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2009 Mazda MX-5 Review

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A Real Sports Car
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

I’ve been a fan of the 1960s British and Italian sports cars since late in my misspent youth - MGs, Alfa Romeos, Austin Healeys, Triumphs, and their ilk. Their charm was in simplicity, agility, and a sort of intimacy with the driver, I suppose, though image had something to do with it as well. Most were open-air conveyances, of course adding to the feeling of oneness with the open road.

This week we have a sexy, new Mazda MX5 Miata, sort of a spiritual successor to those old classic sports cars. The Miata is small, light, peppy, agile and mighty good lookin’.

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Our test car is a striking shade of yellow, or perhaps orange, or something in between. It is precisely the color of a school bus and of the paint used for lining the center of the road. I guess we could call it a “safety yellow.” Mazda calls it “Competition Yellow.” Styling is barely distinguishable from the original Miata. Those classic lines and dimensions needn’t change to maintain its desirability. Mazda’s tag line “soul of a sports car” certainly applies here, even visually.

We’re testing the top-of-the-line Grand Touring model. It starts at about $27,000 according to Mazda’s Web site. The basic entry-level Miata can be had for just over 22-grand. Our sticker shows a base price of 26,350 – not sure why the discrepancy with the Web site. Mazda offers four trim levels and just a few options and packages. The lesser models come standard with 16-inch wheels and others with 17s. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard and there are 6-speed manual and automatic transmission options. Ours is the 6-speed manual.

We have the $1,650 Premium Package which includes keyless entry, xenon headlights, stability control, Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth and an anti-theft alarm and the $600 Suspension Package (a real bargain, I’d say) which includes Bilstein shocks, sport-tuned suspension and limited slip differential. With the $650 delivery charge the bottom line shows $29,170. For that price you can get other pretty nice sports cars, but I doubt any would be sportier.

The bumper-to-bumper warranty covers Miata for 3 years or 36,000 miles and the powertrain is covered for 5 years or 60,000 miles.

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As you would expect, handling is crisp and tight. We can take our cloverleaf freeway ramp just about as fast as we like. The only limit is my pretty blonde’s fright tolerance – and she’s pretty good about it. I autocrossed a Miata at the Midwest Auto Media event last week in Wisconsin and found it as much fun as can be had with an unmodified car on such a tiny, tight course. Suspension is a competent double wishbone arrangement in front and independent, multi-link affair in the rear. Steering is quick but not jerky, predictable and communicative. I also took a couple of hot laps of Road America in the Miata. Now that’s a test of handling. It passed admirably.

Power is plentiful from the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, 16-valve engine that makes 167 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque with variable valve timing. It revs enthusiastically beyond the 7,200-rpm red line. The rev limiter does not cut us off until about 7,600-rpm. I like that sense of confidence the Miata projects. By the way, that little engine makes wonderful noises at higher rpms.

Using premium fuel the EPA estimates mileage to be about 21-mpg in the city and 28 on the highway. Judging by our week with the car and nearly two tanks of fuel, I think those numbers are just about right. Aluminum trunk lid and hood contribute to an admirably light 2,500-pound curb weight.

The Miata can be had with a retractable hard top for a few bucks extra. I expect it would be considerably quieter on the road. Our soft-top version was mighty noisy with the top up or down – but, of course, this is a sports car! It’s not supposed to be quiet. The top folding mechanism works easily. Just push a big locking button and pull a small handle to release the latch. The top folds effortlessly and neatly behind the seat and clicks just as easily to seat into the down position. To put it back up we just push the other release button and pull it back into position. It takes two hands to position it for the relatch but it’s easy to pull into place. This folding top is vastly superior to the Solstice/Sky system.

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Another area in which it beats the GM entries is cargo space. Miata has a real trunk. Though the opening is tiny it will hold 5.3 cubic-feet of stuff. While GM’s official numbers for cargo are comparable the space utilization just can’t compare. And, with the GM cars the cargo space disappears when the top goes down. Not so with the Miata.

I found the Miata difficult to get into and out of with the top up – but I’m a mighty big guy. My brother, at about 145-pounds, uses his Miata as a daily driver and just loves it. He and his trim wife have no trouble with ingress and egress, I’m sure. With the top down I can easily slide in from above. I just wish we had more top-down weather here in Michigan.

CAR&DRIVER magazine has named the Miata one of their “10-Best” cars over and over again.

For a pure-fun, economical, basic sports car it is high in my top 10 as well.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved