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Mazda Miata MX-5 Road Trip and Review By Steve Purdy - The Auto Channel +VIDEO

2014 Mazda Miata MX-5 (select to view enlarged photo)

Road trip Galena - Miata review
From a Shunpiker’s Journal

By Steve Purdy
Michigan Bureau

Here is another in our series of car reviews that include a travel story. This week’s road trip takes us to the charming little town of Galena - oldest town in northwest Illinois and at one time the largest port between St. Lewis and St. Paul - in the unique-to-the-market Mazda Miata sports car. Galena exudes the trendy, touristy, historically significant village and the Miata is arguably the best little affordable roadster in the U.S. market - or perhaps the only one.

First the car:

2014 Mazda Miata MX-5 (select to view enlarged photo)

I guess it is the only small, affordable (not cheap, but not priced out of site either), rear-wheel drive roadster in the U.S. market. Think about it. It is not like the Scion FR-S/Subaru BR-Z twins. They’re small, affordable, rear-wheel drive sports cars like Miata but they don’t come topless, and they have at least a hint of a back seat. Cars like the 2-seat Mercedes SLK and Porsche Boxster are sporting roadsters but very expensive. GM’s effort to expand that market with the cute 2-seat Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky twins died some time ago. In fact, those brands don’t even exist anymore. We’ve always thought of Miata as the spiritual successor to the wonderful British sports cars of the 1960s like Austin Healey, MG and Triumph.

With a passion for driving fun cars you may imagine my dismay when they delivered the Miata with an automatic transmission. Bummer. This car should have a stick, in this roadie’s view, but I suppose that is only one element of the driving experience. Plenty other sporting elements define this little car. At just over $30,000 loaded this top-of-the-line model is not cheap but less than half the price of any other roadster in the U.S. market, and because used ones are so popular the car holds its value well.

Now the destination:

2014 Mazda Miata MX-5 (select to view enlarged photo)

Galena, Illinois, a charming little touristy town with dozens of shops, restaurants and historical sites, is located along a small river (no longer navigable) that feeds into the mighty Mississippi just a few miles south of town. The charming little village a few hours west of Chicago sits among surprisingly large hills that were missed by receding glaciers ten millennia ago leaving a topography unique to the region. This geological anomaly allowed for large veins of lead and other minerals being exposed. It was the exploitation of these minerals that accounted for the town’s success in the early 1800s.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

About 20 miles further along famous coast-to-coast US Route 20, just across the Mississippi, we find the thriving river town of Dubuque, Iowa. The history of that entire region, as you may surmise, has been tied in to the great river and the ability to ship great quantities of locally mined minerals. Like Galena, Dubuque dates to the early 1800s and the beautiful architecture reflects that great history.

2014 Mazda Miata MX-5 (select to view enlarged photo)

The whole area continues to reinvent itself as exemplified by my cousin’s adaptive reuse project converting a quarter million square feet of an old industrial building near the river into mixed retail and residential space. Cousin Bethany Golombeski is lead architect and co-owner of the project they call The Novelty Iron Works, after the original business occupying the building in the 1870s. (See that project at:

The rest of the story: Our Miata represents 25 years of the fun-centric Mazda roadster in the U.S. market. Just the week before this travel project Mazda revealed the next generation MX5, a bit sleeker and more stylish with the same sporting ambiance. But they revealed few other details. So, we have no further information on the rest of the new car but we can be confident they’ll include the best in up-to-date technology and efficiency to go with its sporting character.

2014 Mazda Miata MX-5 (select to view enlarged photo)

The first leg of our journey started at our mid-Michigan base early on a cool, late summer morning – cool enough that my pretty wife thought the top ought to stay up. I was amazed that we were able to pack for a week on the road in the tiny 5.3 cubic-foot trunk. We stuffed it with a carry-on-size suitcase, my full computer bag, a medium-sized duffle and miscellaneous little things stuffed in vacant spaces. The power hard top folds into its own space without encroaching on the cargo area.

2014 Mazda Miata MX-5 (select to view enlarged photo)

For a big guy like me it felt a bit claustrophobic squirming into the cabin, but once in I found it reasonably comfortable. I had enough head and body room and the seat is big enough, comfortable and not too firm. Simple and unadorned controls, gauges and inside trim are functional and unremarkable. Our silver-gray car has a piano-black trim strip across the dash while cars of some brighter colors have a trim strip that matches the outside.

Out on the freeway we found it quite noisy inside. We felt and heard every bump and every change in pavement texture. But that’s what a sports car is all about, is it not? We want to feel we’re part of the driving experience and sound is part of that.

