Versus the competiton:
Mazda introduced the MX-5 Miata 25 years ago as a throwback to a long line of small roadsters that didn’t offer a ton of power, but thrilled drivers with their handling and top-down fun.
That philosophy of fun continues, but it is now also a throwback to the time before touch-screens, USB ports and the “car-as-living-room” malaise that has gripped many cars today. In a way, that’s a good thing. In another way, though, it’s a sign that the current Miata has been left behind by the times.
The 2015 Mazda MX-5 Miata offers superior handling, an easy-to-use convertible top and loads of driving fun, but it needs its imminent 2016 redesign to keep pace with a growing, competitive market.
That market now includes cars that have been in the class for a while, such as the Volkswagen GTI and Mini Cooper convertibles — and newer entries such as the Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S twins. Compare them here.
We tested a 2015 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring with a power retractable hardtop, six-speed manual transmission and a price of $32,285. Little has changed from the previous year, but you can run through the specs for both model years here.
The Miata is a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive car that offers balanced handling and the rare trait of being fun at both low and high speeds. It’s easy to slide the car’s tail if you punch the throttle or drive like a hooligan, but it’s also capable of keeping traction through high-speed bends.
In short, it inspires both confidence and a desire to push the car. It’s the best of its competitors; the GTI feels a little too heavy and deliberate to be flung into corners with abandon, the BRZ/FR-S twins are at the opposite end of the spectrum (too squirrely) and the Mini is somewhere in the middle.
None of the Miata’s competitors offer the same dynamics and sheer thrills that the MX-5 Miata does. The rear-wheel-drive BRZ/FR-S twins are the closest comparison to the Miata, and while they’re fun, they feel like they were designed to slide and drift too easily.
That’s fun around town and, for a while, on the track, but if I were going for an all-out lap time on a track with fast sweepers, I’d take the confidence the MX-5 Miata inspires. If the BRZ/FR-S is designed to feel lively, the Miata is designed to feel planted.
The Mini and GTI have front-wheel drive and thus inherently different driving dynamics. The Mini is a peppy, fun-to-drive car, but as a convertible it’s not as rigid or easy to drive, owing to its slightly poorer top-down visibility. And while the GTI model is fast, it feels heavy to me.
The Miata’s engine and steering work to give you confidence to push the car. Both are direct in their response — that is, a slight move of the gas pedal or steering wheel immediately elicits a response from the car. While engine/steering response should be a defining characteristic of this class, I think the Miata is the best, with the BRZ/FR-S close behind.
The Miata is not without its faults in the driving department, however.
Its clutch has the trickiest takeup point to master of any of its competitors, and it also requires the most effort to operate. By a lot. The gearshift, while stubby in height and blessed with short throws, did not have the same solid engagement that the rest of the class did, and it required more effort. I always felt like something was grabbing or catching when I shifted gears.
Five years ago, I don’t think the Miata’s gearbox would have stood out as subpar, but the competitors today all do it better. All six of the Miata’s gears are usable; the gearbox doesn’t give you one or two high gears that are suitable only for flat or downhill stretches of road to eke out better mileage. The usable ratios are great for fast driving and help the Miata stand out from today’s crowd of hyper-efficient gearboxes.
Also, while I don’t consider this a deal-breaker, it must be noted that the Miata is a loud car with the top up. A lot of engine noise makes its way into the cockpit, and the hardtop doesn’t have a lot of insulation, so you hear a lot of noise — especially when rain and sleet bounce off the thing. It sounds the most like a lightweight racecar of any in its class.
Mileage for the MX-5 is an EPA-estimated 22/28/25 mpg city/highway/combined for the five-speed manual version, 21/28/23 mpg for the six-speed automatic version and 21/28/24 mpg for the six-speed manual version that we tested. That combined rating compares favorably with the BRZ and GTI, with their combined 25 mpg, but trails the Mini Cooper S convertible, which stretches to 30 mpg combined.
The cabin is the area where the Miata shows not only its age, but also its focus. Our test model — the highest of the three trims offered — featured no touch-screens, no USB dock and no other amenities automakers are starting to include as standard equipment. I mean, the trip computer won’t even show miles-to-empty. It reminds me of a base-model car I owned in the late ’90s.
There’s nothing in the Miata that’s just a decoration — just a smallish steering wheel, a gearshift, an easy-to-read speedometer, a tachometer and a radio. It says, more than anything else, that this is a driver’s car.
