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2008 Mazda MX-5 – Click above for high-res image gallery

Just as it appeared that winter was finally drawing to close here in Michigan, one of the definitive summertime cars turned up on our doorstep -- the Mazda MX-5 Miata . Somewhere back in the middle part of the last century, small, lightweight, roadsters flourished with a variety of models available from mostly British manufacturers. Names like MG, Triumph, Austin-Healey and Lotus defined the genre. Unfortunately, a number of factors such as random intermittent windshield wipers, intermittent headlights, intermittent ignition, persistent oil leaks and predisposition for the bodies to convert to iron oxide soured the reputation of these and other car builders. This was followed by the consolidation of the most of the British car industry into British Leyland and then the onset of safety and emissions regulations. By 1980, the classic British sports car had become all but extinct.

Then a strange thing happened. Mazda, always had a reputation as being slightly offbeat (witness its dedication to the Wankel rotary, which exists to this day) introduced a new model dubbed the MX-5 Miata . This compact, rear-drive two-seat roadster bore a strong resemblance to a '60s vintage Lotus Elan. However, unlike the Elan and its compatriots, the Miata started every time you turned the key, didn't leave you drenched when it rained, and didn't leave puddles of oil on your garage floor. In other words, it was a classic British sports car that worked like a modern Japanese car. Read on after the jump to find out how the latest incarnation fares.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Brad Wood / Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.

The current third-generation Miata still carries the same basic proportions of an Elan or MGB, but with styling updates to reflect a little of the current Mazda design language. This is most obvious in the wheel well shape. Overall, the Mazda still has a clean, basic profile with no major flourishes -- just smooth bodywork with the long hood/cab rearward sports car look. Like the second gen-model, this one has fixed headlights while the oval shaped air intake has been restored from the original car.

The entry model still has the same top mechanism that appeared on the 1989 original and there's absolutely no reason to ever change it. One lesson that General Motors must learn when they rework the Solstice and Sky is that simple tops work best on roadsters. In fact, designers should not try to improve on the Miata top -- just copy it. Back in 1990 when I was graduating from college and looking to buy a new car, it came down to the Miata or a Mustang LX 5.0. The 'Stang's torque and back seat ultimately won my dollars, but I've always loved the Miata. When I test drove one, the first thing I did was lower the top. It's easy: reach above the mirror, release the latch, and drop it over your shoulder. Five seconds and it was done. Raindrops falling? Reach over the shoulder, pull up and latch. No muss, no fuss, and no need to get out, or even unbuckle the seat belt. Absolutely perfect.

For 2007, Mazda messed with the formula for the first time in nearly two decades. The original soft-top is still there of course, but Mazda added the option of a retractable hard top. Normally, I consider these to be a nightmare. First off all, no car with a back seat should ever have a retractable hard top, because they just make the proportions look horrible. The only hardtops that look good are on two-seaters like the Mercedes-Benz SL and SLK. They also add a lot of weight and complexity to the car. Having made my opinion on retractable hard tops clear, I must say that the one in the Miata is actually pretty good. The classic proportions of the car remain unchanged. In fact, almost nothing about the car is altered except for the added switches at the top of the center stack to raise and lower the top.

In closed configuration, the Miata looks almost exactly like a standard model with the optional removable hard top that has been available since almost the beginning. In open form, it's indistinguishable from the soft-top version. After starting the engine, you still have to manually release the latch at the windshield header and then hold the switch for about 20 seconds as the tonneau lifts, the top retracts and then the tonneau drops back down. While that happens the windows drop a couple of inches then go back up when the operation is complete. No hassle, but if you have to manually release the latch, why not just flip the whole thing over your shoulder anyway. When the clouds arrive, you have to stop and reverse the process, latching the top to finish.

As soon as the MX-5 arrived, I immediately hopped in, dropped the top and headed out for lunch. As it happened, I had not actually had the opportunity to drive a Miata since that first test drive nearly 18 years earlier. All the old memories came rushing back as I drove away from the garage by my office and hit a few curves on the way home to pick up my wife. For anyone who enjoys top down motoring in a relatively light (by modern standards) tossable car, this is the machine for you. Those of you familiar with the afurementioned British classics know that you don't need huge amounts of power to have fun in the right car. Those of you familiar with me will know my philosophy that there is no such thing as too much torque. In spite of that preference, I'm willing to sacrifice some twist for a car like this.

