Turning back the clock in some ways and pushing the needle forward in many others, the redesigned 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster is the best Miata ever, and one of the most fun, capable cars you can buy, regardless of price.
The only changes that might turn off some buyers are a slightly smaller trunk and the discontinuation of an optional power-retractable hard top, leaving only the standard manual cloth top. If the “PRHT” will return, Mazda isn’t talking about it.
As before, the Miata comes in three trim levels: Sport, Club and Grand Touring. The powertrain comprises a single four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. Last year’s five-speed stick is gone. (See the 2015 and 2016 models’ specs side by side here.) I drove Club and Grand Touring versions.
The Miata has no rivals, mainly because there are no other roadsters available at such a low starting price. The closest is the Nissan 370Z, which starts at $42,645 in roadster form — almost $17,000 more than the Miata’s $25,735 for a Sport model (all prices include destination charges). If you’re looking for an affordable, fun car in the Miata’s league, I recommend the Scion FR-S and its sister, the Subaru BRZ. Though they’re four-seaters and not available as convertibles, their starting prices are within hundreds — not thousands — of the Miata’s, and they share the Mazda’s simplicity and purity. See these models compared side-by-side here.
The new Miata is more than an inch shorter from bumper to bumper than the first-generation car, which had been the smallest in the model’s history. A half-inch wider than last year’s model, however, the 2016 is now the widest to date. It also boasts a slightly wider track.
Key to the redesign’s shorter length and small front overhang are standard LED headlights, which Mazda says were the most compact, if not the most affordable, option. They also seem to give the car’s design a touch of wickedness, which it’s always needed but never possessed.
A black front air dam and trunk-lid spoiler distinguish the Club trim level. Alloy wheels start at 16 inches on the Sport and grow to 17 inches for the Club and Grand Touring. The Club’s have a gunmetal finish where the GT’s are bright. The Club’s optional Brembo/BBS Package brings BBS-brand wheels that have a black finish but remain 17 inches. The package also paints the unfinished brake rotors red and adds Brembo front brakes and a subtle body kit with black side sills and a rear bumper skirt.
People in my line of work have been known to write raves about Mazda MX-5 Miatas, and to purchase them, as I have. To drive a Miata of any generation is to recognize that the fun goes beyond the pleasure many find in a small car and/or a convertible. The Miata has always been about the visceral experience of a simple, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive car with equal (or nearly so) front/rear weight distribution and balance that can carve corners with a degree of controllability that makes sliding about safe in everyday driving. The best sports cars feel like an extension of the driver, and this is where the Miata has shone where some cars — priced two or three times more — have failed.
The 2016 is unquestionably the best Miata yet. Among countless other changes, the fourth-generation Miata has lost roughly 150 pounds and is now in line with the second generation, reversing one of the transgressions of the third generation (which ran from 2006-2015). Even more impressive, the 2016’s weight rivals that of a first-generation Miata equipped with a 1.8-liter engine. (The only lighter Miata was the original, 1.6-liter version of the first generation model, but the displacement increase of the 1.8 was worth its weight in, well, weight.)
For 2016, an efficient SkyActiv 2.0-liter four-cylinder replaces the earlier 2.0-liter, but Mazda has lowered it about a half inch — which lowers the car’s center of gravity — and moved it almost an inch rearward, which shifts more of its mass behind the front axle, where you want it. The more-centered mass lowers the car’s polar moment of inertia, meaning it requires less force to rotate on its axis — to change direction, in essence. The 2016 once again rivals the first generation in this respect.
All these changes do indeed make the 2016 feel lighter, more grounded and nimble. The 2016 brings the Miata’s first application of electric power steering. Unlike Mazda’s front-drive models, the Miata’s assist motor is on the steering rack rather than the column, which is the only way to get the kind of performance and feel for which hydraulic assist is respected. In the 2016, the new system does the trick, though it’s tuned differently. It’s noticeably comfortable on center and easier to pilot on the highway, a characteristic that drew a complaint of softness from one of our editors. Turn the wheel past center, and there’s nice progressive torque buildup as the steering angle increases. The steering snaps back to center sharply and completely. A couple of us thought feedback could be better, but all told, I’m good with it.
The car’s overall dynamics have definitely changed. Turn-in feels slower, in part because the outside rear wheel no longer toes out initially before toeing back in under sustained cornering forces. The alignment’s response is more consistent, and, as a result, so is the car’s response when you throw it into a corner. And throw it into a corner you will. The car demands it.
What the Miata really needs is a relaxed stability system mode. Even we who went most of our lifetimes without the stability safety net now appreciate a way to tone it down a bit without turning it off entirely.