But taller drivers beware, especially if you carry your height in your torso, as I do: Headroom is cramped. I had the height-adjustable seat set to its lowest setting, yet when I sat up straight my head was pressing firmly against the roof. I slouched for most of my longer drives, which led to back pain. I’m 6-foot-2, but I imagine most folks around 6 feet or taller would have issues, especially when wearing a hat.The front view was also a bit pinched by the rearview mirror, owing to how high my eyes were in the car. I had issues seeing cars merging from my right and found myself ducking my head to look under the mirror when turning.
Visibility over my left shoulder was also a bit compromised by the small side mirror and, when compensating for that, the large rear roof pillar.
None of the Miata’s competitors offer such compromised visibility, even the low-slung BRZ/FR-S.
But, of course, the Miata is a convertible. With the top down, many of those visibility problems fade away. In fact, visibility was better than I’ve found it to be in the Mini convertibles I’ve driven. Overall, the Miata excels at top-down driving.
I took the car out on several runs when temperatures were in the mid- to high-40s and was comfortable. A big part of that was the heated seats (standard on our Grand Touring trim but not offered on Sport or Club models). They were the warmest I’ve encountered; I could tolerate them only at 3 in a range that went up to 6. I’m convinced you could use setting 6 to heat up a can of soup.
Buffeting is at a minimum with the top down, too, but if Mazda could just bring back side-vent windows, it would be perfect. I noticed on one of my longer, colder drives that my shoulders were getting chilled, and being able to direct airflow just a bit wider with vent windows would have solved the issue.
The convertible top bears mentioning for its ease of use. Lowering the power retractable hardtop was as simple as pulling a latch and pressing a button, then letting the motors take over. Raising the top is done by pressing a button then snapping the latch shut. It’s intuitive and works quickly. The easy-to-use latch system also carries over to manual-close soft-top versions.
One of the nice things about owning a convertible is leaving the top down when the car’s parked, thus Mazda includes lockable storage behind your elbow. It’s not immense, but would hold smartphones, sunglasses and travel mugs. It’s a thoughtful touch.
The cupholders — if you’re the type to sip while driving — are largely ineffective. The door-mounted cupholders only fit smaller cups or 12-ounce cans. The center cupholders accommodate larger travel mugs, but I found they interfered with shifting. Overall, you’re better off leaving the latte at home and getting your pulse racing by driving.
Unlike some other convertibles, trunk room is not affected when the top is lowered, and there’s no difference in trunk volume between the hardtop and the standard soft-top. I found the trunk space to be more than enough for a weekend trip.
If numbers are more your thing, the MX-5 Miata has 5.3 cubic feet of trunk space, which compares to the Mini Convertible’s 6.0 cubic feet. However, the Mini — like the GTI and BRZ/FR-S — has folding seats that increase the cargo area a great deal.
As is often the case with sports cars and convertibles, the MX-5 Miata has not been crash-tested by either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Standard safety equipment can be reviewed here. Also, if you’re intent on using the MX-5 Miata as a carrier of small children, it’s important to remember that the front seat of any car is not the safest for carrying children of safety- or booster-seat size, even if it has an airbag that won’t activate unless an adult is in the seat.
The Miata is predicted to have top-notch reliability.
On price, the Miata remains competitive with its class, and that’s largely true of the car as a whole: It’s competitive and its strength is its performance.
Even though I didn’t fit in the car so well, and even though I had to drive it with the top up more than I would have preferred, I kept looking for excuses to drive this car. I live less than a mile from a grocery store, but there was never a question of walking to the store when I had the Miata. And every one of those grocery trips ended up being a lot more than a mile of driving.
In relationship to its competitors, it’s as if the other cars are designed to be fun and can go fast, but the Miata feels like it’s designed to go fast and therefore is fun.
Yet these same competitors all offer more useful features and interiors that were designed (or redesigned) more recently than the Miata’s. Each also accommodates larger drivers better than the Miata. They’re all easier to live with on a day-to-day basis.
The Miata is slated for a redesign for the 2016 model year, and I’d say it’s overdue for one. The competition offers cars that are more modern, more accommodating and are almost as fun to drive.
However, if Mazda is able to update the Miata’s amenities, make it fit larger drivers better and retain the poise of the current car, the competition will be in serious trouble.