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FIRST DRIVE

Mazda MX-5 Miata is big where it counts

By shrinking its roadster for 2016, Mazda revives the convertible’s zippy roots

Last updated: June 01, 2015 01:00 PM

Break out the thesaurus. Mazda just launched a redesign of its spry, nimble, lithe, and brisk two-seat MX-5 Miata convertible.

But what is the MX-5, really? Its buyer base seems evenly split between the secretary-and-hairdresser crowd who adores the Miata’s cuteness factor, and the weekend club racers who find the ragtop’s just-right balance of light weight, sufficient power, and crisp handling supremely rewarding.

In an era of cars getting larger with each redesign, it’s heartening to see that Mazda actually made the MX-5 smaller and lighter (by about 200 pounds). One can imagine the triumphant shouts from the R&D studios, “Hiroshi, I shrunk the Miata!”

Among today’s Novocaine-infused “sporty” cars, the Miata retains the essence of old-school ragtops, where you feel like a unified cog unto the machine itself. It might be one of the last intimate driving experiences on the road.

That said, the road feel is a bit less telepathic in the new model—even in our borrowed Club version with sport suspension and Bilstein shocks. The initial turn-in of the steering wheel brings a biting response, but communication from the steering gets a touch vague after that.

The Miata rewards drivers who understand the concept of smartly carrying speed through a perfectly carved corner. The 2016 edition actually has less power—a 12-hp reduction to 155 hp—from its new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. But because peak power comes at lower engine revs, and the gear ratios are perfectly spaced, the Miata feels quicker. Shifts come with a mere flick of a wrist, reminding you of the disappearing joys of driving a manual.

Although Mazda carved out more space inside the cabin, you still wear the Miata like a worn-in pair of skinny jeans. Taller drivers might not fit this particular cut. The net-structured seatbacks’ shape, and lack of lumbar support, must have been approved by Torquemada. And extracting oneself—especially those who wear miniskirts—is something best done in private. But the manual top is easy to drop and retrieve from the driver’s seat.

The lack of space inside results in some packaging challenges. It's too easy to bonk the console-mounted control knob for the complicated Mazda Connect infotainment system when shifting. And the removable cup holders are a contortionist’s dream, located behind your elbow.

For such a small car, the ride is tolerable. But with any routine commute longer than a half-hour comes the realization that the wind noise and engine’s roar are deafening.

But these complaints void the whole Weltanschauung of the Miata. It is the last truly affordable sports car, a wind-in-hair experience that defies all the buzz-kill metrics.

So what if your ears are aching and you need to get out and stretch every hour or so? You just perfectly clipped the apex of that decreasing-radius hairpin and are deliciously carrying peak horsepower into the next straightaway. And you are laughing. Oh, are you laughing.

—Mark Rechtin

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