The 2016 Miata: three days with the people’s roadster

Mazda sets out to prove that driving still matters

The year is 1989, Christina Applegate just ditched her date Brad Pitt at the MTV Movie Awards, your closet is a temple to acid-wash denim, and you’re in the market for a new roadster. Bummer for you, that market is practically barren. The Lotus Elan, the MG MGB, and the Triumph Spitfire — fun, lightweight, and affordable two-seaters — went out with the Carter Administration.

Then, out of nowhere, Mazda came to the rescue. The front-engine, rear-wheel-drive MX-5 — known as the Eunos Roadster in Japan and the Miata in the States — was an instant hit. "Mazda has resurrected those barnstorming sports-car times in one spectacular, up-to-date package," Car and Driver gushed in its September 1989 road test. "We feel like cheering. Feel free to cheer right along with us."

Over the next quarter century, the Miata became the best selling two-seat sports car ever made, graduating from a car to an institution. Like the Beetle or the Mustang, the model’s legend grew larger than the company that made it. And other entry-level roadsters followed Miata’s lead: the Honda Civic del Sol, the Toyota MR2 Spyder, the Pontiac Solstice, and Saturn Sky. The roadster, it seemed, was saved.

But 2015 looks a lot like 1989: once again, the Miata has no natural competition. The S2000 went out of production in 2009; Toyota retired the Spyder in 2007; and the Solstice and Sky died with the companies that gave them birth. Other roadsters exist — BMW’s Z4, Audi’s TT, the Porsche Boxster — but they are machines of another order: heavier, more expensive, faster.

So, can the 2016 MX-5 revive the economy roadster for a second time?

MX-5 Lead w Watermark

In late July, I traveled to Westlake Village, a posh Southern California community nestled at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains to test drive the fourth generation of the Miata, now available as a 2016 model.

Part of the original Miata’s appeal was its character — you didn’t just want to drive it, you wanted to befriend it. Its big, guileless pop-up headlights sat above a wide, mouth-like air intake, giving the car a dumbstruck grin. Seen in a rear-view mirror, the Miata looked like Kermit; it looked like Nemo; it looked like anything but 2,000 pounds of metal and rubber. The second and third generations lost the retractable headlights, but the cues were the same: this was a cute and eminently approachable car.

One look at the 2016 MX-5, and it’s clear that Mazda has had a change of heart. Where the design of the second and third generation were evolutionary steps from the first, the fourth is a species of an entirely different genus. It sits low and wide, its wheels pushed to the very corners of the frame. The car faithfully embodies the "Kodo" design language Mazda introduced in 2010: the long curves, extended hood, and exaggerated fenders. The dorky smile is gone, replaced by a Joker-like smirk. The Miata is no longer laughing with you, it’s laughing at you. And your friends. And maybe your mom.

MX-5 Interior w watermark

Up until now, each generation of the Miata has been slightly bulkier than its predecessor — a little longer, a tad wider, marginally heavier, and occasionally more powerful. That progress fed customer expectations, but it also created a nagging sense that the Miata had contracted a case of bloat. Between Miata’s first (1989-1997) and third generation (2005–2015), the car packed on almost 500 pounds. Richard Hammond called the last generation of the Miata "more chunky, and more muscular" than its progenitor — a barbed compliment for a car that’s always prided itself on being svelte.

With the fourth generation, Mazda is attempting a return to form: it’s significantly lighter, smaller, and even less powerful than the model it replaces. Talk to Mazda’s engineers and they’ll eagerly discuss how each bolt, brace, and panel has been meticulously trimmed to take off a pound here, a gram there. But the Miata has never been a numbers car. As Bob Hall, the automotive journalist-turned-engineer who concepted the first Miata, is fond of saying in one interview after another, this isn’t a car to be measured in MPH or MPG, but in "SPG" — "Smiles Per Gallon." It’s a groaner of a line, but Hall is right: the true test of the Miata is how it feels on the road. Luckily, Westlake Village is just 45 minutes away from a city that loves its cars, Los Angeles.

MX-5 Driving w Watermark

I come from a long and proud lineage of people living in New York who wish they lived in Los Angeles — and according to The New York Times, our clan is growing. Just this year, Beyoncé and Jay Z, the man behind "Empire State of Mind" himself, made the move. And if there’s one thing Mrs. Carter, Mr. Carter, and Mr. Zelenko share in common, it’s an appreciation of the fact that Los Angeles is New York’s antithesis: a mystical, sun-soaked realm of leisure, reasonable rent, and edible Mexican food. It’s also an ideal testing ground for a new Miata.