When I first visited England in the early '90s, I immediately understood why British carmakers made those light nimble sports cars. On the rural B roads, straights are rare and roads are built around the trees instead of the other way around. In these conditions you don't need a lot of power, just the ability to carry momentum from one corner to the next. The Miata is just such a momentum racer. Its 2.0L twin-cam four cylinder is naturally aspirated and loves to rev. It's not in the same ballpark as the Honda S2000, but the 166hp peak comes at 6,700rpm and the mere 140lb-ft of torque peaks at 5,000rpm.

Fortunately, the wonderful 6-speed manual that sits behind the engine makes it easy to extract the most of what is available from the engine. The stubby shift lever pops up out of the console in exactly the right position. Little effort is required to move between gears and the direct linkage is amazingly precise. Perhaps the next-gen Miata will adopt the turbocharging and direct injection technology from the MazdaSpeed 3 and 6. A 1.4L four with GTDI will put out similar peak power (witness VW's 170hp 1.4L TSI engines) with a much fatter torque curve.

Fortunately the late snowfall that arrived the evening after the car was delivered didn't stick around for long, but while it was around, the snow tires that were still mounted on the car cooperated beautifully with the stability control that was part of the Grand Touring package. In hard top form with proper winter tires, this really is quite a capable all-weather car. (If you're wondering why the accompanying photos don't look much like Michigan, it's because Damon and Brad shot a similar car in their native habitat of Northern California.)

When temps warmed up later in the week, the top was banished at every available opportunity. With the thermally-enhanced seats switched on (try that in a Lotus with Lucas electrics), the heater running and the windows up, open-air motoring remained comfortable even with ambient temps in the upper thirties. Like its British ancestors, the Miata is a snug fit and won't be comfortable for those of broader lateral dimensions. The gauges are clear and legible and the seats are comfortable and supportive.

Limited torque means the Miata doesn't leap off the line, but its solid structure allows the suspension to make the best use of the tires. The Miata's ride is pretty firm and its P205/45ZR17 tires don't leave much sidewall to provide extra compliance. The upside is a very direct connection between the driver and the road. If the gap between your home and workplace includes pavement that seems to have been laid out without any thought of getting there in the least possible distance then you're in for some fun. The Miata is like a go-kart for the street, and it's even kind of practical. The trunk is only 5.3 cu.ft but it's usefully shaped to hold a few bags a groceries or enough stuff for a weekend getaway.

For drivers who don't necessarily favor the flashy looks of the similarly-priced Solstice or Sky, the Miata is a great alternative. It doesn't currently offer a high-output powertrain to rival GM's 2.0L GTDI EcoTec, but the top, whether you opt for hard or soft varieties, is vastly superior to the contraption that GM offers. The base soft-top Miata starts at $20,858 while the Grand Touring hard top runs $26,760. Is the hard top worth $2K more than the flexible version? I guess that depends on wear you live and whether you have a garage. If you live in warmer climes where you're likely to keep the top down most of the time, probably not. If you live somewhere with winter weather and you plan to drive year-round, you might want to make the additional investment. On the other hand, the soft version is so unbelievably easy to put up and down, the hard top seems pretty superfluous. For my money, even in Michigan, I'd go fabric.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Brad Wood / Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 7 Years Ago
      I just picked up an 08 Miata SE. (Special Edition). Basically sky blue with saddle brown cloth top and leather interior. Lots of chrome and all options other than the sport package. Canadians get a hard top version only while the US gets the cloth top only. 750 Cloth top and 110 Hard top versions of the SE exist.

      That out of the way. I had a NB (2000) version for five years before diverging into "other" cars. Since I was able to buy mine using the S-plan (think invoice minus rebates and dealer stuff) I took an SE.

      Compared to the Sky/Solstice. Get out. Sorry while their looks appeal to others they are useless for traveling if you actually have a significant other. No usable trunk space with the top down and you have to get out of the car to put it up or down.

