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Everybody was (mostly) right about the Mazda MX-5 Miata

Ross Ballot September 20, 2016 All Things Hoon 17 Comments

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I hate to admit it, but for someone who loves movies I tend to lag a bit behind when it comes to watching “modern classics.” In many cases what most people have already seen can take me years to finally catch up on. This was the case with The Shawshank Redemption. As the film passed the birthday on which it would be allowed to legally drink alcohol it seemed that between my friends and pop culture, Shawshank was once again being hyped up so much and also being repeatedly so highly spoken of that I began to wonder not just if it was a good movie, but if everyone was playing into it being so for agreement’s sake. I couldn’t help but question if people were buying into the idea of it being a classic and drowning in each other’s praise, somehow making a good movie out to be a great movie.

The timing seemed to coincide with the boom in popularity of Mazda’s MX-5 Miata, and I found myself in a situation similar to that of my Shawshank curiosity: as the praise surrounding the Miata continued to build, more and more time passed that also saw me still yet to drive the much-loved, critically-acclaimed roadster. I began to worry that driving one could and might actually be an utter letdown, a car that over-sold on its promise as the pinnacle sports-roadster experience and that under-delivered on everything from dynamics to excitement to sheer driving fun. It turned out that my skepticism with Shawshank was not be unlike my skepticism with the Miata, and I’m happy to report that I could not have been more wrong on either front.

Shawshank was pretty excellent, but this is a car site dammit! Let’s focus on the automotive side of things. Last fall, an opportunity provided by Lime Rock Park’s Righthanders Club, a race-weekend volunteer group of which I’m a member, gave me the chance to drive two different NA-generation Miatas whose lives now consist of race tracks, lessons, and putting smiles on the faces of those who drive them. Don’t ask me to tell you exact years or details, but one car was an earlier example with a cage, racing seat/harness, hard top, and street slicks; the other wore battle bruises, mismatched wheels (with good tires), and little else.

My far-too-short sessions ripping around LRP’s infield autocross circuit were nothing crazy, with top speeds at right below redline in second gear, but if anything the low speeds contributed to the experience in allowing me to take everything in rather than being distracted by the sensation of high speed. From the second my ass hit seat to the moments I begrudgingly pulled off the track, I knew that everybody was right about how well these little cars drive.

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LRP’s autocross track — image courtesy of

In no time at all, the Miatas showed me what an outstanding sports car Mazda made and that the praise of journalists, enthusiasts, and owners alike was indeed warranted all along. My skepticism was entirely wrong; mere minutes proved to me the Miata does in fact have that ever sought-after one-to-one connection between driver and machine that’s crucial on an enthusiast’s checklist. The transmission is linked directly to one’s brain, the steering an extension of one’s arms and sightlines, and the gas pedal a lever for which one transmits desired acceleration inputs via foot. You turn, it turns; you screw up, it screws up. The Miata is unquestionably slow but despite this it feels fast, be it due to its size, the low seating position, or how little there is separating driver from asphalt, potential harm-causers, and everything going on around you.

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It helped that the “track” we were on was perfect for the Miata, with just the right layout to focus on the handling and cornering capabilities rather than having to rely on big power to make the driving experience fun. The circuit has a variety of tight turns, elevation changes, short straightaways between transitions, and more than enough room for you to fully use the full powerband without putting yourself in trouble. We were given a few five-minute sessions with an instructor sitting shotgun, an open course ahead of us and the freedom to continue running laps until your time was up rather than just doing timed runs. It felt like a while out there but also went by quickly, if that makes sense.

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Looking out at the track

While I didn’t find the gutlessness of the Miata to be “part of its charm,” it showed me the value of the timing of steering inputs, placement on a particular line, and being smooth through every section. The low power level in conjunction with the momentum you can maintain through turns makes you want to brake later, nail the apex a little cleaner, and get back on the power earlier, with more precision and concentration than you otherwise would be in a high-power machine. It forces you to focus, push yourself and the car harder, challenge every bit of tarmac ahead of you, and, ultimately, just keep driving. In the Miata it’s what you do with the car that matters, not what the car can do for you. If that’s not the perfect description of a good driver’s car, I don’t know what is.

