2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata cheap, does everything right

Mazda MX-5 Miata Mazda MX-5 Miata

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The Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster is like a favorite pair of worn jeans; everything just feels right.

From the position of the shifter, pedals, steering wheel and other controls, nothing's out of place.

Few cars offer as much everyday driving fun as the Miata, and even fewer do it as inexpensively.

The Miata is available with a manual soft-top roof or a power retractable hardtop, and it's offered in Sport, Touring and Grand Touring trim levels. Our test car was a top-of-the-line Grand Touring retractable hardtop with an as-tested price of $31,300.

Styling

By modern standards, the Miata is a small car, measuring just 13 feet from end to end and standing just 49 inches tall. Its low-slung, athletic shape is appealing, and its proportions are just right. In addition, it looks good whether the top is up or down. Some people might not like its happy-face grille, which is now a staple on Mazda cars, but it works better on the Miata than it does on other models.

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Everyday driving fun

The rear-wheel-drive Miata is one of those cars in which you don't have to break any speed limits to have a lot of fun. Driving 55 mph in the Miata is comparable to going 110 mph in, say, a BMW M3 -- but if you don't have a racetrack handy, the M3's impressive track performance won't be of much use. The Miata, meanwhile, can make a trip to the grocery store a thrill ride.

It's not powered by a particularly strong four-cylinder engine -- displacing just 2.0 liters, it's rated at 167 horsepower with the manual transmission -- and it doesn't sound that great, either, but it's burdened by just 2,500 pounds of car, give or take, and most trims are available with a spectacular six-speed manual transmission that has some of the shortest gear-shift throws around. There's nothing tire-smoking about the setup, but the drivetrain is in complete harmony with the chassis, resulting in a car that's fun to drive. An automatic transmission is optional.

The Miata doesn't offer very good noise isolation, however, and that's partly why it always feels like you're going faster than you really are. You always hear the four-cylinder engine, and there's a lot of wind noise at highway speeds -- even when the retractable hardtop is up. It's much louder than you'd think a metal-roof roadster would be.

With its low curb weight, a small four-cylinder under the hood and a manual transmission, the Miata may seem like it could be an especially efficient sports car. Unfortunately, it's not as fuel efficient as you'd expect. With the six-speed manual it gets an EPA-estimated 21/28 mpg city/highway, and the city rating improves by 1 mpg with the base five-speed manual. While that's decent, the 2010 Mini Cooper hatchback, which has a similar curb weight, is rated 28/37 mpg with a manual transmission and delivers the same type of driving fun as the Miata. Like the Mini, the Miata uses more expensive premium gas.

Ride and handling

The Miata's low weight delivers ride and handling benefits, however. With less mass to keep in check when cornering, the suspension doesn't have to be as firm to limit body roll. This helps with ride comfort on bumpy roads; for being a sporty car, the Miata doesn't punish its passengers with a jarring ride. Our car had the $500 Suspension Package, which includes a sport suspension and a limited-slip differential, and it soaked up bumps well.

The car's steering feel is another one of those rare-but-desirable qualities, kind of like the six-speed manual's movements. With a perfect amount of power assistance, the Miata exhibits sharp steering response and an overall connectedness to the road that perfectly complements the car's mission. This car wants to be flung around corners, and it rewards the driver with balanced performance. City drivers will especially appreciate the tight 30.8-foot turning circle.

Convertible commentary

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As mentioned, our test car had the retractable-hardtop roof, and Mazda's implementation of this type of roof has a few advantages over those from other manufacturers.

First of all, it's fast; it only takes around 15 seconds to lower the roof. You have to manually release a lever in the center of the windshield frame to release the top, but after that you only have to press a button on the dashboard and it powers down, stowing beneath a hard tonneau cover. Raising the roof takes the same amount of time.

The hardtop is also compact. When lowered, it fits in the same well as the soft-top behind the seats. With this setup, the top doesn't intrude on the 5.3-cubic-foot trunk, which is decently large for a car this size.

It's pretty breezy in the cabin with the top down, even when driving at city speeds. On the highway, taller people will feel the air buffeting the top of their head and rushing around them.

The retractable hardtop doesn't restrict visibility that much when up. Checking your left-side blind spot means leaning forward a little to see around the roof support, but you get a good view when checking the right-side one; the roof pillar isn't big enough to completely obscure another car.

The inside

You might be surprised at how accommodating the Miata's two-seat cabin is for taller occupants. I stand 6 feet 1 inch tall and was able to get comfortable in the driver's seat. Someone even a little bit taller might be able to, as well.

With the top up, I had a little headroom to spare, but one editor said his hair was constantly brushing against it. There's also a large hump in the passenger footwell, which will be in the way for some people.

As you might expect, the interior is short on storage. There's a modestly sized glove box, a lockable storage bin between the seats and small mesh door pockets.

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Safety

Standard safety features include antilock brakes and side-impact airbags. Traction control and an electronic stability system are included in the optional Premium Package, which is available on Grand Touring trims. Many affordable cars, by comparison, now have standard stability systems. For a full list of safety features, check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page.

The Miata hasn't been crash-tested by the federal government or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

MX-5 Miata in the market

The Miata is one of those cars that we're happy to see enter the Cars.com garage and sad to see go because it reminds us how much fun driving can be. The fact that it's relatively affordable is just another thing in its favor.

Now that the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky have gone the way of their respective brands, the already-small pool of small, fun, affordable roadsters has shrunk to one: the Miata. That might be cause for concern under different circumstances, but not in this case: The Miata is that well-executed.

Snapshot
Price:
$23,110 -- $28,550

EPA Fuel Economy:
City: 21 -- 22
Highway: 28

Available Engines:
158-hp, 2.0-liter I-4 (premium)
167-hp, 2.0-liter I-4 (premium)

Available Transmissions:
5-speed manual w/OD
6-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual
6-speed manual w/OD

New or Notable
* Soft-top or power-retractable hardtop
* Choice of three transmissions
* Timeless styling

What We Like
* Handling
* Six-speed manual
* Quick top operation
* Tilt steering wheel
* Same trunk size with top up or down
* Standard side-impact airbags

What We Don't
* Confining cabin
* Dwarfed by other vehicles
* Stability system option on Grand Touring only
* Cruise control is optional (soft-top)
* Power locks are optional (soft-top)
 

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