Over the course of my three-day trip to LA, I zoom-zoomed down Highway 1 between the sandy cliffs of Malibu and the Gatorade-blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. I carved up, down, and across the picturesque Santa Monica Mountains so many times that I felt like I’d gotten lost inside a car ad. I uncovered spooky, inexplicable patches of 1AM traffic on the 110. I picked up a friend and drove her to get her marijuana license renewed. Out of curiosity, we drove to, and then quickly away from, the Church of Scientology. I swam in three different pools; I swapped celebrity gossip. One afternoon, I spent nearly $40 on cold-pressed, organic juice. I took a shot of a dark, smoky concoction that contained 87 different minerals and — I was assured — had played a significant role in rendering an infertile woman pregnant. I had a very LA weekend.

The Miata comes in three trim packages: the Sport, the Club, and the GT. Mazda lent me a bright red GT, the most luxurious of the three, with a six-speed manual transmission. If you’re seeking decadence, look elsewhere. Sure, the leather-trimmed seats and the Bose audio package are nice, but there are also subtle reminders that you’re still driving an economy sports car — the Bluetooth system that worked practically all of the time; the cup holders that pop in and out willy nilly; the vanity mirrors that look and feel as if they were pulled from a Power Wheels.

MX-5 Steering wheel w watermark

In the end, though, none of that matters. It may have been the jet lag, but over the course of my trip I woke up bright and early each morning with the giddy energy you feel when looking up at a roller coaster — that tangible sense that you’re in for a hell of a ride.

The 2016 MX-5 is the most fun car I’ve driven in recent memory. Everything from the flick-of-the-wrist gearbox, to the immaculately responsive steering, the perfect 50-50 weight distribution, and the driver’s positioning adds up to a remarkable sensation: you’re not nestled deep inside a steel cocoon as you would be in say, a Mustang or Challenger; instead, you’re riding atop a magic carpet. Swivel your head from the driver’s vantage point and you can see all four corners of the car as clearly as your own hands and feet. That, combined with the car’s weight and grip, gave me the confidence to push the car at every opportunity — on tight curves, on long straightaways, down the street away from the Church of Scientology. On the freeway, I felt like a whippet weaving through a herd of elephants.

Unless you only have one friend, the Miata is an impractical car — a second ride or weekend cruiser at best. If you live anywhere it snows, the rear-wheel drive set-up is a nightmare; the ragtop offers scant protection from the elements; and even for a two-seater, it’s a tight squeeze (at 6 feet tall, I fit fine in the driver’s seat but our 6 foot 3 inch cameraman had to methodically fold himself into the passenger seat).

But those caveats aside, the Miata may be the ideal gateway sports car: unapologetically frivolous, ready to conquer a twisty canyon road or a beachfront highway. On the last day of my trip, a snow-white Porsche 911 4S — a $120,000 car, mind you — pulled up alongside me on the 101. The driver slowed down, matched my speed, and gave the Miata the once over. $90,000 separated his car and mine, but we were one of a feather. Just before he sped off, he gave that knowing nod: "Welcome to the club."

MX-5 Rear w Watermark

With the fourth generation of the Miata, Mazda has no doubt pumped new blood into the iconic roadster's dynasty. In an age when cars are as much about infotainment systems as they are about driving, the Miata is a wonderful reminder that the road can still be a fun place to be. Depending on the car’s success, we may see more such economy roadsters to come. Already later this year, Fiat plans to preview the 2017 124 Spider roadster (which is built on the MX-5 platform), and rumors abound that Honda’s S2000 — a car with a devoted following of its own — may soon rise from its grave.

But whether the Miata can maintain the roadster tradition going through the coming years of Uber, autonomous technology, and millennial buying behavior is another question — one that Rod McLaughlin, Mazda’s vehicle line manager for the MX-5, says keeps him up at night.

"There’s convenience and transportation — and then there’s driving"

As the Miata’s target customers, Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, age out, they’ll be replaced by a generation less romantic about the driving experience. The company’s current ad campaign, anchored by the tag "Driving Matters," feels like an incantation, or else an effort to convince us of something drivers intuitively knew just a decade ago. "There’s convenience and transportation — and then there’s driving," McLaughlin told me at the Westlake Village event.

"There’s a generation of people who haven’t driven a roadster before, and they don’t know what they’re missing. It’s like, how do you explain skydiving to someone who’s never jumped out of a plane?"

Getting younger customers to fall in love with the Miata the way their parents did — not as a method of transportation, but as a celebration of the driving experience — will be key to the Miata’s success. In fact, the car’s next 26 years depend on it.