2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Japan-Spec First Drive
Back to the Future
Before heading to Barcelona to drive the new, fourth-generation 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata (which coincides with the car’s 25th anniversary) I drove a current example for reference. The night before it was to be returned, I climbed in to drive home, and then paused. Which way? Then I gazed down.
Robert Frost’s advice to “take the road less traveled” might as well be embroidered on Miata steering wheels right at the factory.
I wasn’t likely to encounter any diverging roads in the wood, but was sure open to something less traveled than the impacted 405 freeway… and I really needed a long drive anyway. You win, Robert. I unlatched the convertible top’s header and shoved it back. Years ago, when I owned a series of British sports cars, Frost used to win these debates on a regular basis -- figuratively riding along with a broad smile and his crazy white eyebrows peeled back by the wind. The poet of wayward pavement.
I hadn’t seen the old buzzard for quite a while, but suddenly there he was. “I’ve been waiting for you, Kim. Let’s head south this time.” South meant Palos Verdes, a fat thumb of coastland protruding into the Pacific. And in particular, a stretch where old landslides have made its terra not so firma, resulting in some terrific roller coaster yumps near Portuguese Bend.
It was dark, and the heater’s blast was in a stalemate against the chill ocean air washing through the cockpit. Looking up, stars dusted the inky blackness. Benny Goodman’s haunting “Moonglow” softly played from the speakers (remember the scene in “The Aviator” - Howard Hughes and Katherine Hepburn aloft over nighttime Los Angeles?)
I heel-and-toed into a corner and snicked the shifter down a gear – on the only transmission in the world ‘snick’ actually describes. The exhaust rapped, and we romped through another dipping bend. A Miata isn’t so much a car as it is a giant mechanical driving glove you wear and flex your fingers in to make proper sense of.
And yet the evening’s drive also worried me a bit. Was the next Miata about to fumble moments like these?
Mazda readily confesses that for the past quarter century it’s been the world’s unlikeliest caretaker of the DNA of the classic British sports car. Whereas Volkswagen and BMW have appropriated the factories and planning rooms of Bentley and Rolls-Royce, Mazda has been preserving the vital formula for an entire genre of British automotive history. Sort of a sports car seed vault in Hiroshima. That contains a single seed.
Throughout the Miata’s first three generations, Mazda has had to keep one eye on the growing list of expected features, a second on ever-mounting safety standards, all while glancing worriedly whenever the car rolls up on the scales. Invariably, the needle’s been ticking clockwise, having now risen upward of 400 additional pounds. So for the car’s big silver anniversary -- a occasion of reinvention for many -- Mazda decided to just trash everything and reimagine the much-loved 1990 Miata through the clear lens of 2015 technology (and shed some of those damn pounds while they were at it).
What’s most obvious when I walked up to the new 2016 Miata in Barcelona is that it’s way smaller. Flanked by its predecessor, the new Miata is 3.4 inches shorter, 0.2 in lower, and 0.4 inches wider – in all, a noticeably more diminutive package (in fact, it’s even 1.4 in briefer in length than the 1990 original.) Yet its outer dimensions are just the rough starting point, because the car’s been rethought straight down to its architectural core.
The engine (we’ll get to that) has been recessed into its bay, sinking 0.5-in, and drawn 0.6-in aftward (by relocating the vacuum pump wedged between it and the firewall). Together with a lower, pedestrian-absorbing pyrotechnic pop-up hood, the nose of the car now plunges to the asphalt in an almost chisel snout. (A look I like, though the sheetmetal cascade more prominently displays the hood’s shut line.) Taking advantage of that lower cowl, the driver’s seat has dropped too, in part by replacing the usual support springs with thin synthetic netting that varies in tension (taut in the lumbar area for support, more lax in the shoulders for movement.) It saves weight and allows for a little recline angle, too.
And while the driver’s longitudinal position in the 2016 Miata is about the same, the focus on the driving experience is seriously enhanced by first scooching both occupants closer to the car’s centerline (benefitting side-impact safety), perfectly aligning the steering wheel and pedals before the driver (nothing’s offset), finagling the car’s pitch axis to be just about behind your shoulder blades (rattling your head less and making it easier to keep your eyes trained on a visual target), and contouring the smooth door tops to spill air (when the top’s down) onto your torso (good) and not your head (buffeting). I was amused to hear Nobuhiro Yamamoto, the car’s program manager, explain why the steering wheel is slightly raised and there’s no passenger-side glove box: Since 1990, drivers have grown 2 cm (about 0.8 in) taller – but it’s been almost entirely in their ‘leg lengths’ he said. Politely, he didn’t mention that these legs’ thicknesses are probably greater, too. Small bins behind the seats now provide for glovebox knick-knacks.
Unfortunately, all the Japanese-spec 2016 Miatas on hand were fitted with non-U.S., 131-hp 1.5-liter engines (and all Mazda had to say about the 2.0-liter Mazda3-based mill we’ll be getting is that it produces 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque; lower than the current 167 but still with a roughly 5 percent better pound-to-horsepower ratio due to weight savings). Either way, smack in front of the driver is a big tach (8-grand for this 1.5-liter engine with a 7500-rpm redline), while to its right is the speedo, and to its left, a circular digital display that combines fuel level, coolant temp, and various messages. And above the center stack comfortably stands an infotainment screen (including navigation, if it’s opted for) that’s nicely sized for reading on the fly while keeping out of your driving sight lines.
But let me bring you back to the driver’s seat again.
