First Drive

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata First Drive [w/video]

A Historically Accurate Fourth Generation That Moves Us

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  • Engine
    1.5L I4
  • Power
    129 HP / 111 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    6-Speed Manual
  • Drivetrain
    Rear-Wheel Drive
  • Engine Placement
  • Curb Weight
    2,200 LBS (est.)
  • Seating
Hypothetically speaking, if you blindfolded me, put me in the car pictured above, and told me to hit the road, it would have taken me maybe two minutes to figure out that I was driving the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata. There are just certain facets about Miata driving that have been baked into every generation of Mazda's roadster, and it makes for a symbiotic relationship between car and driver that's truly unique. Sure, I could rattle off a list of cars that come close to offering the same sort of experience, but they just can't quite capture the same intrinsic Miata magic.

Mazda knows its Miata is an incredibly special machine. Listening to the company's engineers and designers talk about the development of this fourth-generation ND model is fascinating. The attention to detail is astonishing, and every single person involved in the Miata program knows that the most important goal is to keep this car as true to its predecessors' ethos as possible. It cannot just be a great convertible, or even a great Mazda – it has to be a great MX-5 Miata.

But the company did not just want to improve upon the third-generation NC Miata, which has been around since 2006. They wanted to tie the ND Miata's roots back to the original NA from 1989. Back in '89, the Miata was a less-powerful, 1.6-liter model with 115 horsepower and 100 pound-feet of torque. Mazda's team said they are proud of every version of the MX-5, but it's this specific, first-generation model that the company calls the "most right" – the most true to the idea of what a Miata ought to be.

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata

So that's why, before being allowed to attack the winding roads of the Spanish countryside in the 2016 MX-5, Mazda wanted me to spend some time with a cherry example of the original NA Miata: a Mariner Blue darling that, even with some 239,000 kilometers on its clock, still felt absolutely impeccable from behind the wheel. Light, responsive, and perfectly balanced, it was the original embodiment of the harmony between driver and car that Mazda wanted in every Miata.

Mazda executives said they felt the first Miata was also the right size. So they chopped off three inches on the ND compared with the NC, and put it on a wheelbase that's been reduced by six-tenths of an inch. In fact, these dimensions mean the new Miata is more than two inches shorter in length than the original, and only two-tenths of an inch taller. In this day and age of ever-expanding waistlines and footprints, it's a remarkable achievement.

There's also been a significant weight reduction, and while Mazda has yet to publish final specifications for the ND car, the company is touting a savings of 220 pounds compared to the NC. In other words, expect a curb weight somewhere around 2,200 pounds for a Japanese-spec model – only 100 to 200 pounds heavier than the original despite additional equipment. Mazda achieved this lower mass thanks to – you guessed it – aluminum components, as well as increased use of high-strength steel. And because it's all about the details, the Miata team added aluminum in areas furthest away from the car's center of gravity, to keep the bulk of the mass as close to the ground, and middle of the chassis, as possible. That's also the reason for moving the engine 13 millimeters lower, and 15 millimeters backward on the chassis. It now sits fully behind the front axle, technically making the Miata a front mid-engined car.

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I could dive into a discussion of styling, but you've no doubt already pored over dozens of high-resolution images, and our NB-owning executive editor has since registered plenty of apt observations about the new car. Just know this: the styling was done for form, not function. Don't like the headlamps? Too bad. Mazda wanted to get that hood as low as possible, and then worried about fitting in the projector-beam LEDs. It's a much more aggressive car, and on the road, it looks great.

The cloth top structure now uses aluminum components, and before you ask, Mazda would not say one way or the other if a Power Retractable Hard Top will be offered. That said, if earlier reports are to be believed, consider the PRHT out of the cards. The cloth roof is just as simple to operate as before – unlatch it and throw it behind you. This is another important part of the Miata formula: it was key that the driver not be constricted in the cockpit, and could easily turn to reach behind for quick top-up/top-down switches. I'll get back to the interior stuff in a moment – for now, have a look at the soft top's simplicity in the video below.