The Grand Touring rides very comfortably despite the car’s athletic nature. I didn’t drive one, but the base Sport shares the same suspension and should ride similarly. The middle trim level, Club, has a sport suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers and a limited-slip differential that’s also comfortable considering what it delivers: a more direct, connected feel and less — but still present — body roll, by design. The Club also adds a front shock-tower brace but sacrifices all these mechanical upgrades if you choose the optional automatic transmission.
The Club’s optional Brembo/BBS Package replaces the stock single-piston front calipers with Brembo-brand brake calipers, which are also single-piston. They provide a stronger bite and better pedal feel, but the stock brakes are nice and linear and didn’t leave me wanting in street driving.
With 155 horsepower, the new engine has 12 hp less than the 2015 but 8 pounds-feet more torque; the 2016 Miata has a peak of 148 pounds-feet of torque at 4,600 rpm. With the weight loss, the car feels a bit quicker — certainly quick enough. Our friends at “MotorWeek” clocked a zero-to-60 mph time of 6.8 seconds on a slick track, and word on the street is you can get closer to 6 seconds, and rarely take as long as 7, with the standard six-speed manual.
As always, the shifter is a relatively short thing with short-enough throws and a good feel, but it still doesn’t quite compare to the shifter in the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ, which has ruined me for any other shifter. Mazda has changed the gear ratios across the board, but everything still feels exactly right. The engine has a nice, broad torque curve that allows it to climb modest inclines in high gears at low rpm.
Even the six-speed automatic is well-executed. It taps into the power nicely, doesn’t dally on kickdown and adds a Sport mode that would be pointless with the stick. If you can’t wrap your mind around pushing the stick forward to downshift when in manual mode, you can rely instead on the steering wheel’s shift paddles — which, incidentally, allow 2nd-gear acceleration from a stop. It’s all good for what it is, but if you don’t get the manual, you’re sorta missing the point here.
Despite quicker sprints, the 2016’s mileage is up 25 to 30 percent overall versus the 2015 at an EPA-estimated 27/34/30 mpg city/highway/combined with the six-speed manual and 27/36/30 mpg with the automatic. At their best, the FR-S and 370Z trail by 2 and 9 mpg combined, respectively.
To understand how good the Miata has always been, look no further than its modest engine power — or specifically its modest power-to-weight ratio. Would we welcome more power? Certainly. But this degree of fun comes from the entire package. Prodigious power is often a crutch automakers shovel into everything from alleged sports cars to SUVs in order to compensate for other deficiencies. The Miata has more than survived without it. Mazda’s North American representatives are mum on whether more power will become available, but a high-ranking Japanese exec (who won’t get canned for revealing information) reportedly said more power isn’t what the Miata is about. Reading between the lines suggests, at minimum, that more power isn’t currently in development, if it’s a possibility at all. As Mazda’s enigmatic SkyActiv name has come to the fore, the Mazdaspeed designation has tragically waned.
It’s always amusing when automakers redesign their vehicles and openly acknowledge what was wrong with the model being replaced. In the Miata, that includes the fact that the third generation’s pedals weren’t exactly centered in front of the driver, and that one of the folding top’s cross-ribs was directly above the driver’s head, ensuring taller drivers would brain themselves when driving over a bump. Changes to these two anomalies, and many other tweaks in the 2016, make the interior roomier and more comfortable, even though the published dimensions are about the same as the 2015’s.
Even though the roof is 10 millimeters lower, occupants sit 20 millimeters lower, increasing headroom. An additional click in the reclining backrests also helps, as does an aluminum panel that’s been incorporated into the front of the folding top. It helps relocate protruding ribs and diminishes wind buffeting.
Occupants sit 15 millimeters farther inboard, which helps align the driver with the pedals. The change combines with a slight rearward shift of the windshield to improve the driver’s field of view by a claimed 5 degrees. Also note that the hood has been lowered 28 millimeters, so the lower seats don’t sink the occupants into a foxhole.
Mazda says some of the space increase comes from having a thinner “net” seat that uses an underlying high-tension cloth mesh in place of springs and foam. (An eventual loss of tension and failed seat seems a reasonable concern, but only time and miles will tell.) The seats got mixed reviews. A couple of our editors said they felt like they were sitting on rather than in the seats and slid around too much. One person wanted a height adjustment, but I was happy with the bottom cushion’s tilt adjustment for thigh support. The Sport and Club have cloth seats and the GT adds leather.
Additional changes in the 2016 include a smaller steering wheel with a greater tilt angle, both of which improve leg clearance. We think a telescoping adjustment is still called for, too. (Leg clearance remains my primary complaint about my own Miata, a second-generation 2002; its steering wheel doesn’t adjust at all.) At 6 feet tall, I technically fit in my 2002, but I drive with the top up only when I’ve misjudged the weather. I definitely find the 2016 to be more livable than every earlier generation with the top up.
