Review: 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata is still the drive of our childhood dreams

2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata – Click above for high-res image gallery

Remember back when you were a diapered enthusiast-to-be and you weren't allowed to venture beyond the end of your family's tree lawn? The sum total of your 'driving' experience was probably a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe. If you were like us, your toddler self was all big dreams, bustling feet and arms akimbo, twirling around those front caster wheels, savoring your first taste of automotive freedom.

Mazda created a timeless masterwork upon minting the very first MX-5 Miata back in 1989.
Small wonder, then, that Little Tikes' now 30-year-old bauble of rotation-molded plastic was last year's best-selling car – it's timeless. Combine classic styling, unburstable robustness, an inexpensive sticker price and the fact that it remains just quick enough for its target audience, and you've got a recipe for lasting success. The CC's whimsical, animated face; rounded, friendly styling; unfussed interior; nimble handling and general affordability has meant that despite a decidedly casual model update schedule, the folks at Little Tikes still have the whole fun-to-drive thing knocked. Sound like anyone else we know?

Oh, it may have taken them a decade longer to cotton on to the idea, but Mazda's designers eventually stumbled upon the same secret sauce as those wondrous toymakers from Hudson, Ohio. Perhaps inadvertently, they, too, created a timeless masterwork upon minting the very first MX-5 Miata back in 1989. All these years later, just like the Cozy Coupe, you can't help but smile a little when you see one. Just like the Cozy Coupe, you have to adopt the same mildly vulnerable, elbows-out-the-window driving position because of the cabin's pronounced narrowness. Just like the Cozy Coupe, both cars have more than their fair share of plastic in their interior. Just like the Cozy Coupe, road imperfections are transmitted directly through the modestly sized wheels into the driver's hands and back pocket – and in both cases, it's part of the fun. Most importantly, just like that Cozy Coupe of your youth, Mazda's minimalist masterwork will help you rediscover your inner enthusiast's childlike heart.

Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Paukert / Weblogs, Inc.

It all starts with the dimensions. The Miata may have grown a bit over its twenty years, but unlike the rich kid down the street with his powerful, complex and expensive Power Wheels, it hasn't sold out to whatever trendy of-the-moment fashion is popular, and it isn't larded down with gee-whiz technology. It is still stubby at only 157.3 inches long and a titchy 67.7 inches wide. Despite the fact that it has gained a bit of size over its original incarnation, the MX-5 remains lightweight (well under 2,500 pounds) and significantly smaller than anything on the road this side of a Smart ForTwo.

Styling-wise, Mazda characterizes the 2009 Miata's newly retouched nose as "more aggressive," but the effect is very much like CARS' Lightning McQueen trying to puff up when Sally nuzzles up to his bumper in Radiator Springs. Even with its slightly larger five-pointed grille and marginally more intimidating headlamps, our Competition Yellow Miata still maintains a friendly googly-eyed countenance, only now its brows are wryly furrowed a bit. As a side bonus, the touched-up front graphic is easier for the wind to look at, too.

Critically, even in the $29,170 full-house spec of our Grand Touring premium package tester (complete with the bargain $500 suspension package that includes a more tightly drawn springs, Bilstein shocks and a limited-slip differential), you never feel overwhelmed by this Miata's kit, crushed by its creature comforts or unnecessarily addled by additional features. That's just not its way. Despite our tester being outfitted with everything from a keyless entry/start system to Bluetooth hands-free telephony, a six-disc CD stereo with MP3 input, heated leather seats and Xenon headlamps, the gauges remain simple, the controls uncluttered, and the general aesthetic of the interior is one of Zen-like minimalism.

That's important, because a Miata remains as readily defined by what it is as by what it isn't. It isn't a muscle car, it isn't a luxurious wafter – it isn't even particularly sophisticated – there are no sport modes, no active steering gewgaws, no THX-Certified surround sound systems, no pyrotechnic roll hoops, no baseball-stitched leather seats. Want a nav system? You'll have to revisit your old friends Messieurs Rand and McNally (remember them?) or suction one of those TomTom boxes to the glass. It's all gleefully elemental, this Mazda.

The Miata reminds us of the power and joy in momentum conservation.
Some cars take eons to figure out – you can put thousands of miles on the latest Shazam Gadzooks 5000, only to reach the end of a cross-country odyssey and not know what to make of it. The MX-5's simplicity means the familiarization process is rather brief. As in immediate. Release the single latch on the windshield header, throw the top back and let it accordion over your shoulder, and just a few miles down the road, you know exactly what this car is, what it is capable of, and what your role is in the whole thing.

