Nobody ever seems to get tired of sports cars. The Mazda MX-5 Miata didn’t look exotic when it arrived for the 1990 model year. But it turned lots of heads because it was the first modern-looking small sports car in years, complete with retractable headlights. Once-popular affordable sports cars such as the dated British MG and Triumph were long gone.
The Miata actually was a clever copy of the 1960s-1970s British Lotus Elan sports car. Both were a blast to drive. But, while the low-volume Elan was troublesome and known to few Americans, the heavily promoted, high-volume Japanese Miata was dead reliable.
The rear-wheel-drive Miata was a quick, straightforward, agile little roadster. Many young women–not to mention plenty of male sports car fans–just had to have one. At about $13,000, the Miata wasn’t about to break many banks, either.
The nicely built 2014 Miata–largely a carryover model from 2013–also is relatively inexpensive. It starts at $23,720 for a fabric soft-top model with a five-speed manual transmission and ends at $30,550 for a better-equipped automatic transmission model and nifty power retractable hard top that zips down or up in approximately 12 seconds. The hardtop has a glass window with a defogger.
As with the easily used soft top, the hardtop doesn’t steal trunk space when lowered. Thank goodness for that because the trunk is only moderately sized, which is to be expected with a two-seat sports car with just a 91.7-inch wheelbase.
There also are a $23,720 Miata Sport model and a $28,665 Club model for Miata buyers who want something a little different in terms of trim and equipment. You also can get an optional suspension package.
Several generations of Miatas have been built, and it’s become the world’s best-selling two-seat roadster, according to the Guinness World Records, with more than 900,000 produced. (It’s even outsold the admittedly more expensive Chevrolet Corvette two-seater, which has been sold since 1953.)
Mazda has kept the Miata’s basic design while making key visual and mechanical improvements down through the years. One of the most noticeable things to go have been the pop-up headlights. Making the current model look like the raciest Miata ever are such items as a low front air dam, diffuser and alloy wheels. Contrasting stitching in the interior gives the car a more upscale look.
But, as always, the Miata is a pure sports car designed for top-down driving fun.
Besides the five-speed manual, the 2014 MX-5 Miata also can be had with a six-speed manual gearbox or a slick six-speed automatic with a manual-shift feature. My test 2014 Miata had the automatic, which at first didn’t seem appropriate to me for a sports car such as the Miata but soon won me over.
The responsive automatic was welcome in stop-go traffic, and its manual-shift feature worked efficiently. A 2013 Miata I drove had a slick six-speed manual transmission, but it came with a rather touchy clutch.
The Miata’s sophisticated 2-liter, 16-valve double-overhead-camshaft four-cylinder engine with the manual transmission generates 167 horsepower , while that engine with the automatic provides 158 horsepower. The horsepower difference is no big deal, as I found that the Miata automatic was quick off the line and during highway passing maneuvers.
Estimated fuel economy with the soft-top Miata and five-speed manual gearbox is 22 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on highways, or 21 and 28 with both the six-speed manual and automatic. The Miata hard top version provides an estimated 21 and 28 with either the six-speed manual or automatic.
The lowest-cost soft-top Miata with the five-speed manual is the closest you can come to the first basically equipped Miatas. But Americans are spoiled, so Mazda now offers the Miata with all sorts of items.
For example, my test car had such features as a tilt leather-covered steering wheel with cruise and audio controls, power windows and door locks with remote entry, dual power mirrors, Bose audio system with 7 speakers, heated leather-trimmed seats and automatic air conditioning. Some of those features are options on lower-cost Miata models.
No matter what model or transmission, the Miata is a kick to drive, even for quick runs to the grocery store. It reminded me of a large go-kart, with nearly 50/50 weight distribution, front/rear stabilizer bars, shock tower brace, front double wishbone suspension and rear multi-link suspension.
While the fairly light, rigidly built car’s suspension is supple, sharp bumps and prominent highway expansion strips can be felt. The interior is fairly quiet with the hard top in place, but the Miata isn’t really suited for long trips–unless maybe you’re in your teens or 20s.
The suspension keeps the Miata flat as a pool table when zooming through curves. Helping keep things stable are dynamic stability control and traction control systems. Also, my test car’s handling was helped by its 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped with 45-series high-performance tires.
Safety items include advanced front and rear air bags.
The razor-sharp electronic power rack-and-pinion steering is firm to help retain good control. And anti-lock brakes with electronic brake distribution bite early to stop the car quickly and surely, with good pedal feel.
The low-slung 49-inch-high Miata is a “drop-in-climb-out” car best-suited to agile occupants. The seats are supportive, but the interior is rather snug–although not cramped. Gauges can be quickly read and the large climate controls are easily worked. Smaller controls are clearly marked for easy use. Each front door contains a single deep cupholder.
Although moderately sized, the trunk is nicely shaped. Its lid raises smoothly on twin struts, but the aluminum hood is held open with a prop rod. Note when the hood is up how far back the engine is set to help give the car nearly perfect balance.
Affordable old British sports cars such as MGs, Triumphs and Austin-Healeys, and Italian Fiat sports models, have become collector’s items.
In fact, the early Miatas are rapidly gaining collector status.
Pros: Racy. Blast to drive. Not overly complicated. Responsive automatice transmission.
Cons: Rather snug interior. Limited trunk space. Agility needed to leave/enter. Not really a long trip cart
Bottom Line: The best-selling roadster in automotive history? It’s easy to see why.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.