2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata Review
WITH CAREY RUSS
2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata Sport
For many young enthusiasts, ``affordable sports car'' is virtually synonymous with ``Mazda MX-5 Miata.'' When the Miata debuted in 1989, it was the first small, simple, affordably-priced two-seat roadster since the demise of the popularly-priced British sports cars some years before. The original 1.6-liter engine was replaced by a 1.8-liter powerplant in 1993. The second generation debuted in 1998, with sleeker styling and a stiffer chassis structure. By 2000, the MX-5 Miata had become the world's best-selling two-seat roadster.
The secret to its success? Hardly a secret - the MX-5 Miata was simple, inexpensive, and relatively light in weight. Early examples weren't particularly fast, but neither were the cars it was patterned after. The 1.8-liter engine helped some, but the Miata's forte was always nimble handling more than sheer speed. It had all of the positive attributes of the MGs, Triumphs, and other small sports cars of the 1950s and 60s, with none of their warts.
Originally, the ``Miata'' name was supposed to be dropped for the third-generation MX-5, in keeping with Mazda's alphanumeric naming scheme. But at the last minute, it appears that someone at Mazda realized the equity in the Miata name, so, at least in the U.S., it remains MX-5 Miata for 2006. That's about all that remains the same, though. The new Miata addresses all of the old one's shortcomings. It's a touch larger outside, although the RX-8-influenced styling doesn't make that particularly apparent. That gives more room inside, so even six-footers can now fit comfortably. The chassis structure is significantly more rigid, and the engine has been moved back behind the front axle centerline for near 50/50 weight distribution to further improve handling. And, for the first time in a regular production MX-5, there is real power. The engine now has 2.0 liters displacement, with 170 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque, a noticeable improvement over the 155 horses and 125 lb-ft of the last 1.8-liters.
A full lineup of 2006 MX-5 Miatas is planned, with something for everyone in the market for a sports roadster. For the budget minded, there is the Club Spec, a bare-bones model minus air conditioning and other things club racers or autocrossers would just toss anyway. Above that is the base MX-5, with a/c and more color choices. Then the better-equipped Touring. Want upgraded wheels and tires and a six-speed instead of five-speed manual gearbox? Then specify the Sport. And with leather-trimmed seats and a cloth, instead of vinyl, top, it's the premium Grand Touring model. The Touring and Grand Touring models are also available with a six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode.
I've just spent an all too short and very impressive week with a Sport version of the new Miata. While in the same vein as earlier models, it is significantly different, and even better. The styling is distinctive, and it's just enough larger to be available to people who would have been uncomfortable in the old models. The handling is even better, and there are no more excuses for a lack of power - the new engine packs a good kick, yet is still economical enough that the car could be rationalized as a commuter. It works just as well in the cut and thrust of traffic as on an empty winding road, and brings smiles everywhere. It is an exceptionally well-balanced machine.
APPEARANCE: While no body panels have been left unchanged, the 2006 MX-5 is still very definitely a small Mazda roadster. It's an inch or two larger than the previous generation in almost every dimension, but doesn't look it. From the rear it is most similar to the earlier models, while the fender treatment and the lines cut into the hood establish a family resemblance to the RX-8. At the front, the oval grille and slit-like projector-beam headlights give it a look that combines classic European design with the contemporary Japanese idiom. A longer hood and shorter rear deck accentuate the new Miata's sports car proportions, and the wheels fill the wheel arches well. It has the look of a high-performance car without being a steroid-injected caricature.
COMFORT: Sit inside, and the new MX-5's larger size is immediately noticeable. People who couldn't fit into the old ones will fit into this one, although it will be snug. As ever, it's strictly a two-seater, and the seats in my Sport model were comfortable, supportive high-bolstered sports seats with synthetic cloth upholstery. The driving office is excellent - the steering wheel and shift lever, both leather-covered for good grip, are positioned nearly perfectly, and the pedals are placed for heel-and-toe driving. Storage space inside the cockpit is limited to a locking glovebox and three compartments in the rear bulkhead, with the center locking, although there are bottle holders in the doors. The trunk is large enough for a moderately-large duffle bag, helped by the lack of a spare tire. In lieu of the spare is a can of sealant and a pump, so a good cell phone and auto club membership might be useful. The top is, as before, manually-operated. It now latches with one central latch. Limber people can put it down or up from inside; the rest of us will need to get out. Since the process takes mere seconds - less time than some power tops - it's not a problem. The heated glass backlight ensures good visibility in all top-up conditions, but I kept it down as much as possible. That's the point of a roadster, and wind protection is very, very good. There is just enough wind with the side windows down, and almost none with them up.
SAFETY: Passive safety features of the new MX-5 include a sturdy unibody structure designed to meet or exceed impact protection standards, and front and side airbags. Excellent handling and stopping characteristics help active safety.
RIDE AND HANDLING: The reason for a sports roadster is handling, and the newest Miata shines in that department. Compared to earlier versions, it has a longer wheelbase and wider track, both of which improve stability. The engine has been moved significantly backwards, almost completely behind the front axle line, and the fuel tank is forward of the rear axle. This mass centralization, and the revised suspension geometry, helps give the new MX-5 extremely quick response to steering inputs. The center of gravity is lower, further aiding handling. And extensive use of aluminum in the suspension reduces unsprung weight, while aluminum hood and trunk panels reduce overall weight. While larger and more rigid, the 2006 MX-5 has gained only around 22 lbs (10 kg). My test car had the optional suspension package, consisting of stiffer springs with matching Bilstein shocks, and a limited-slip differential to better put power to the ground. At $500, it's a deal, and there is absolutely no reason not to opt for it. It gives a supple, comfortable ride - unlike several punishing competitors - and excellent cornering characteristics. Even commute traffic can be less of a chore, as the clutch is light and positive, and the steering effort is light at low speeds and appropriately heavier as speed increases.
PERFORMANCE: Whee! A Miata with an afterburner! The new 2.0-liter engine, a 16-valve aluminum alloy twincam unit with variable valve timing, makes 170 horsepower at 6700 rpm, with 140 lb-ft of torque available at 5000 rpm. Factor in a negligible weight increase and let the fun begin. There is enough low-end torque for cruising at 2500 rpm in any gear, and acceleration from 3000 in the lower gears, so driven moderately the `06 MX-5 can be a fuel-sipper. But that's not its real purpose in life. Under 5000 rpm, it sounds like and reacts like the familiar Miata of yore. From there to the 7000-rpm fuel cutoff, the exhaust note becomes an insistent shriek, and acceleration takes place right now. With its well-chosen ratios and slick, quick shift linkage, the six-speed gearbox further helps performance. Given the wide power band, shifting is not as necessary as expected, and a gear higher than expected could often be used. The four-wheel antilock disc brakes are fully up to repeated fast stopping.
CONCLUSIONS: Mazda has improved on a classic with its new 2006 MX-5 Miata.
SPECIFICATIONS 2006 Mazda MX-5 Sport
Base Price $ 22,935 Price As Tested $ 23,995 Engine Type dual overhead cam 16-valve aluminum alloy inline 4-cylinder Engine Size 2.0 liters / 122 cu. in. Horsepower 170 @ 6700 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 140 @ 5000 rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 91.7 in. / 157.3 in. Curb Weight 2,500 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 14.7 Fuel Capacity 12.6 gal. Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline Tires P205/45 WR17 Michelin Pilot Preceda Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone / independent multilink Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy: miles per gallon city / highway / observed 24 / 30 / 24 0 to 60 mph 6.7 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Suspension Package - includes: sport-tuned suspension, Bilstein shocks, limited-slip differential $ 500 Destination charge $ 560