2008 Mazda MX-5 Expert Review
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.
New Car Test Drive
The modern classic sports car.
Eighteen years after its late 1989 introduction, the Mazda Miata still puts a big grin on our faces. The Mazda MX-5, as it's now called, has been thoroughly updated twice, including a full re-design for 2006, but its lighthearted spirit remains intact.
This is a car to love, a car that delivers what the English sports cars of the 1950s and 60s promised but never quite managed: a delightful, supremely capable, well-engineered driving experience in a vehicle that starts every time and runs seemingly forever, with near-faultless Japanese quality and reliability.
A Power Retractable Hard Top, a solid roof that lowers in seconds at the touch of a button, is available for the MX-5. Called the PRHT, it provides the advantages of a hardtop overhead: reduced wind and road noise, increased security and a sense of solidity. Yet it folds completely out of sight for stylish cruising. What's more, not a whit of the driving experience has been sacrificed by the addition of hardtop practicality.
Traditional soft tops in cloth or vinyl come standard.
Five trim packages are available, along with two suspension setups and a dozen standalone options. So there are lots of choices, ranging from a $21,000 stripper to a loaded $28,000 model. In any case, the MX-5 is a rewarding sports car at an enticing price.
New for 2008: A six-disc CD changer comes on Touring and Grand Touring models; a seat-height adjustment has been added, and a Tire Pressure Monitoring System comes on all models.
The 2008 Mazda MX-5 comes in two body styles: convertible and Power Retractable Hard Top (PRHT). All MX-5 models are powered by the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Three transmissions are offered: a five-speed manual, a six-speed manual, and a six-speed automatic. The engine is rated at 166 horsepower, or 163 hp on automatics.
The least expensive MX-5 is a Special Value model, available by special order through one of Mazda's regional offices and designed to provide the basis for building a race car. The SV ($20,585) comes with a five-speed manual gearbox, 16-inch aluminum wheels, cloth upholstery, various interior storage pockets and bins, an AM/FM/CD sound system with four speakers, power mirrors, dual front and side airbags and, for 2008, a tire pressure monitor and driver's-side seat-height adjuster. Air conditioning is deleted.
The MX-5 Sport ($21,585) comes with the vinyl soft top, the five-speed manual gearbox, cloth upholstery, air conditioning and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and 16-inch aluminum wheels. A tire puncture repair kit fills in for a spare tire as it does on all MX-5s. The Sport convertible hardtop ($24,400) comes with a manual gearbox.
The Sport automatic ($23,740) comes with the Activematic six-speed transmission. The Sport automatic is only available with the soft top. A Convenience Package consisting of cruise control, fog lamps, keyless entry system and power door locks comes standard on the automatic.
The Touring model with soft top comes with a six-speed manual gearbox ($23,630) or six-speed automatic ($24,730) and adds fog lamps, power door locks, keyless entry, steering-wheel-mounted cruise and audio controls, and an in-dash six-CD changer. Handsome 17-inch aluminum wheels mounting 205/45R17 tires fill the wheel openings, and run-flat technology ($515) is available. The Touring convertible hard top is similarly equipped and comes with the six-speed manual ($25,500) or automatic ($26,600).
The Grand Touring with a six-speed manual gearbox ($24,890) or automatic ($25,990) adds heated leather seats, faux leather door trim, a nicer cloth soft top, and a Bose AM/FM/CD system with seven speakers and an in-dash 6CD changer. Order the rich-looking tan leather and you get tan door panels to match. The Grand Touring convertible hardtop is available with the six-speed manual ($26,760) or automatic ($27,860).
Options include the Convenience Package ($1055), which adds cruise control, fog lamps, keyless entry and power door locks to a manual-transmission Sport model. The Suspension Package ($500) up-rates the handling with Bilstein gas pressure shocks and a limited-slip differential. The Premium Package 1 ($1600) adds a theft alarm; dynamic stability control with traction control; a limited-slip rear differential; Advanced Keyless Entry (a credit-card sized key fob that you keep in your pocket; there's no actual key for the ignition); and xenon high-intensity headlights. The Premium Package 2 ($1250) is the same as Package 1 minus the limited-slip differential.
