The Long & Winding Road: Sixteen years later, the Mazda MX-5 Miata holds true to its roots
2006 MAZDA MX-5 MIATA CLUB SPEC
ON SALE: Fall
BASE PRICE: $20,995
POWERTRAIN: 2.0-liter, 170-hp, 140-lb-ft I4; rwd, five-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 2473 lbs
0 TO 60 MPH: 7.0 seconds (est.)
The rain eased up and the sun was beginning to peek out again from behind a thick, tropical cloud that shrouded the island off and on for much of the day. Hobbled during the downpours, the little blue Miata once again danced lightly along the damp two-lane that channeled its way across the ancient lava fields. We scanned the radio for any decent FM signal, settling for whatever crackled over the airwaves as the soundtrack to our drive. The next safe spot along the road, we’d pull over, drop the top once more and let the sunshine pour over our shoulders. It was a good day.
Something was amiss, however. Not that we were completely conscious of it at first—sometimes the gut knows a thing long before the brain does. But what started out as a tickle in the pit of our belly grew until we couldn’t wriggle away from it anymore.
The ocean was on the wrong side of the car.
Our drive began that morning on Highway 19, following its northward trek out of Kailua-Kona along the western shore of the Big Island. Craggy boulders of black pumice littered the landscape, looking strangely like a giant field freshly tilled by some Brobdingnagian farmer. But the road itself offered little in the way of a challenge for the new Mazda MX-5, as the asphalt undulated along as smooth as glass and arrow-straight. Eventually we turned inland toward the few winding roads the folks at Mazda assured us dotted the northern end of the island.
Sure enough, we soon found ourselves on a stretch of road where the turns came in quick succession, in beautifully cambered esses and tight, blind bends that hugged the hillsides. The Miata ate it up, and left us giggling as gleefully as we had all day.
But as the hills flattened and the road uncurled in front of us again, we got wrapped up in searching for opportunities to twirl the steering wheel some more. Every time the road ahead would disappear around a bend, we’d race up to it, eye the line, clip the apex and immediately begin looking for the next. In between we’d entertain ourselves by overtaking the few drivers with whom we met up, most of them obviously natives used to life at an island’s pace. A quick downshift and a mash of the gas and our little roadster would scoot by, leaving their images shrinking in the rearview.
Between the bouts of rain this pattern played out, the gentle strums of ukuleles or the soaring guitar solos of some longhaired metalhead spilling from the speakers. An hour or so passed before the realization struck that we’d missed a turn. And by then we had made it most of the way to Hilo—clear on the other side of the island.
The car proved a powerful distraction, indeed, but we hardly cursed our fate. The long detour just meant we’d get to spend that much more time tooling around Hawaii in the new third-generation MX-5.
The MX-5—known to a generation of American enthusiasts as the Miata (a name it will always bear in our hearts)—is a pure driver’s car. It’s not necessarily a racer’s car, though Mazda says more than 1500 are registered as spec-Miata class racers across the country.
The joy of driving a Miata emerges less from the power the car can turn out or the speed with which it can run down the road. With just 170 horses on tap from its 2.0-liter inline-four, the 2006 MX-5 may produce far more power than the first little roadster to roll out of Hiroshima some 16 years ago, but it’s still no Ferrari.
No, the satisfaction drawn from driving a car like the Miata is far less showy and more visceral, primal, organic. It’s rooted in a philosophy that says the less that sits between you and those four contact patches below your butt, the better; and it fully blossoms when you get those contact patches to dance at will and in sync with your fingers and toes. In simple terms, driving the Miata is about having fun.
That was the raison d’être of the first Miata 16 years ago, and the guiding principle of every example thereafter. We’d argue this latest rendition adheres more closely to that philosophy than any before.
The 2006 MX-5 maintains the car’s 50:50 weight distribution, but the team of engineers at Mazda toiled over details, lowering the car’s yaw moment of inertia by moving mass closer to the centermost point of the car as possible. To this end, the engine is pushed rearward more than five inches, while the air conditioning compressor shrinks by 7 percent and the driver and passenger are pressed 0.79 inch closer together.
Additionally, Mazda relocated the battery from the trunk to the engine bay, placing it about 10.4 inches closer to the car’s center of gravity, while the fuel tank now sits 4.3 inches more forward and 4.7 inches lower than the previous model. Overall, Mazda managed to lower the Miata’s center of gravity by 0.71 inch.
Such changes help to give the car a more nimble handling quality and improved ride, despite being bigger in all directions, aided in large part by an extensive use of aluminum chassis pieces as well as a 2.5-inch-longer wheelbase.
Through the most twisting sections of road on our drive, we’d throw the Miata into a corner, pushing its driven wheels to the limits of adhesion, and then slightly over with another squeeze of the right pedal. The rear end would drift ******d in direct proportion to the amount of throttle we’d feed it. Easing off the gas mid-turn, the rear would tuck gently back in line with the front—without threatening to swap ends—and from there the car could easily balance on that edge, tail wagging wherever the throttle sent it.
Credit, too, the multilink design in place of the double-wishbone setup that suspended previous models. Driving hard over a series of whoop-de-dos, the Miata’s suspension managed full compression at the bottom of the dips just as aptly as it did full extension as we flew over the crests, the quick transition from heavy to light loads never causing the car any particular upset.
As eager as we found the Miata for whatever twisties it could lay its rubber on, we enjoyed just cruising along the Hawaiian two-lanes as much as any part of the Miata experience. That’s what the simple act of opening the roof and letting the tropical wind blow through your hair can do to a person.
Mazda has made folding the roof as simple a task as we’ve seen in any roadster. All one needs do is unhook one latch and push the top straight back. It drops easily into its fully folded position behind the headrests and automatically locks into place; it doesn’t even require a separate tonneau cover. The whole action takes little reach and less muscle, and it never requires your butt to leave the seat.
Top down, wind buffeting felt as we’d expected, perhaps made a little more tolerable by popping up the small wind diffuser found between the seats. And top up, we were mildly surprised by the minimal amount of wind noise that penetrated the cabin. Taller drivers, however, will still prefer to keep the top stowed, as there isn’t much headroom to be found inside a buttoned-up Miata, despite the new model’s increased interior space. Those same drivers might also prefer a bit more room in the footwells; the space right of the gas pedal feels particularly tight. The passenger’s feet suffer cramped quarters as well.
When the MX-5 rolls into showrooms this fall, prices will start at $20,995 for the stripped-down Club Spec model, including $560 destination. Another grand will buy you an MX-5 with air conditioning and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, while an additional $1,000 for the Touring model adds fog lamps, cruise control and power door locks. Sport models swap out the five-speed manual for a newly designed six-speed unit for $23,496, but also provide a host of options not available on lesser-trim models. Top-o’-the-line Grand Touring Miatas come pretty well loaded for just under 25 large.
For those desirous of more distinction, Mazda will send 750 of 3500 3rd Generation Limited models to North America, each clad in unique Velocity Red Mica paint and riding on exclusive 17-inch silver-finish alloy wheels, priced at $27,260.
That’s a far cry from the original Miata’s $13,800 starting price, even if that car came with but a 1.6-liter four producing just 116 horses. And yet this third-gen car gets as close to realizing the goal of that first little roadster as any donning the MX-5 badge: to make taking the long and winding road the preferred way to get, well, anywhere; and to make getting lost along the way an experience to relish rather than regret.
Whoever said life is about the journey and not the destination obviously owned a Miata.