We were also allowed to take our personal transportation out on the track, and for me that means becoming part of a full-blown, real-life example of juxtaposition. In between driving the Miatas I took my (since-traded) Challenger out on the infield circuit, and got to see just how poorly the big coupe fared when tasked with an autocross course. Where the Miata stuck, the Challenger flopped; where the Miata was planted and gripped hard, the Dodge was in a perpetual battle of understeer vs oversteer. Tires were undoubtedly a big part of that, but it showed opposite extremes—and was proof of how capable the Miata is on track compared to the Challenger, which many non-enthusiasts consider a “sporty car.”

In the Challenger you have to wait for anything to happen (short of asking for more wheelspin), whereas in the Miata everything happens basically as soon as you tell it to. Being a great car for track and sporting purposes is something that comes from all the little aspects working together, and in the MX-5 that’s exactly the case.

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The Challenger by the autocross track at the end of the day

The array of other cars being played with that day consisted of a Neon SRT4 ACR, a New-Edge Mustang Mach 1 , a BR-Z, an S2000, a VW Scirocco, and my buddy Dan’s (who I co-own the MR2 project with) WJ Grand Cherokee, along with a slew of many other oddities. It was neat to see such a wide variety of vehicles being pushed to their limits, and while some of the cars did very well, it was the pair of Miatas that were far and beyond the most competent. It’s the most raced car in the world, and those few hours around the pair of MX-5s showed me exactly why.

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Two Miatas, an autocross track, and the mountains– what more could you want?

Towards the end of the day the instructors put on a clinic, putting many of us back in our places after feeling heroic for the little while we had the track to ourselves. They let us ride shotgun during some damn-near all-out sessions, from racing each other with the follower’s front bumper just inches off the leader’s rear to tandem drifting with doors effectively lined up in a glorious showing of talent. It was a hell of a thing to witness, and furthered the idea of how versatile the MX-5 is. It also gave us a taste of what the cars are capable of at the hands of a professional. I felt nearly as fast coming out of the corners and through the straights/turns, but was way more timid with the brake pedal. Those guys show you not only what the car is capable of, but what gusto can make you capable of. I’m not a pro, don’t claim to be, and will likely never be so, but I seriously envy their braking skills. That, and their ability to keep composure when driving as hard as they do.

Pardon my pathetic cropping in the images below; they should sync together to show one of the instructors drifting

 

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After driving the Miatas I became consumed with the thought of more seat time. Not necessarily even on a track, but just finding a way to drive an MX-5 for as long as possible, or even for a few hours just to whet my appetite. Here’s another aspect in which everybody who said the same before me was right: for the price of entry (especially on the used market) the MX-5 is basically unparalleled. It has the “push me harder” factor that so many cars are lacking, something that makes it enjoyably playful and rewarding at the same time. I have to own one in my lifetime, sooner rather than later. Luckily, the affordability means Craigslist surfing is relatively easy on my bank account’s psyche.

On the other hand, contrary to how everybody was right about the Miata being fantastic, there is one way in which the people were wrong: Miata is not always the answer. It’s tiny, relatively unsafe, and really only bests a motorcycle in practicality. You can’t fit a supermarket shopping cart worth of groceries in the trunk let alone pack two people’s worth of stuff for a weekend-long vacation. And driving one in a snowstorm on crowded roads would likely induce Code Brown. But while other cars would take those as faults, absolutely none of that matters when it comes to the MX-5. Its purposes are fun, driving enjoyment, connection between (wo)man and machine, and that’s it. Want or need more? Look elsewhere.

