Review: 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata is eternal fun
Getting long in the tooth? Perhaps, but the latest Miata from Mazda is still as fun as always
Miata definition: Miata is always the answer. Okay, not always, but this coincidental acronym has gone on to define the MX-5's fanbase the past three decades. Want an affordable sportscar? Miata. Want to go racing? Miata. Economical commuter? Also Miata. Hey, this tester did average over 30 MPG during my time, and that's with some abuse. As cars become more and more advanced and with driver aids, getting back behind the wheel of a naturally aspirated, lightweight roadster with a six-speed manual served as a welcome reminder of how simple can be so engrossing.
The 'ND' generation of the Miata has been with us for half a decade already. Not much has changed since the 2016 introduction, with the same attractive katana-sculpted bodywork wrapped around the diminutive dimensions. It's a good looking piece of kit, even five years later. What has changed, though, is the new iteration of Mazda's 2.0L SkyActiv inline-four engine, with power raising from a modest 155 horsepower to a admittedly still modest 181. Still, a nearly twenty percent raise in horsepower ought to bring some renewed invigoration to the MX-5. With less than 2,500 pounds to motivate, the 181 horsepower is more potent than you'd think, and is quite rev happy with peak power not coming until 7,000 RPM. The same great gearshift rests atop the transmission tunnel, too, making Mazda's offering one of the last cars in the country to still have a do-it-yourself gearshift available. It's also the only transmission you ought to consider with the MX-5 as the other option is an old torque-converter automatic. Trust me, get the manual; You're buying a raw sportscar after all, and that's what a raw sportscar deserves.
This specific example represents one of the most expensive Miata ragtops you can buy (the RF targa version requires a little extra dough), with this Club package stickering at an eye-watering $35,705 with destination included. For a Miata, ouch. Now, you could have a Miata Club for a smidge over $31,000 if you wanted, but this example had another $4,470 pinned onto it in the way of a BBS/Brembo/Recaro package. With that you get pretty forged BBS wheels, Brembo brakes in obligatory red, and wonderfully supportive (though tight) Recaro seats. Whether those options are worth it to you is your own judgement call, as it does raise the price well past that of a Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ. But, you have to admit, those three items together do look pretty dang good and add some serious street and track cred. However, once you consider the next most affordable true dedicated convertible sports car is a Porsche Boxster that starts at literally double the price, it does start to seem like good value. An 86/BRZ might be less, but neither of those are convertibles.
Hopping and bopping around town, you're greeted by a mostly friendly experience. Friendly is relative, though, in this compromised sporting roadster. Controls such as the steering and the manual transmission are easy and require little effort to make normal driving easy. The clutch and shifting are precise and after only a few miles I felt like I had known it for years. The throws in and out of each gear could be shorter, but I like the feedback provided through the stick that the longer throws afford. The shifter does buzz a fair amount, but I took up no issue with this, appreciating the presence of feel. What I didn't enjoy as much was the dead spot in the center and off-center of the steering at speeds below 40 MPH, finding a disconnect of some sort that I reckon 90% of other drivers would take no notice of. The ride quality can be busy and intrusive, with rattles and an unsettling nature prevailing on rougher pavement thanks to this convertible's lack of outright rigidity and the firm ride. Also compromised is road noise. Even with the soft top in place, noise levels reach substantial volumes on the freeway where the radio is drowned out unless you go over 50% volume on the dial. Further, you must remember to assume that other cars, like trucks and SUVs, will not see you; try to limit being side-by-side with anything taller than another Miata or sports car.
The interior itself is a pleasant space even if it lacking just that; space. Materials are of a fine quality and is pieced together well. Seats offer tremendous support for canyon carving, holding you in all the right places and I even found them quite comfortable on a near 300 mile trek. They are made for a small frame, though, so keep that in mind when considering one. The steering wheel is on the thinner side and feels wonderful to grip and really take control of as a result. This thin wheel also matches the lightweight and svelte nature of the Miata; a thick and chunky wheel would be woefully out of place here. I even liked the body-colored upper door panel pieces; a neat and vintage inspiration. What isn't good are the controls for the center display screen. It's mostly fine in design and operation, even if it is sluggish and can take over a minute to automatically reconnect bluetooth each time, but the real problem lies in the placement of the knob used for navigating through menus. To operate, I had to my arm in an unpleasant manner because of the lack of room behind for my arm to go. Oh well, there are worse things in the world.