2014 Mazda Miata MX-5 (select to view enlarged photo)

After lunch with colleagues in Chicago it was time to put the top down and soak up some sun for the rest of the drive to Galena so we dropped the top, slathered on some sunscreen, donned our caps and headed west. The top goes down smoothly in just a few seconds securing itself neatly between the cabin and the trunk.

Westbound on I-90 the noise of trucks and generally heavy traffic at 70-mph-plus was oppressive and unpleasant. Finally, we got off the freeway onto US 20 where we could begin to soak up the ambiance and pleasure of topless driving. Once we got past Rockford corn, soybeans, cattle and woodlots dominate the landscape and we had the road nearly to ourselves. We could watch the cloud patterns develop, smell the endless corn fields and pastures, and hear the wind, rather than the trucks, racing past. That’s what the convertible experience is all about.

Our little Miata is powered by a sophisticated, normally-aspirated 2.0-liter engine making 160 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. That’s not a lot of power, and with a manual transmission it would be plenty if you keep the revs in the ideal range. With our 6-speed automatic it is not as gratifying, but we have a manual mode that allows full control. We also have paddle shifters that are fine for downshifting. But, when we downshift with the paddles the car will not hold the lower gear.

The EPA estimates fuel economy to be 21 mpg in the city, 28 on the highway and 23 mpg combined with premium fuel recommended, not required. We did a bit better than that making between 28 and 30 mpg for the whole trip. Since premium is not required we experimented with using regular and premium alternately. It seemed to make no difference in mileage. The fuel tank is only 12.7 gallons and the “low fuel” light comes on with about two gallons left. So, the practical cruising range is typically less than 300 miles.

As we pulled into the narrow main street of Galena with the top down looking for a dinner spot among the ancient but well kept brick structures we encountered a quirky couple on the sidewalk who stopped to admire our car. They were curious about the neat little roadster but also noticed our California license plant. They were from Oregon and thought we were as far from home as they, until I explained it was a press car and we were from Michigan. The gregarious fellow was a Viet Nam War veteran and much older than his mate who was as chatty as he. They were following the epic, coast-to-coast, US Route 20 all the way from its western terminus near their home on the Oregon coast to its eastern origin in Boston.

2014 Mazda Miata MX-5 (select to view enlarged photo)

We visited both the Galena Historical Museum and the home of U.S. Grant, who lived there for some years, to get a sense of the area before striking out on the back roads to explore. Because the glaciers had missed the area at the end of the last ice age – called “driftless” because there is not the covering of glacial drift that we find throughout most of the upper midwest – we find outcroppings of exposed rock and hills much larger than in the surrounding fully glaciated farm land. That makes for great winding and scenic roads to challenge us.

Driving southeast along the river headed for Davenport to lunch with another cousin we crossed the big river at Savana, another charming little river town, where a large state park and a smaller county park celebrate the unique natural beauty of the area. In the middle of the river two large gatherings of white pelicans appeared to be legislating some important issue, but they spooked when we stopped to photograph them.

2014 Mazda Miata MX-5 (select to view enlarged photo)

The Miata suspension is fully independent, of course, with double wishbones up front and a multi-link design in the rear. Handling, as you would expect, is suburb with stiff damping, virtually non-existent body sway and precise steering. We have 18-inch performance tires – Bridgestone Potenzas – on our top-of-the-line car. Those tires are sticky, so we would expect them not to last long. We sure would have some fun autocrossing this little car if the opportunity arose.

2014 Mazda Miata MX-5 (select to view enlarged photo)
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Another day of exploration takes us skittering along a lovely road south of town that winds toward the Mississippi past an old cemetery canopied in the dense trees. It finally takes us along the river, probably a mile wide at this point, to a ski area. We don’t think of Illinois as a place to ski, but there it was. Our car was not equipped with a navigation system but some good back road instincts brought us full circle back to the main highway where we stopped briefly to admire and photograph some cute little Holstein calves penned together beside the road, probably destined to be veal.

The only disadvantage to the Miata is the difficulty getting in and out. And, that’s only a problem for big guys like me. You can get the basic Miata with 17-inch all-season tires, a soft top, 5-speed manual transmission and a bit less trim for just under $24,000. Our $32,700 Miata Grand Touring version comes with 6-speed automatic, leather seats, premium Bose audio, and some other special trim. A 6-speed manual transmission is available as well on other models but only one engine powers this little sports car.

The Mazda new car warranty covers the car for 36months or 36,000 miles and the powertrain for 60 months or 60,000 miles.

Mazda has found a niche with the Miata that they have all to themselves, at least in the U.S. market. It remains a great image car for the company exemplifying the “Zoom-Zoom” tag line. Other companies have tried to challenge in this segment but none have survived.

Enthusiasts, this reporter included, can’t wait to try the new one.

But give me the stick!

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved