Review: Mazda’s Latest Miata Recalls 1989 Original

For years I have said finding the right two-seat roadster is easy. Just buy a Mazda MX-5 Miata. I did so 20 years ago and have yet to covet another convertible. When Porsche rolled out the Boxster in the late 1990s I amended the rule: Buyers with money to burn ought to grab the Porsche while the rest should stick with the Mazda.

IMG_20151013_123143
Mazda’s 2016 Miata seems to borrow some of its angry front-end styling from the old Honda S2000.

But after driving the fourth-generation 2016 Miata I no longer think the Boxster has a case, especially at twice the Mazda’s price.

The new Miata is a delight on the road in part because it retains the spirit of the original car. The early Miata’s key to success was not raw speed. Indeed, it took a great effort to squeeze performance from the car’s 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. But that was the fun part – the trait that made the car so engaging and satisfying to drive. The Miata makes a 50-mile-per-hour back road feel almost like a race track. Starting at $24,915 it is also easier on the budget.

Our 1995 Miata refuses to grow old.
Our 1995 Miata refuses to grow old.

The pricey, more-powerful Boxster is less enjoyable at the speed limit. It feels like it always wants to go faster. And because it is a Porsche, people might make snap judgments about its driver — something to consider.

Mazda has resisted the temptation to boost power with bigger engines or to enhance comfort by making the car larger. The company even trimmed inches and pounds so the latest MX-5, at 2,332 pounds, is almost 150 pounds lighter than the previous model. With 155 horsepower, the roadster is lively without feeling overpowered.

The company redesigned the 2016 model to be more like the original car. I wouldn’t say the Miata had grown heavy and dull over the years, but last year’s edition had gained nearly 190 pounds compared with our first-generation model and it seemed to have lost some of the sharpness that made the earlier cars favorites among sports-car fans.

IMG_20151013_123219In this age of rapid advances in automotive gadgetry and luxury features, it is difficult to maintain the appeal of a tiny, unadorned car designed to be simple. That is one reason why there are not many traditional roadsters available in the U.S. today. Other companies have tried but the Miata, while never a huge seller, has outsold and outlasted rivals like the Honda S2000, Pontiac Solstice and Toyota MR2 Spyder. Those cars failed to match the Miata’s combination of looks, performance, price and user-friendliness. The car arguably still has the easiest-to-operate folding top in the industry.

Having lived happily for so long with the red 1995 Miata in our garage, I’m not ready to trade it in for a new one. To me the first-generation car’s pop-up headlights and smiling grille make it more endearing. And even though I have spent many highway miles listening to the engine scream and wishing for a sixth gear, the older car’s notchy five-speed transmission has the best shifter I have ever used. The newer six-speed gearbox lacks some of that precise, mechanical feel. Besides, I’ll be able to order “antique” license plates for our classic in a few years.

But if our neighbor’s giant tree falls on the garage tomorrow and squashes “Baby Buggy,” I will head to the nearest Mazda dealership, deposit in hand.

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