But, lower the manually-operated soft top (which can be done in literally 3 seconds with one arm, I timed myself), stretch the Miata's legs on your favorite backroad, and let St. Peter open his gates to motoring heaven. A quick downshift and perfect rev-match into the meat of the powerband reminds what's so enjoyable about a good manual transmission. While it's fun to mash the throttle and use every single one of those 181 horses, the real pleasure begins when you throw the Miata at a series of corners, and with purpose. That initial light feel through the wheel vanishes and builds to a confidence-assuring weighting. There's feedback, too, not as much as I'd like, but loads more than most other modern cars. But the real beauty is in the suspension. While (much) faster sports cars have to resort to stiff suspension to keep their weight in check and in the pursuit of outright grip, the Miata is soft and has noticeable body roll; Weighing well under 2,500 pounds, it doesn't necessitate the same spring rates as a two-ton behemoth supercar. This means that through vigorous cornering that you can feel the Miata lean on each individual corner as the suspension loads up from weight transfer. The limits of grip are also lower so on the road this makes it more fun to use more of the car's potential and without going a million miles an hour like you would have to in a new McLaren to come close to even scratching at the surface. On the road this makes it so approachable and instills massive amounts of further confidence to be aware of what the car is precisely doing under and around you. While it's surprising that the ride quality is firm over bumps, this soft nature in the twisties is a welcome relief to most other sports cars being near track ready right out of the box.
Grip isn't deceivingly huge either, with the relatively skinny 205-section tires giving up stick progressively but earlier than I would have thought. The front is not entirely glued down as a result, but instead of fading into understeer you can rather steer with the throttle and rear end to find corner exits. One of my favorite and generously wide yet sharp onramps is a great place to test the balance of a rear-wheel drive car, and the Miata took the new #1 spot in the oversteer test. When the fronts reach their limits of adhesion, apply the gas with conviction and the rear magically swings around, but the fluid nature of when this happens is so pure and organic that it nearly feels like slow motion because how easy it is to control. What this equates to is wonderfully easy car to drive on the limit, one so forgiving it can make you feel like a driving god as you nail that perfect slide and gracefully reign it all back as grip returns. Doing the same in the new GR Supra proved a fidgety and forced experience in comparison.
Tackling the Sacramento area's equivalent of the Angeles Crest Highway is the tightly twisting Salmon Falls Rd in El Dorado Hills, a perfect test for the latest MX-5. Because 65 MPH is about the max you'd ever want to safely go on this stretch of spaghetti, this should be the Miata's absolute wheelhouse. And of course, it is. Getting right up to the Miata's approachable limits in each left and right sequence, heel-toeing down from fourth to third (even second for the single hairpin), and then just punching the throttle and using all 7,500 RPM at your disposal on the straights all prove a treat that few cars can genuinely give in a public environment. Oh, and with the roof down no less; Having that extra exposure to the environment only heightens the senses, and I imagine my ever-growing locks must've looked quite majestic flowing in the wind. I also realize that despite that little engine's lack of swept capacity, thanks to short gearing, there's still enough grunt to get moving out of corners quite aggressively once you have 3,000 revs showing on the tach. The noise of the four-cylinder isn't bad either. While not the sonic wonder of a Honda S2000, it's a purposeful sound and has a complimentary bit of intake honk even under throttle that comes as a nice touch.
Other things worth mentioning. I did average 31 MPG overall and achieved 36 MPG on the freeway, both great numbers even if the highway figure fell short of my expectations given the exceptional mean. The benchmark 0-60 MPH, meanwhile, happened in 6.2 seconds. It doesn't help that second gear runs into the limiter at about 57 MPH, necessitating a shift to third. I've seen some other magazines report 5.7 to 60, but I feel they might have been cheating a little stopped the clock early by not going into third gear. 0-60 really doesn't matter in this car. While it's not fast - my 370Z feels significantly faster on a back to back drive - it's certainly not slow, and is the quickest factory produced Miata ever, quicker than the old turbocharged Mazdaspeed Miata even. If this car was more powerful, then Mazda would also have to stiffen the suspension and I fear it might ruin it for the road at the expense of track times, and sacrifice character. The current set-up is what helps make the Miata a unique and old-school driving experience.
While the MX-5 Miata might be an aging prospect, it's partially for that reason why it remains such a transfixing fixture in the first place. Lacking all sense of practicality in our modern world, the thrills are still delivered on a silver platter. Especially after recently driving a new 2.0 Supra, hopping into the Miata and being greeted by a proper manual transmission and a real mechanical character goes to show that simple still and will always work. Colin Chapman would be proud.
2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club 6MT
As-tested price: $35,705
Pros: Old-school, open-top motoring; Manual transmission
Cons: Noisy to drive every day; slight off-center steering nervousness
Verdict: A sports car through and through, the right way.