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Roof Operation | Autoblog Short Cut

Of course, unless it's raining cats and dogs, you shouldn't be driving a Miata with the top up anyway. Top-down driving is so important to Mazda that the door trim and A pillar were designed to specifically direct air over the top of the car, but have it channeled in through the sides, so the driver feels a "pleasant breeze," according to one engineer. To further enhance topless driving, Mazda has one again added audio speakers into the headrests, so you won't need to crank the stereo.

For my drive through the countryside outside of Barcelona, the music I preferred came from the Miata itself. I focused on the muffled, yet present exhaust note of the 2016 MX-5, coupled with an engine sound that's less harsh and buzzy than before. There's still very obviously a four-cylinder working under that hood, but it's more refined than in previous generations.

When it arrives in the US later this year, the Miata will be offered with a 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G inline-four, producing 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque. Believe me, you won't miss those ponies. Yes, I realize that's a decrease of 12 hp, but hear me out: you get 8 more pound-feet, and the car weighs over 200 pounds less.

This is how I know – I drove one even less powerful, and still had a good time. According to Mazda's spokespeople, there are only a small handful of super-pre-production, fully functional ND prototypes in the world, and four of them were brought to Spain for this test. They're all Japanese-spec models (notice the "Roadster" badging in place of "MX-5"), fitted with a less-powerful, 1.5-liter Skyactiv-G four-cylinder engine that we won't get in the States. This mill for other markets only produces 129 hp at 7,000 rpm and 111 lb-ft at 4,800 rpm. But I promise – truly, seriously, honestly – it's totally fine. Is it sluggish when you dip into the throttle in sixth gear at 70 miles per hour on the freeway? Yes. Is it something that a quick downshift to fourth and a heavy right foot can't overcome? Heavens no. What's important here are the balance and the lightness, not to mention the revised throttle mapping and more linear acceleration. On good backroads and during daily driving tasks, I believe the 1.5-liter engine would suit the US market well enough. Besides, Mazda says the 1.5 "embodies the concept of the MX-5" better than the 2.0 engine, anyway.

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Good backroads made up the bulk of my Miata drive day, allowing me to work the 1.5 hard, and toss this right-hand-drive tester into all sorts of interesting and lovely bends. Another excellent part of the MX-5 experience was noted here: it's the sort of car that rewards you with tremendous fun at legal speeds. A Nissan GT-R is amazing and all, but it's a total bore at 45 mph. The Miata, on the other hand, happily revs to its 7,500-rpm peak in second gear as you blow through curves, offering a truly rewarding experience at speeds that won't send you directly to jail.

In terms of dynamics, nothing about the ND's behavior is revolutionary. But that's a good thing – the Miata has always been so incredibly brilliant to toss around, with a chassis that's forgiving and compliant over harsh surfaces, with things like fore/aft pitch and dive built into the suspension tuning. Body roll, too – the engineers purposely dial that in all for the sake of driver involvement.

Could the car be flatter through corners? Probably. But I wouldn't want it that way. And neither would the Mazda team. Instead, the driver is put in a commanding position, able to see the front corners of the vehicle and feel exactly what all four tires are doing at any given time. In fact, engineers specifically designed the seating position of the car to be at the pitch center, so the line of vision is always dead ahead with what the nose of the car is doing, even if it's diving as you brake hard before a bend. No matter what the situation or the speed, I always knew exactly how much of the car's load was being shifted to each corner, and could apply appropriate amounts of throttle or steering input to handle it perfectly. Go hard on the right pedal coming out of a turn, and the Miata, on these 16-inch alloy wheels and P195/50R16 tires, will rotate quickly, its rump stepping out ever so slightly until immediately dialed back into line with a quick flick of the tiller. And that's without ever touching the traction control button.