      That Miata hard top is plastic. FWIW it was the only way to keep the weight down. It actually takes between twelve and fifteen seconds to work at max. Can't be done in gear and the trunk has to be closed. It also is a little noisier than the soft top, called sound reflections.

      The only thing that "alarmed" me about the current generation, no spare. Run Flats are an option but everyone on the forums (www.miata.net) don't care for them. If you need more security than goo + a provided electric pump you can get the RX8 17" spare or RX7 16" spare. Just make sure the spare always goes on a front tire.

      It claims to need premium but runs fine on regular. I average 30 to 32 on mid-grade for my commute, mostly 35 to 55 speeds and two lane roads across 26 miles.

      Oh, about his comment about hard top convertibles looking funky if more than two seaters? Guess he needs to see an EOS. I almost bought one but the VW dealer was a dick and the maintenance costs being quoted on forums made me flinch.

      Oh well, best roadster on the planet. For what its worth, handling is superb and as anyone knows, its not how fast you accelerate that matters its how fast you go.
      • 7 Years Ago
      "Is the hard top worth $2K more than the flexible version?"

      One advantage - I saw an MX-5 with hard top shortly after its introduction. It was sitting in a shopping centre parking lot - top up and a shiny new iPod sitting in it's cradle on the dash.

      Too bad they begin at over $28,000 in Canada.
      • 7 Years Ago
      All hardtops with a backseat look bad? The 2007 Volvo C70 looked great...
      • 7 Years Ago
      The car isn't indistinguishable with the top down. There's a bit of a lump behind the seats to make a bit more room for the roof to wedge in vertically.

      When it comes to top up and down, did you stop to think that perhaps the Mustang couldn't have a top you could reach back and grab because it has rear seats? You'd have to reach back past the rear sets to grab the top on a 4 seater, and most of us don't have arms that long. I do appreciate what Mazda has done with their top, but it's not suitable for all cars or even possible.

      It's clear most people would take this car for the quietness and security of the hard top, not for the speed or ease of use. Mazda was smart to make it optional.

      Finally, in the spirit of what a small car like this is supposed to be, I don't think turbocharging really is a plus. You want a very direct connection to the car, and as powerful as turbocharging can be, it also introduces throttle lag and some non-linearity and thus would seem out of place to me on the Miata.
        • 7 Years Ago
        The Turbo in the Mazdaspeed Miata made the Miata better, so your thoughts on throttle non-linearity and throttle lag are unfounded, the DISI-4 is already excellent in the MS3 and it will be even better in a much lighter package, it will be-detuned, so turbo-lag will be smaller VS the MS3, it already has a fat mid-range, so once it's off the line it will be a screamer.
        • 7 Years Ago
        The turbo in the MSM did exactly what LS2/LS7 said: dulled throttle response at everyday rpm, and threw the sweet linearity of the NA engine's power curve out the window--it turned on like a light switch at 4000 rpm.

        The DISI in the MS3 and MS6 has a much fatter torque curve and is great fun, but there's no getting away from the elastic "whee!!!" midrange response. It also runs out of puff at 5,500 rpm. Great if midrange grunt is your thing, but a Miata is all about control.
        • 7 Years Ago
        Ah yes. The mythical lag-free turbo. I'd love to have one of these. I'm stuck instead with a twin-turbo (complete with lag) car of my own. Of course, mine, being a low-pressure setup, only exhibits lag off the line. A higher pressure setup like the DISI (such as my friend's Mazda 6) also has a bit of low-mid revs lull to go with it.

        You can go ahead and say you'd like a turbo in a Miata. That's fantastic, seriously. I disagree though, because of the problems I stated, which are not phantom.

        I'd gladly have a Cobalt SS/TC or a Mazdaspeed 3, so it's not that I'm afraid of turbos, even high-pressure turbos. I just don't think it's appropriate for a Miata.
        • 7 Years Ago
        The Miata is getting the DISI turbo, and it already had the MSM with a turbo 4, so....
        • 7 Years Ago
        Yes, I know it had a turbo before. That doesn't change what I said.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I like the MX-5, but this current iteration is straying too far from the original premise. This one is overstylized inside and out. The RX-8 look really doesn't fit on such a small car and the front-end needs to be more distinctive (looks to be fixed soon).