Part of this is due to the fact that the Miata's limits are rather modest to begin with – a much greater percentage of its total performance envelope can be safely explored under normal motoring conditions than other performance cars. With a powerful vehicle that has bigger dimensions and loftier limits, it often takes huge stretches of open road and confetti'd license velocities in order to even begin to feel entertained. Not so with the Miata – an unscheduled squirt to the corner grocery can provoke more grins in a few minutes than roadsters with thrice its power might hope to exact in a week's worth of driving. If nothing else, a week's refresher in our roadster proved that Miata drivers still wave at each other – when was the last time a fellow motorist made you smile?

All of this talk of humble performance is not to say that the Miata is slow – it's plenty potent for both canyon carving and the interstate drone, it's just that it reminds one of the power and joy in momentum conservation and being economical with one's movements. Ultimately, the Littlest Mazda is still only capable of a modest turn of speed from to its sixteen-valve 2.0-liter MZR four-cylinder – even when outfitted with an extra cog in its manual gearbox like our six-speed Grand Touring model. If you're a numbers type, the engine's 167 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque yields 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, but thanks to the car's small frame, tarmac-hugging stance and raucous engine note, it all feels infinitely quicker and more entertaining – in much the same way that a full-grown adult can still have a blast with a concessions kart at the local amusement park.

Unlike Little Tikes, however, Mazda has faithfully updated its cozy coupe at regular intervals. Once again, evolution – not revolution – is at the heart of the Miata's improved-for-2009 driving experience, and that includes a revised gearbox that's even more snickety-snick than before. Credit goes to a new carbon treatment on the first-gear through fourth-gear synchros (the synchros themselves are larger for cogs 3 and 4, too), and six-speed manual cogswappers also benefit from a taller sixth gear (0.787: 1 vs. 0.832:1) in order to provide more relaxed cruising and improved fuel economy. EPA figures are 22 mpg city and 28 highway, the latter figure being one mpg greater than 2008.

Did we mention that the MZR is even revvier than last year? Mazda has let out the redline on six-speed manual models to 7,200 rpm (up 500 revs) on account of a new crankshaft, con-rods, pistons, valve springs, and the inclusion of an engine oil cooler. Better still, six-speed manual models also get something Mazda officials call an Induction Sound Enhancer. Basically, it's a network of tubes designed to deliver more of the engine's noises to the cowl at the base of the windshield. In most NVH update programs, engineers attempt to cover and smother engine sounds like an order of Waffle House hash browns. In the MX-5's case, Mazda's boffins have dialed in additional sonics for the drivers that will appreciate them most. God bless 'em.

The new Competition Yellow suits the Miata's sunny disposition.
The MX-5's suspension has also received a once-over, including repositioned outer ball joints that lower the car's front roll center by an inch and revisited dampers regardless of whether your car is fitted with the optional Bilstein package like our test car or the standard setup. Other handling changes include revamped traction and stability control systems with less aggressive intervention logic. Not keen on the added electronics to begin with? No problem – you don't have to order them. Either way, we found flatteringly progressive breakaway habits from the 17-inch Bridgestone Potenza RE050A's and a bit more lift-off throttle oversteer than before, and the four-wheel disc brakes deliver excellent feel and solid stopping power.

Interior updates are minor yet noteworthy, with a revised center console and armrest (the old one was hard and could irritate on longer journeys – this new one could still use a bit more padding), as well as slightly recontoured seats and better bottle holders in the doors – useful, as the ones in the center console aren't terribly accommodating or well-placed. These are incremental improvements to be sure, but ones that a 2008 Miata driver will come to covet.

So... what else would we change? Well, aside from ditching the cheap plastic sunblockers that incorporate a strange bend (precluding clipping things like garage door openers to them), not much. At an as-tested price of $29,250 (including $500 for the suspension upgrade, $1650 for the premium package and $750 in destination charges), our Grand Touring model was perhaps priced uncomfortably close to much more powerful fixed-head sports cars, but we enjoyed our week with the Miata more than we have with roadsters costing five times as much. Besides, we could – and would – happily motor along in a more modestly spec'd example for years. Pricing starts at $22,500 for the Miata's honest balance of accessible performance, newborn kitty frolic and uncomplicated operation, and that still strikes us as great value.

Heck, we'd even get ours in Competition Yellow, which suits the Miata's sunny disposition while reminding us closet nostalgics of the Little Tikes Cozy Coupe.

Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Paukert / Weblogs, Inc.

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