A large start button fires the 1.5-liter engine, which if you rev it, produces a pleasantly familiar, if not particularly engaging sound. Actually, a lot has been done to make it sing better, including aluminum lumps added to the differential’s supporting structure that resonate during the engine’s mid-range revs, vibrating the aft structure into a sympathetic rort. The usual wrist-twist shift-motion feels Miata-great though I thought the detent through neutral was a bit more noticeable than necessary (keep in mind these were pre-production cars). And accelerating away now seems more liquid, as the engineers have considerably dialed-back the throttle action’s early-loading.
Still, you need to watch it with the right foot; the first time I stabbed it out of a corner, the tail swept sideways (even with its defeatable stability control left on). “Wow, these guys aren’t playing it safe, are they?” I chuckled while flicking a correction. And well, there’s was lots more chuckling after that, too. Braking into a corner, the go-slow pedal is firm and linear, but as was later explained to me, unexpected attention has also been paid to making it more linear as you slowly step out of it while dialing-into a corner.
From the driver’s seat, the distinct peaks of the 2016 Miata's left and right fenders represent subconscious visual markers (notice it if you get a chance). Turning to the right, the dip of the left one tells you about body roll and its closely related lateral g level; the right peak doesn’t rise or fall but acts as sort of a gunsight helping to target your path. The whole front of the car is sort of a visual reference device.
Steering while mid-corner has all the positives you’d expect: great feel, delicate effort, a mild but believable sensation of load build-up, good reflexes, a touch of lively vibration. What’s a bit odd to me, though, is actually the peculiarities that aren’t there. Mazda has gone to some lengths to erase instances of clunky engineering – one being to relax the angle between the steering column’s two halves so the U-joint between them introduces less wonkiness as it rotates. Probably so. But after decades of sports cars constantly chit-chatting their eccentric mood swings, a car that has having virtually no weird stories to report through its steering wheel left me listening especially closely with my hands. And listening more, the hands heard nothing. Just honest feedback. It’ll take awhile to get used to this sort of near-perfection. Later, Program Manager Yamamoto unrolled a long scroll he’s kept, documenting the car’s gestation and development. He stopped at a market-analysis they’d conducted with consumers who rated the performance attributes of several cars; on the left were the best-ranking ones, and among them, the Porsche Cayman had the highest scores (smart drivers). On the right was one with a bunch of zeros and ones. I looked at what car that was; let’s just say it was from a company we’ll call ‘T’ and a model starting with ‘P’. “Why include that?” I asked. “We needed something that would represent zero to them.” Ouch.
Three supporting actors in the steering’s award-worthy performance are the car’s stiffness, its roughly 150 pounds of shed weight, and just as significantly, its reduced polar moment of inertia (the arms-in, arms-out, twirling ice-skater thing). Beyond the previous car’s aluminum hood, trunk lid, and drivetrain truss, the fourth generation car has added aluminum front fenders, bumper support structures, a portion of the unsprung weight, its folding top hardware, and the bulkhead behind the seats (notice that much of this is targeted at the extremities of the car). Add a considerable dose of high-strength steel to the backbone ladder frame and door sills and you’ve got a foundation that’s both solid yet easily rotatable. And one more weight-saving nuance: while the car’s suspension is fundamentally the same, its load paths have been finessed to reduce the stress on their pick-up points, making those regions even lighter.
The parade of higher grade materials under the 2016 Miata's skin are reflected in a richer, and visually more complex interior environment. Compared to the profoundly spare, almost primitive Gen 1 (NA) car, the Gen 4 (ND) Miata is a high-style show inside and out. But it also has a very different visual personality than Gens 1 through 3: in profile, its set-back A-pillars, compact folding roof, and tall tail (yielding a much bigger, but spare-tire-less trunk) gives the car a BMW presence. Stroll past its stern and its pinched rear overhang (and even its taillight motif) could make it a baby Jaguar F-Type (though Mazda insists theirs was penned first!) Every single part you touch, and facet you glimpse, looks and feels as if it’s from a more mature, more sophisticated (and more expensive) car. The consequence is that it also has an air of greater maturity and sophistication.
On my way back to work the day after my Palos Verdes detour in the outgoing Miata, I had to ditch that imaginary passenger of mine and take the road most traveled in order to meet the guys who would pick up the car. On the way north, I started trying to count the sports cars going the other way on the 405. A friend of mine who’s a traffic scientist later calculated that I’d probably scanned about 16,000 cars between Costa Mesa and El Segundo, 40 miles north. Not only did I not see a single one, I didn’t even spot any convertible at all with its top down (as mine was, naturally).
When I was a teenager in Southern California, sports cars were a regular part of the scene. But it’s been 25 years since the 1990 Miata, which itself was most importantly, a reliable interpretation of those (unreliable) British sports cars 25 years prior to itself. There are simply fewer of us left still telling each other funny stories of Lucas wiring fires and un-sych-able SU carburetors. The new Miata has evolved for a generation that doesn’t laugh at the Prince of Darkness line because they don’t understand it. Which is perfectly okay.
And when we finally get a chance to evaluate the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata with its U.S.-spec, 2.0-liter engine, I’m sure my imaginary Robert Frost will direct me south after work again, and we’ll probably have more fun than before. Though we’re going to have to learn new jokes about twin-clutch transmission foibles and Bluetooth connection errors.
|2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata|
|BASE PRICE||$25,000 (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door convertible|
|ENGINE||1.5L/131-hp/111-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4*|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT||2,350 lb (mfr)*|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||154.1 x 68.1 x 48.6 in*|
|0-60 MPH||7.0 sec (MT est)*|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||Not yet rated|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Summer 2015|
|*Japanese specifications -- U.S. models to get a 2.0L/155-hp/148-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4|