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July 21, 2012

2012 Mazda MX-5 Miata

by Mark Savage

A Sports Car as Good as it Gets

This is the Miata I actually drove, but a few weeks before the test. Here it sits near the Carousel at Road America at a Midwest Autowriters outing.

To look at Mazda’s MX-5 Miata you’d think little has changed since its introduction nearly 25 years ago.It’s still the quintessential two-seater, a sports car for the ages with a simple layout, simple lines, simple controls and for today’s market, a simple price tag.

The base Sport with a soft convertible top goes for $23,470, but the tested Special Edition with a power hardtop lists at $31,225. Add in the $795 destination charge and you’re looking at $32,020, not an economy car, but there aren’t many convertibles available in this price range anymore.

Yet Miata is a pleasant mixture of change and stability. The petit, some might call it cute, styling has been cleaned up a touch through the years, so now it reflects a bit more crispness, like the former Honda S2000 roadster.

What started as a milder sports car (116 horses) now features a 2.0-liter I4 with variable valve timing. When I last tested a Miata five years ago it boasted 166 horsepower. Now it’s rated at 167 horses. Some might not consider that a lot still, but in a sports car weighing just short of 2,600 lbs., well, it’ll scoot away from a stoplight quicker than most cars.

Then there’s the transmission, originally a crisp 5-speed, this model now touts a slick shifting 6-speed manual with short sporty throws that allow you almost a casual shift with the flip of the wrist.

Size never changes much. The flashy Velocity Red Mica (a deep sparkling red) test car was just 157.3 inches long and still rides on a 91.7-inch wheelbase. There’s only so much you can do to smooth out the ride with such a modest wheel spread. But the test car features a double-wishbone front suspension with multi-link rear, both with coil springs and sporty Bilstein shocks. There are stabilizer bars front and rear and a front shock tower brace to firm the chassis.

A few minutes after we took this picture I had the Miata up to 110 mph hurrying down to Turn 5 at Road America. It’ll move!

Ride is well controlled, but firm and can become somewhat choppy on city streets. Still, you’ll be having so much fun tossing this around corners that you’ll forget any ride imperfections. Handling is light and easy with a precision that gives the car a crisp, performance feel. There’s a reason gentleman racers still put the Miata through its paces in sports car club races and rallies across the country each year.

Early Miatas came with a soft convertible top and then a snap-on hardtop became available so the car could be used year-round by its devotees. For the last five or so years a power hardtop also has been offered. That’s what the Special Edition test car had and it was a gloss black that really set off the sparkling red body. The car glistened in the sun.

Like the flip and drop soft top, this hardtop is simple to dispose of. Press a button in the center latch, turn the handle to release the roof and push a button on the dash. See how it works by clicking here. The top powers down in about 10 seconds, stashing itself neatly below a hard tonneau cover. Kids and adults enjoy watching the nifty process.

I didn’t get a good shot of the Miata with its hardtop up, but here’s a beauty shot of the car from Mazda.

A word of warning though, the top will not budge unless the car is in neutral and the ignition is supplying full electrical power. Generally that’s not a problem, but take it from someone who had to dive back into the car to set the parking brake, the car can roll freely if you forget to set that brake and leave the car in neutral after top is back in place.

Since I’m used to manuals I generally leave them in gear after I switch off the ignition. But since I had to raise the top on the Miata, I forgot that key step, and was on a very slight incline. Word to the wise, always set the parking brake.

Inside, Miata remains simple and fairly comfortable, although snug. A 6-foot-plus friend, slid into the car and declared it drivable. Headroom isn’t the limiting factor he said, but legroom has been in past models. Now there’s a bit more room for the driver than passenger, so straightening long legs is more possible. NBA types will probably want to stick with a Porsche.

This one had black leather seats with white stitching and a gloss black trimmed dash. Five round main gauges are directly in front of the driver, and easy to see and read. The car’s thick leather-wrapped steering wheel will tilt, but does not telescope.

Here’s what a simple interior looks like. Most cars are overloaded with buttons and knobs these days.

Radio and climate control knobs also are simple with wide buttons and moderately sized knobs for the radio and three larger knobs for the climate system. These are controls you can use while driving and without taking your eyes off the road, not like many complex touchscreens in much pricier cars. Again, this keeps with the Miata designers’ philosophy of this being a driver’s car.

Miata’s manual leather seats are easy to adjust, although a bit of a tight squeeze for your hand between the seat and door. I like the seats’ supportive shape too with particularly good back side support. The Special Edition also comes with five-speed seat heaters.

Overhead the hard plastic sun visors are useless because they will not flip to the side, but then if you don’t care for sun, a convertible probably isn’t a good choice for you.

Wind protection is excellent here, the Miata featuring small fixed side vent windows and a wind deflector behind the seats. But even without using it the wind buffeting the interior is minor. I wore a baseball cap and never felt it was about to blow off.

Obviously this being a two-seater you’re likely not going cross country with a load of luggage. Two small bags will fit for a weekend trip. The cargo area being just 5.3 cubic feet.

One area where economy is not so key with Miata is in fuel requirements. This one prefers premium fuel and this edition is rated 21 mpg city and 28 highway by the EPA. I managed a very respectable 27.9 mpg, but five years ago I got up to 32.6 mpg and that model, also with a hardtop, was rated 24 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.

Not to end on a sour note, but finding the fuel filler release lever is ridiculous. It’s hidden in an awkward to reach storage box behind the console and between the seats, so you must turn in your seat, open the box and find the lever. Why not place it under the dash’s left side or alongside the driver’s seat like most car makers do? Naturally you’d get used to that over time.

Fast Stats: 2012 Mazda MX-5 Miata Special Edition

Made in: Hiroshima Japan

Engine: 2.0-liter I4 VVT, 167 hp

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Weight: 2,593 lbs.

Wheelbase: 91.7 in.

Cargo: 5.3 cu.ft.

MPG: 21/28

Base Price: $31,225

Dealer’s Price: $29,511

Major Options: None

Delivery: $795

Test vehicle: $32,020

Sources: Mazda, www.autos.yahoo.com

Photos: Mark Savage and Mazda

Hits: Fun sports car with good acceleration, great handling and a slick six-speed manual tranny with short throws. There’s a simple power hardtop and nice supportive seats with five-speed heaters.

Misses: Fuel filler release lever is hidden in an awkward to reach storage box behind the console between the seats. Sun visors are useless and the power top won’t budge unless transmission is in neutral. Remember to set the parking brake to engage the top!

See a short video at Savage On Wheels on You Tube!

 

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