Driven: 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata

The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata gets sharpened styling and improved performance | Bob Golfen photos
The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata gets sharpened styling and improved performance | Bob Golfen photos

Mazda MX-5 Miata returns for 2016 with a brand-new look and, as always, the spirit of open-air adventure. The new Miata is also a runner with a stronger 2.0-liter engine, a short-throw shifter for its 6-speed close-ratio transmission, and handling on par with exotic cars costing many thousands more.

More than any other sports car out there, the fourth-generation MX-5 (Mazda has grudgingly rekindled the Miata moniker after a brief absence) continues to channel the two-seater ethos of the small, simple British and Italian roadsters of the 1950s and ’60s, only thoroughly updated in style and substance.

The fourth-generation Miata seems more substantial than past versions
The fourth-generation Miata seems more substantial than past versions

So yes, I like the new Mazda MX-5 Miata very much. But it didn’t like me. I know that because it made no effort to make me feel comfortable in its cramped interior.

Now, I am a lanky 6-foot-6, and I don’t have the ideal physique for piloting a little sports car, but I don’t think anyone much over six feet tall or carrying a few extra pounds will find happiness in the tiny cockpit of the MX-5.

This car is made for small people, and as such, the interior does nothing to move the Miata away from its reputation of being a “chick car.” Sorry, female readers, but that is the burden it bears while other little roadsters, such as BMW Z4 and Audi TT, makes adequate space for those of us who are altitudinally gifted.

I’ve always been a fan of little sports cars, and I have in my garage a 45-year-old MGB roadster and a 53-year-old Porsche 356 coupe, both of which are smaller than the MX-5 and both of which fit me just fine. Why is that? I don’t think it would have been a hardship for the Mazda engineers to make their little roadster accommodate me. A couple inches more legroom would have meant a lot.

Now all that said, I realize that the Miata has been a huge success for Mazda with both men and women, returning us to the thrilling days of classic two-seat sports cars, a trend that Miata single-handedly restarted upon its arrival in 1989. The Miata was, and still is, a brilliant product that strikes at the heart of driving enthusiasts. Just not tall ones.

I was able to cram my too-tall self inside, bent knees a quarter inch from the dashboard and sitting bolt upright in the narrowly bolstered driver’s seat with the steering wheel close at hand. Not my favorite driving position, but even at that, I did love tooling around in the MX-5.

Miata’s lean profile conveys a classic roadster shape
Miata’s lean profile conveys a classic roadster shape

It’s quick and gutsy, with a nice clutch uptake and precise shifting, and it’s really fun to throw into corners. The exhaust sound is well-modulated, not too loud or aggressive, just enough extra roar to remind you of its sports-car presence.

The 155-horsepower inline four has plenty of pull, and the lightweight sports car offers spirited acceleration. At highway speeds, the MX-5 is quiet and relaxed. Mazda with its SkyActive engine technology has boosted fuel mileage 25 percent compared with the 2015 model, now getting 27 mpg city and 34 highway with stick shift and 27 city and 36 highway with the six-speed automatic.

Although, I don’t know why anyone would want to miss out on the classic sports-car driving experience by saddling a Miata with automatic. Yes, automatics are better than ever and fewer and fewer cars are available with manual shifters, but I believe that buying an MX-5 with automatic is somehow missing the point.

Seventeen-inch alloy wheels set off the new styling
Seventeen-inch alloy wheels set off the new styling

The new styling is right on, with a chiseled face (the outdated pop-up headlights went away with the last generation), a sporty stance and a sharp profile. The classic roadster proportions of long hood and very short rear deck are fully realized. The new stylized taillights look sharp, too. Nothing over the top about the redesign, just a clean, good-looking car with a purposeful and logical appearance.

One feature I really appreciated was the well-engineered fabric convertible top that is so easy to manually open and close that you can do it with one hand without ever getting out of the driver’s seat. To open, squeeze the fitting to unlatch it from the windshield and throw the top rearward, and then reach back to snap it down into place. Instant open-air gratification. To bring it back up, a lever between the seats unsnaps it from its stowed position, you grab the handle and swing it back into place, easily re-latching it to the windshield. Best top ever.

The MX-5 test car that I drove was the upgraded Grand Touring version and fully equipped with electronic features, such as a seven-inch video screen, navigation, a nine-speaker Bose audio system and a full suite of computer functions. A well-designed rotating dial on the console makes accessibility seamless and intuitive.

A tight cockpit limits the size of Miata drivers or passengers
A tight cockpit limits the size of Miata drivers or passengers

But boy, and at the risk of sounding repetitive, that interior is tight. It is an attractive cockpit, but there are no pockets or stowage for small items, aside from a tiny bin in the center console and another tiny vertical space between the seat backs.

A pair of cupholders are placed all the way back between the seats as well, making them awkward to reach; when you are driving alone, one of the cupholders can be popped out and relocated to a forward position on the right side of the center console. With a passenger, you have to leave it in back unless your friend doesn’t mind the cupholder intrusion on his or her already limited space.

Of course, this is a sports car and history tells us that little roadsters require you to endure compromise. The payback is nimble drivability, a great look and the pleasurable open-air experience that only a real sports car can provide.

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Vehicle type: Two-passenger, two-door sports car, rear-wheel drive
Base price: $30,065 Price as tested: $31,365
Engine: 2.0-liter inline-4, 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 148 pound-feet of torque at 4,600 rpm Transmission: Six-speed manual
Wheelbase: 90.9 inches  Overall length/width: 154.1 inches / 68.3 inches
Curb weight: 2,332 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 27 city / 34 highway / 30 combined
Assembled in: Hiroshima, Japan

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