The appearance package ($1145) dresses the exterior in sporty duds including a front air dam, side skirts and rear under skirt. And the Interior Trim Package ($515) brightens up an already handsome cabin with brushed aluminum trim pieces on the dash and door switch panels, and a handsome leather-and-aluminum gearshift knob. Also available: a cargo net, door edge guards, all-weather mats, chrome fuel filler door, splash guards, rear spoiler, Sirius satellite radio, an in-dash 6CD/MP3 changer, and wheel locks.
Available with the soft-top only are the Special Edition manual ($26,590), which comes with Grand Touring equipment plus Premium Package 1; and Special Edition automatic ($27,340) with Grand Touring equipment plus Premium Package 2.
All MX-5s benefit from a comprehensive 3 year/36,000 mile warranty, a five year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty and a five-year/unlimited mileage corrosion warranty. And M.
Mazda did a masterful job designing the MX-5. This third-generation MX5 evokes the themes of the original 1990 Miata and the second-generation car of 1999-2005. The current Mazda MX-5 is slightly larger in every measure from previous versions, from what's beneath the hood to the interior to the shadow it casts on the road.
Great designs evolve, but often hark back to a central theme that defines the brand. So it is with the third-generation MX-5. In fact, this third-generation model looks more like the original Miata than the second-generation model did. The overall design is somewhat slab sided, and it's taller and more rounded at the front-end than previous versions. But the ovoid shape of the grille is pure Miata. (The grille on the hardtop models is brightened with a delicate chrome ring around its circumference.) This larger-than-before opening moves more cooling air through the radiator and around the larger engine and combines with a pronounced air dam across the bottom of the lower opening to give the Miata's face a strong chin. So what if it brings to mind a largemouth bass when viewed straight on? It does what it's supposed to do. Compound, projector-beam headlights live in small housings deeply recessed and near to the car's centerline, which emphasizes the Miata's diminutive size. The hood wears a mini-bulge in the center, simultaneously suggestive of a scoop and of a similar bulge on the RX-8.
The MX-5 design has definitely evolved since the beginning, especially when seen from the side. Sharply sculpted wheel flares appear adapted from the RX-8 in an example of what the company calls Mazda design DNA. The flared wheel arches also spread wide enough to cover the new-generation Miata's wider track. (Track is the distance between the left and right wheels). The track is three inches wider in front, two inches wider in the rear when compared with the previous-generation MX-5. This gives the car a more athletic stance. The current MX-5 looks more aggressive and less cuddly than its predecessors.
Taillights retain the basic elliptical outline of Miatas past but, like the headlights, nestle a little closer toward the car's middle. Even the rear license plate housing's contours are round and crisply molded into the surrounding sheet metal. A horizontal black panel beneath the rear bumper echoes the front end's air dam, only this one is braced by twin exhaust tips, adding a look of purposefulness to the tail end.
The soft top is the best yet, and one of the best in all sportscardom. The top, with its heated glass rear window, collapses into a well behind the seats cleanly and completely, in a way requiring no cover boot. That's good, because there are plenty of times when you'd like to drop the top but don't want to take time to snap on a cover. Now it looks neatly finished when it's down, with no additional effort. As with previous models, it's manually operated, but so light and easy to use you can do it with one hand while sitting in the driver's seat. You'll never wish for power assistance. This is distinctly different from, say, the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, whose tops are far more involved to raise and lower.