      I haven't driven this generation, but it looks to still drive great and hopefully Mazda doesn't muck this up when it gets redesigned. A Mazdaspeed version would be great.

      Would take this over a Sky/Solstice anyday.
      • 7 Years Ago
      As someone who leased an '08 MX-5 soft top since December, in Copper Red just like the photo car, let me address some of the previous comments.

      The soft top vs hard top decision is one that I thoroughly investigated, but, like Sam Abuelsamid stated in his review, I realized that the soft top was the way to go.

      On paper, the hard top seemed quite appealing. The weight gain is minimal (although, unlike the Ford press release that Steve Henderson linked to, I've heard that the hard top weight gain is more like 77 lbs), trunk space remains identical at 5.1 cubic feet (although you do lose a couple of shallow enclosed storage compartments behind each seat that the soft top has) and it was bound to be quieter.

      Reading both a review on AutoWeek with 4 staffers' opinions, plus comments on miata.net, I soon learned that the "bound to be quieter" was wrong. Minimizing the retractable hard top's weight gain meant a barely-padded (or even unpadded) thin metal top where noise echoed like a drum and was, in some conditions, actually noisier than the more padded soft top. That, plus the extra cost and weight (the latter up high, the worst place to add weight to any car) killed the hard top for me.
      • 7 Years Ago
      In April last year I bought a leftover '06 with a total discount of $4k. I love it, but...the seats are tiny (always were since Miata #1) and short of lumbar support. The clutch pedal catches the all-weather mat. It could use more low-end grunt. More displacement or a Roots blower would be handy, and the sound would be marvelous. Side visibility past the seatbacks and roll hoops is a bear, as is rear vision with the windblocker up. A clear one would help. So far none available. I'm considering redoing the factory one. Using the existing plastic frame and hinges would look neat.
      The exhaust is a little too civilized. I'd like it a little more rorty. Paint on the front bumper very thin. I rubbed through it while hand waxing the car!
      I'd also like to find a way to turn the traction control permanently. It's a summer car only, anyway.
        • 7 Years Ago
        I agree with the Blower part. It would work best with a small supercharger rather than a turbo charger. It would get more low down and mid range torque and no lag, whilst still being civilised.
      • 7 Years Ago
      The article's comments about British "aspects" of period cars:

      David Letterman: February 22, 1991
      Top 10 Least Popular New Car Options

      10. Rear window fogger.
      9. Pre-filled ashtrays.
      8. Passenger airbag in trunk.
      7. Drifter in the backseat who says, "Your door is open."
      6. Hydraulic roadkill scoop.
      5. 35 smelly Ringling Brothers clowns.
      4. Ceiling fans.
      3. Electronic scanner that reads the mind of Roddy McDowell.
      2. Oprahometer.
      1. Intermittent steering.
        • 7 Years Ago
        What?! These were excellent all-rounders, truly every-day car.

        They broke every day :-)
      • 7 Years Ago
      just want to comment on the article description of the softtop.
      I am a 2007 miata owner (softop) and I have a friend with a 2002 and the top has changed a lot (for the better).
      It was previously great but it is much improved in the following 2 ways:
      1) there is only one latch in the center to remove and relatch, this way you don't have to reach all the way to the right windscreen corner
      2) it is folding in Z shape (like a boxster or an MR2 spyder) which leaves the top of the roof on the top of the stack and looks much better.

      Watch in hand and doing our normal routine (not trying to go extra fast) I open my roof in 4s and close it in 6, my friend opens it in 10 and closes it in 14. Both times are faster than with an automatic roof and much less prone to problem (for info I also had a boxster so I know what I am talking about)
      • 7 Years Ago
      • 7 Years Ago
      This is a beautiful little car and I would probably buy one if I had the cash. Unfortunately, editing doesn't pay that well ... which also explains why nobody bothered to edit this story.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I've ridden in a turbo Miata around an autocross course and the shop I work for has tuned several others. While they're not entirely lag-free, they're still quite drivable. A Miata with a turbo does have an entirely different character, though - it goes from a friendly little roadster to a stupid fast road monster that is a lot less forgiving to drive.
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