The Mazda MX-5 Miata was unlike anything I’ve ever driven. It left me craving a second opportunity to hoon one more so than anything else I’ve been behind the wheel of, and that’s one of my favorite measuring sticks for a car: if you’re left craving more seat time, you know it’s good. Is the Miata perfect? No, but for sporting purposes the it’s damn-near so. Willing, able, and always up for more; it’s an extremely enjoyable sports car that every enthusiast needs to experience at least once. Mazda’s MX-5 Miata (the NA gen. at least) is perfect as-is, and a hell of a car that shocked and wowed me in ways nothing else has. The Miata is everything it’s hyped up to be and more. Just like Shawshank it blew away my expectations, and I’ll happily call myself a “believer.” Now I just need to find a way to get one to myself for an afternoon…or weekend…or permanently…

Oh, one last thing! Check out if you haven’t already. It’s a gorgeous facility with friendly people and great racing at every corner, and it’s entirely worth your time should you be local or visiting the area.

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata and 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Image courtesy of

  • “‘Shawshank’ was pretty excellent, but this is a car site dammit! Let’s focus on the automotive side of things.”

    Actually I’m also okay with discussions of geology movies.

    • The Real Number_Six

      Which of these geology movies will best help me understand the difference between felsic and viscous lavas?

      • 0A5599

        Instead, I would pick Joe vs. the Volcano. It has Abe Vigoda in it, and he is old enough to remember those rocks when they were still forming.

      • The, um, the felsic ones are the viscous ones.

        I am a failure at my chosen profession.

        • The Real Number_Six

          The failure might have been in my typing.

    • 0A5599

      The Rock stars in the Fast and Furious series. That should make you happy for the automotive and the geological tie-ins.

      • Ross Ballot

        And this one! Geology-ish movie (admittedly haven’t seen it though) with The Rock as the lead.

        • 0A5599

          I haven’t seen it either, but I heard it has a faulty plot.

    • 0A5599

      In geology Star Wars trilogy, Fissure Carries you!

      • The Real Number_Six

        Bravo

  • JayP

    Last weekend at the track… maybe a third of the cars in the instructor group was a Miata. I guess if you stick around long enough, you don’t have anything else to prove.

  • Alff

    I understand from my autocrossing/budget racing friends
    that the BRZ is putting pressure on the Miata as the de facto standard for those activities.

    • Ross Ballot

      New, maybe. Used, there’s effectively an infinite quantity of Miatas out there on the cheap…

      • JayP

        Exactly. The BRZ will have it’s day when they start getting 120k on the clock and hovering around $4k. Still won’t have the million or so like the Miata.
        Well… time to check to see if there’s any hi-mile BRZ/86s locally.

        • crank_case

          What will determine if it’s day comes will be parts availability. The Miata isn’t just a good little sports cars, availability of parts for an old car would only be rivalled by the likes of VW Beetles, and Toyota hasn’t a great reputation on parts support for older models so it will be down to the aftermarket. Not modifying parts, just “keeping it running” parts like repair panels, lights, routine stuff. I don’t know about stateside, but here in Ireland parts for AE86s can be a bit crazy for example. That’s not a great omen for the future, while the AE86 has it’s following, it’s not as accessible or cheap and easy to run as the Miata/MX5.

          I do like the BRZ/GT86 though, fantastic cars.

  • Van_Sarockin

    [opinions best left unstated]

  • Maymar

    For what it’s worth, my wife and I just did 10 days abroad, in two very different climates (30+ degrees C and sunny to a little over 10 and perpetual rain) with just carryon bags (she has a severe aversion to checking anything). It looks like some generations of Miata could accommodate that (well, not the NA). I think you could manage a weekend. For that matter, our weekly grocery shop fits in 2 tote bags, which would also fit. A Miata would work perfectly for 99% of my life, and frankly, I’m willing to tell the other 1% to suck it if I ever have to replace my other tiny Mazda and still don’t really need a back seat.

    But yes, the Miata is basically just the platonic ideal of a traditional sports car, a bit of a blank slate to project your performance desires onto it (well, unless you measure your worth as a human being in hp numbers, and even then, 302/LS swaps are an option). I’ve driven NC and NDs, and ridden in a thoroughly hustled NB. If you can’t have fun in one, I’m glad to hear you life your life one quarter mile at a time, and move along.

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