The Power Retractable Hard Top (PRHT) is a mastery of good design: a cinch to operate, quick to fold, and a miracle of space efficiency. Stop the car, put it in neutral (or Park for the automatic). Pop a single handle at the top of the windshield, touch a button on the dash, and in 12 seconds the top has contorted itself into the same well the soft-top uses. The hardtop is made of lightweight materials: sheet molding compound on the outside and glass fiber-reinforced polypropylene on the inside. The entire apparatus including electric motors adds less than 80 pounds to the featherweight car, thus maintaining the MX-5's wonderful agility and balance.
Nor does the retractable hard top impact trunk room: A rear panel a.
The MX-5 is roomier than it looks. This latest generation Mazda MX-5 grew in all dimensions and it is more accommodating than before, but it's still a snug fit for full-figured or tall sports car lovers. Rearward seat travel was extended by about an inch, and you can feel it. Before, on pre-2006 MX-5s, a six-foot driver would adjust the driver's seat all the way back. Now there's a notch or two left in the travel. The car's expanded girth yielded an additional 1.4 inches in hip room, and it too makes a difference.
Overall, interior quality and appearance are way better than any past MX-5 Miata would have led you to expect. Fit and finish is tight and smooth. Trim panels on the center stack fit flush and look expensively made. Materials are mostly impressive grade; the shiny black trim across the width of the instrument panel has the high-end look of black lacquered furniture. The headliner of the hardtop's roof is finished in a hard flat-black textured covering that, if not luxurious, is certainly tidy.
The base cloth upholstery is nice, with lightly woven, smooth-finish bolsters and waffle-weave insets. Depending on the weather, the cloth upholstery's waffle-like weave can be more comfortable than leather. Leather is available on the Grand Touring model. The Special Value edition's urethane steering wheel and shift knob wrappings are obviously not leather, but they're not offensive, either.
The soft top is an exemplar of simplicity and ease of use. Release a single latch at the center of the foremost bow and with one hand push the top back into its recess behind the seats. To reverse the process, reach back with one hand, grab the latch and pull, and the top rises out of its well and settles onto the top of the windshield. Tug down, engage the latch, and it's done.
Seats are neither overly firm nor too plush, properly bolstered for the type of driving the Miata invites but with only acceptable thigh support. Be ready for noticeable lumbar, too, for which there's no adjustment. The tilt steering wheel helps at least a little, and the new-for-2008 seat-height adjustment is a welcome addition. The properly stubby shift lever is where it should be. The hand brake sits on the passenger side of the drive tunnel.
A single set of power window buttons is located on the center console aft of the shift boot, behind which a neat retracting cover conceals two cup holders. The center stack hosts intuitively positioned stereo and air conditioning knobs, buttons and recessed toggles that are easy to grasp and manipulate. A power outlet conveniently placed at the base of the center stack waits for a radar detector or cell phone. Four air registers are spaced across the dash in the hard, shiny black panel that changes to brushed aluminum with the Interior Trim Package. They swivel with a surprisingly expensive feel.
All gauges are analog, with a large, round tachometer and matching speedometer straddling the steering column and shaded from all but trailing sunlight by an arched hood. Fuel level is reported in a small circle to the lower left, coolant temperature by one to the lower right, and oil pressure thank you very much by a matching triplet positioned top center between the tach and speedo. It's the kind of engine monitoring panel that sports car drivers love. Headlights are managed by a stalk on the left side of the steering column, windshield wiper and washer by a stalk on the right side. On the Touring model and above, cruise and secondary audio controls utilize the horizontal spokes of the steering wheel. The on/off switch for the stability control system shares space with a pair of switch blanks in the lower dash by the driver's door.
The premium sound system has a function Bose calls Audiopilot that goes beyond simple speed-sensing volume control by actually re-mixing in real time the sound coming out of the speakers to help the stereo punch through the ambient wi.
Mazda's engineers worked overtime to keep the third-generation MX-5 from gaining performance-dulling weight, and it shows. Liberal use of lightweight and high tensile metals, along with fresh thinking in such basics as mounting accessories to the engine and even how much a rearview mirror weighs, kept weight to within 22 pounds of the second-generation Miata. Dropping the spare tire helped, but the MX-5's designated dieticians still faced added calories from the larger engine, the head-and-thorax side-impact airbags, more robust side-impact hardware, larger wheels and those stylish seatback hoops.