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Speaking of steering, Mazda has employed its electronic power assisted unit here – a setup you'll find in most of the company's products. Complain all you want about the use of EPAS instead of a hydraulic system, but I'll tell you to drive a Mazda – a Miata, specifically – for proof that this type of configuration really can offer excellent amounts of feel, with weight that builds progressively, offering ample through-the-road feedback. To be fair, the MX-5 sampled here felt a bit lighter than I would have expected in terms of overall steering feel, but Mazda says it isn't quite done tuning that yet, and the US-spec car with its larger, more powerful engine will have "heavier" steering. I can't quite say for sure if that means more heft added overall, or if that will make for stronger, quicker weight buildup while cornering, but I have to imagine it's going to be good.

Mazda will offer the new Miata with either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission, and you'd be crazy not to opt for the former. As has been the case with all MX-5s, the ND's tranny is a superb piece of work, with a clutch pedal that's light yet firm, and easy to modulate, matched with a gear lever that's short and stubby, offering a reassuring click into each gear as you quickly row through the 'box. Furthermore, the three-pedal setup is staggered for heel-and-toe maneuvers, and predictable, linear throttle response makes rev-matching a breeze. I'm not entirely used to shifting with my left hand – my experience with RHD cars being limited and all – but after a few runs through the gearbox and training my mind to send its shifting muscle movements solely to the left side of my body, I was firing off perfectly timed, quick, smooth gear changes like I did in the left-hand-drive NA Miata that morning.

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Naturally, weight balance is a perfect 50/50 here, and while I'd love to list off specs like suspension damping vis-à-vis the NA and NC models, I don't have those numbers. Nor do I have brake size data, and can only say that the stoppers performed admirably never once feeling grabby or, on the other end, too soft.

Really, if you've ever driven a Miata, nothing about the ND experience will shock or alarm. Nor will it disappoint. It's intoxicating, and it's perfect for cruising down canyon roads, hands at nine and three, or for long stretches of open highway, elbow resting nicely on the door, wind being channeled in softly.

This Miata should prove easier to live with, as well, now that the interior has been brought into the twentieth century. That's not to say the outgoing model had a bad cabin – it just became outdated, especially with the rapidly growing set of infotainment systems and gee-whiz gadgets that now come standard across all vehicles. The MX-5 boasts a clean, driver-focused layout, with easy-to-navigate interior functions neatly stacked up the center console. New for 2016 are more robust cupholders, and the storage space between the two seats that serves as a glovebox is still surprisingly capacious. Mazda's infotainment system, plucked from the Mazda3, can now be had in the Miata, offering a smattering of tech and functionality not available to the company's roadster owners until now.

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Straight ahead from the driver, the instrument cluster is refreshingly basic, with only the necessary informational gauges. The steering wheel diameter has been ever so slightly decreased for the ND model, and the tilt range is a bit more expansive than before (still no telescopic function, though). Seats are comfortable and supportive, and importantly, you sit lower in this car than in the NC – the hip point has been reduced by 20 millimeters, again, all for the sake of keeping as much mass as close to the road as possible. Taller drivers (that's you, Seyth Miersma) will still poke the tops of their heads above the windscreen, but folks I spoke with after the drive program didn't seem to mind. Instead, the big takeaway with the cabin is that nothing gets in the way of driver focus and driver enjoyment.

When it comes down to it, that's really all there is to know about this car: everything has been done for the sake of driving pleasure above all. No excuses, no compromises. That's what makes the Miata a Miata. By and large, every generation of Mazda's roadster has built upon the strengths of the original NA MX-5, and this fourth chapter not only continues the proud tradition of the lightweight Japanese sports car that made folks the world over fall in love some 25 years ago, it has regained some of the original's essence by slimming down. As Mazda likes to say, there's a little bit of Miata in every model it makes, and since its inception, this one little car has inspired the brand's entire direction.

But it's more than a great car, and it's more than a great Mazda: my drive in the Japanese-spec model offered a promising glimpse at what should no doubt be a truly fantastic ND MX-5 Miata. If the US-spec car keeps all of this JDM's testers rhythms in check, car enthusiasts have something seriously rewarding to look forward to. The MX-5 has always been one for the car guys, and the ND is proof positive that Mazda's 25-year-old recipe is still as tasty as ever.

Mazda MX-5 Miata Information

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