If one anecdote can sum up how good the current Mazda MX-5 Miata is, consider the following. Thanks to this job, I drive a lot of press fleet cars–between two and four a month depending on my travel schedule. And during the course of the last year, the little MX-5 has been the only one I’ve just driven around for hours with no other objective than enjoying the experience—supercars included.
What makes it even more remarkable is that Mazda hit on this formula 29 years ago.
Three decades is a long time, even in car years. When the first MX-5 (the NA model) went on sale in 1989, it was a remarkable thing, combining the brio of sporty rear-wheel drive European roadsters from the 1960s with something those cars struggled with: reliability. It was small, light, and not very powerful. A 1.6L four-cylinder engine made just 115hp (86kW) and 100ft-lbs (136Nm), and the car ran on 14-inch wheels. But that was more than enough to put a smile on your face the instant you found a corner.
I didn’t have one of those earliest MX-5s, but when I moved to the US in 2002 I bought a 1996 NA, a car that was all but identical save for a couple hundred extra CCs and about 15 more horsepower. It didn’t take long before that car revealed a deep personal truth: as much as I wanted to be a scientist, my commute to and from the lab on the back roads of northern San Diego County was the high point of my day.
Plenty of other storied nameplates were on sale then as now, but almost without fail those iterations have gotten bigger and heavier along the way. A Volkswagen Golf GTI from 1989 is a much smaller, simpler car than the Golf of 2018. Ditto the BMW M3, Ford Mustang, and even the Porsche 911. But the fourth-generation (ND) MX-5 is almost identically sized to its great great grandparent—about an inch shorter and two inches wider, although with almost two inches more wheelbase.
Mazda’s engineers weren’t quite as deft when it came to keeping the weight off down the years, but the cars of 2018 are built to more demanding standards, and the active and passive safety technology required by regulators and the market adds up. Fret not, for the ND MX-5 is still a mere featherweight at 2,332lbs (1,058kg). And with 155hp (115kW) and 148 ft-lbs (200Nm) from a four-cylinder engine that now boasts 2.0L as well as direct injection and variable valve timing, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that it has gained any mass at all.
At Mazda product briefings, you’ll hear quite a bit about the concept of “Jinba Ittai.” It means, roughly, that the horse and rider are one, and it’s a core value that Mazda tries to infuse in all its vehicles today. But the idea first appeared during the MX-5’s development. It’s an overused cliche to describe steering as “telepathic,” but with the MX-5’s rim in your hands, the car really does become an extension of your body.
The wheel doesn’t adjust for reach, and the seat doesn’t adjust for height, which can limit the size of driver that will fit in the car, but once you’re in, it’s just magic. The steering wheel is exactly the right dimension, both in diameter and also the width of the rim. In fact, I want to give specific praise to this wheel; the only other OEM that has gotten this seemingly trivial but actually critical detail so right is McLaren, and its cheapest car costs almost ten times as much as an MX-5. (I know for sure that the same steering wheel is available in the CX-5 crossover, and I’d expect it to make its way throughout the Mazda lineup as it’s refreshed.)
With not much mass, relatively small tires for this day and age—though at 17 inches they’re huge by MX-5 standards—and power assistance, changes of direction are immediate, with no feeling of inertia. It’s a car you steer with your forearms, and one that talks back about just how much grip those front contact patches are encountering. As ever, the six-speed gearbox is precise and mechanical, and now that the accelerator pedal is floor-hinged, heel-and-toe is easier than it used to be.
Smell the roses—no need to stop
If you have driven a previous-generation Miata, all of this will come as no surprise, because that’s how your car drives too. This extends beyond just the handling to the entire driving experience. All the controls are in the same place you remember them, but depending on the age of your MX-5, there are some you might not have had, like AC, electric windows, heated seats, and a dash-mounted infotainment system.
The roof is now even easier to stow and raise one-handed from the driver’s seat, and as long as the weather is even vaguely nice, you’ll want the roof down, particularly since the car now comes with heated seats. Driving is the entire point of this MX-5, because the only thing better than driving through the countryside on a sunny Saturday morning is smelling the wildflowers while you’re doing so.
Roof down, it’s a better experience than the mechanically identical MX-5 RF we tested last year, because that car’s buttresses cause unavoidable wind noise. And roof-up, it’s no more or less civilized; in fact, I’d wager the cabin noise level during one notable torrential rainstorm would probably have been higher in the metal-roofed version. It’s even a bit more practical than my old MX-5. The trunk is a little bigger now that the spare is gone and the battery has been moved to the engine bay, and even if the cup holders look a little spindly, they will hold your beverages securely throughout most of the car’s dynamic range.
We’ve written about Mazda’s Connect infotainment system a number of times, so it will suffice to say that it’s perfectly fine. It’s about to get better with the imminent arrival of CarPlay and Android Auto, which (I hear) dealers will be able to retrofit to some existing cars. The range starts at $25,295 for the MX-5 Sport, but we tested the $29,155 MX-5 Club, which also came with the fantastic-looking but relatively pricey ($4,470) BBS alloy wheels and Recaro seat option. Fuel economy was right in line with the EPA rating of 29mpg combined.
If all of this sounds effusive, that’s because this really is a cracking little car. Not everyone is the right size for an MX-5, but if you fit, you owe it to yourself to drive one. There’s a reason it’s been a default recommendation for the entirety of Ars Technica’s existence.