Just as significant from the driver's seat is how the car's mass is distributed. The lower the mass is in the car's chassis, the lower the car's center of gravity and the more stable its ride and handling. But especially important for a sports car, the closer weight is clustered around what engineers call the vertical yaw axis the better. Imagine a broomstick with two five-pound weights attached. It weighs about 10 pounds regardless of where the weights are positioned. Put the weights at the ends of the broomstick, and try to spin it like a baton. It's not so easy to get started, and once started it's difficult to stop. But move the weights next to each other at the center of the broomstick, and starting it spinning and stopping it requires much less effort. This is a simplification because concentrating too much of the mass around the yaw axis can make a car unstable, but you get the point. And so did the Mazda engineers. The engine in this latest version was moved rearward more than five inches from its relative location in the previous (pre-2006) model. The gas tank was moved forward and lowered in the chassis. Relocating the battery from the trunk to under the hood positioned it closer to the yaw axis.
What all this has accomplished in pursuit of the ideal 50/50 front/rear weight balance is, well, if not perfection, then close, depending on how the Miata is loaded. With two people buckled in, Mazda pegs the current Miata's weight distribution at 50/50. With their luggage, it tends to a rear bias; empty, with a full gas tank, it tends to a front bias.
So much for what gratifies the left brain. What's so cool about all this shifting around of mechanicals and components is, it works.
The MX-5 is a blast to drive. A highly responsive throttle sending 166 horsepower through a responsive six-speed gearbox give it a nice kick in the back end. The wide track and low center of gravity enable it to corner flatter than should be possible. With balance so close to perfect with two people on board; and with the sporty, asymmetrical-tread tires on the Touring and Grand Touring models; the MX-5 holds its line through corners like it was highway striping paint.
Quick, left-right-left transitions on a winding two-lane running along a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the Big Island of Hawaii succumb to nearly perfect steering response: light but not twitchy, with good feel regardless of the speed. Crank in more steering to keep it off the rock wall on the outside of a tight switchback, and the rear tires step tentatively sideways. A touch of counter steer and a soft feathering of the gas and the tires stick again, and away you go. What a rush. This is with the electronic stability control deactivated. With it active, it's still fun, just not as much.
Ordering the sports suspension buys a firmer ride and increased feel of the road, but not to the point of discomfort.
We haven't had the opportunity to drive any models with the 16-inch wheels, standard tires, and five-speed manual, but from experience with previous-generation Miatas, we'd expect a similar dynamic personality, albeit at lower thresholds.
The Miata cruises well, too, though on the Interstate it wanders slightly in response to pavement irregularities or when passing a heaving semi. When it must, the MX-5 c.
The Mazda MX-5 Miata remains the quintessential affordable two-seater, and holder of the sales record for convertible sports cars. The latest generation is spectacularly good, both sweetly rewarding to drive and an excellent value. The available retractable hardtop is ingenious and extends the MX-5's allure. The Miata formula has been copied, most recently by the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. They're good, but the MX-5 is more fun to drive. The all-around capability and grin-per-mile factor of the MX-5 remains what all affordable, two-seat roadsters will continue to be judged against.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from Kona, Hawaii, with Rich Ceppos reporting from Detroit, Michigan.
Mazda MX-5 SV ($20,585); Sport ($21,585); Touring ($23,630); Grand Touring ($24,890); Special Edition ($26,590); Sport PRHT ($24,400); Touring PRHT ($25,500); Grand Touring PRHT ($26,760).
Options As Tested
Premium Package 1 ($1600) includes xenon HID headlights, dynamic stability control with traction control, limited-slip differential, Smart Key keyless ignition, anti-theft alarm; run-flat tires ($515).
Mazda MX-5 Grand Touring ($24,890).
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