda engineers pushed the redline upward by 500 rpm to 7,200 rpm, so there's more opportunity for spirited driving. This was no small feat. It required a new forged steel crankshaft, revised pistons, stiffer valve springs and an engine oil cooler, among other things.

The test Miata Grand Touring model with manual transmission was adaptable to all driving conditions -- both city traffic and on less-traveled country roads -- without being fussy.

The small-diameter steering wheel fit just right inside the compact interior, and the rack-and-pinion steering responded easily and quickly.

The turning radius is something to behold, too. It's just under 31 feet.

Of course, the Miata wheeled right into compact parking spaces with nary a care. And it snagged the smallest of curbside parking spots. ones that sport utility vehicles and even Toyota Camry sedans couldn't fit into.

I heard the engine all the time and often found myself cranking up the radio so I could hear it over the rising engine revs. Then, at stoplights, I'd have to turn the volume back down.

Note the engine sounds are improved for 2009, thanks to a new, sound enhancer for Miatas with six-speed manual. This enhancer has tuned pipes and a passive resonance membrane to help manage engine sounds appropriately.

There's plenty of road noise, too, regardless of whether the soft roof is up or down. In this way, the Miata is a real throwback to earlier roadsters that gave drivers a much more intimate connection to the outdoors than most vehicles do today.

The ride in the Miata is firmly sporty, not smooth or cushioned. Driver and passenger feel the pavement quite clearly, and in the test car with optional sport suspension, the car and I bounced over expansion cracks on concrete bridges.

The Miata continues to keep its simple fabric roof that can be opened and closed with one hand while the driver sits inside the vehicle. It's all manual, and honestly, the driver doesn't have to be some beefy, muscle-bound guy.

Still, for those who prefer a power-operating top, Mazda offers a retractable hard top, too. It adds weight -- and cost -- to the car, however. The starting retail price for an MX-5 Miata with power retractable hard top is $26,060.

It does take some time to get accustomed to Miata's cozy interior. For example, I found myself instinctively ducking my head as I climbed inside with the top on.

The optional key-free entry seems weird. Though I didn't need to insert a key into an ignition spot inside the car, I had to manually turn an ignition switch stub that looked like a traditional key slot.

The dashboard is among the smallest around, so passengers sit closer to the windshield than they do on many other vehicles today.

And everyone drops down quite a bit to settle into the Miata's seats. They sit low to the pavement and views are badly stunted by taller, larger vehicles ahead.

Taller drivers have an easy time getting comfortable in the driver seat because there's a good amount of seat travel.

Short-stature drivers like me, however, must arrange the seat close enough to the pedals and then adjust the seatback recline considerably to maintain a safe distance away from the steering wheel-mounted air bag.

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