While the steering wheel’s size is OK, I wouldn’t mind a thicker rim. And while the passenger enjoys many of the roominess improvements, a substantial hump protrudes from the floor along the center console, and there’s also not quite as much room for leg extension.
Operating the top is simpler than ever, too, thanks to a lighter frame and less friction in the joints. Most impressive is how the stowed top is spring-tensioned to pop up several inches when you pull a handle over your inboard shoulder to raise it to the closed position. This makes it possible to grab it while seated and throw it forward without tearing a rotator cuff or, presumably, bending the backrest frame. (If you’ve ever driven a used roadster with a driver’s seat that angles curiously inward, now you know why.) On the other hand, lowering the top when seated requires a little more contortion than it once did, as you now have to lock it down into its integrated tonneau position.
Though Mazda says it make an effort to quiet the Miata’s interior, especially in the GT, it’s still a soft-top roadster, and there’s no escaping the penetrating noise. One anomaly I found was wind noise on the passenger’s side, especially in crosswinds — a loud whistle with the top up that occurred in three cars: two Clubs and one Grand Touring. Mazda needs to get that fixed, pronto.
The shifter is right where you want it, and Mazda has relocated the cupholders to behind the center armrest so they don’t interfere. However, note that I saw someone accidentally crush a fast-food cup with his elbow and pop its top off, but that individual is a known spaz. The two cupholders mount into receptacles in the center console and can be removed completely, or one can be relocated to another receptacle on the passenger side of the center console.
The cupholders may be gone, but a couple of times I inadvertently activated the integrated controller knob/button that takes their place in the higher trim levels.
The Miata’s overall simplicity carries over to its entry-level controls: well-laid-out ventilation and power window, lock and mirror controls, as well as no-nonsense steering-wheel buttons. We haven’t tested the Sport yet, but pictures show a small bin on the center console, where the Mazda Connect controller appears in the Club and GT. Atop the dashboard, the Sport has a control panel with a modest monochrome display and radio buttons where the Mazda Connect 7-inch display would be.
Even in such a small car, this location for controls isn’t the most comfortable to reach, as I learned because the Mazda Connect display functions as a touch-screen when the car is stationary. You’re stuck with the multifunction controller once in motion. It works well enough, though I prefer a touch-screen. Fortunately, more elaborate inputs, such as navigation destinations, happen when stationary. The navigation comes standard in the GT. In the Club, Mazda Connect’s features include SiriusXM satellite radio, HD radio and mobile-device-based internet radio support (Aha, Pandora and Stitcher).
Standard audio features include AM/FM, a CD player, an analog aux-in jack, a USB port, and Bluetooth audio streaming and hands-free telephone connectivity. The Club and GT add a second USB port and a nine-speaker Bose premium audio system that’s impressive.
The most challenging thing a convertible car’s stereo must do is play loudly enough to overcome the exceptional background noise without distortion. The Bose system does this and also provides good clarity, range and dynamics. The return of accent speakers to inside the head restraints is sure to excite some people, but far more important is the latest version of Bose AudioPilot that adjusts the sound’s level and equalization in response to noise. It has a decent range, but I still had to tweak the volume myself after climbing to highway speeds or when coming down to slower city driving.
Unfortunately, the 2016 Miata’s trunk has shrunk by 0.7 cubic foot to 4.6 cubic feet, the smallest since the first generation. However, in practice, it still seems quite usable for the car’s size and is better by almost a half cubic foot than the 370Z roadster. If more space is crucial for you, the FR-S and BRZ are the way to go. They have 6.9 cubic feet to begin with and a folding backseat that takes it to a higher level.
As expected, the Miata isn’t chock-full of cabin storage provisions. To its credit, though, what’s there is usable. For example, the cubby in front of the shifter is well-sized for a larger smartphone, and the storage bin under the center armrest is narrow but deeper than what I’ve seen in some larger cars, including a few BMWs. Also, the awkwardly located locking compartment behind the occupants’ inboard shoulders is at least reasonably deep.
Unfortunately, the Miata hasn’t been crash-tested since the second generation, so its crashworthiness is a mystery. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has no plans to test the 2016 Miata. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s crash-test program has no information on upcoming tests as of publication.
While a nimble car with good all-around visibility (at least with the top down) has its advantages, there’s no denying that a smaller, lower-slung vehicle provides less crash protection than a larger, higher-riding one. This is why crash tests are classed based on vehicle weight, and a score in one class doesn’t equal the same score in another.
As before, the Miata includes front airbags plus side-impact airbags that Mazda says extend high enough to provide head protection. The 2016 brings more safety features than any previous generation, in the form of several active-safety systems Mazda collectively calls i-ActivSense. Standard on the Grand Touring but unavailable on lower trims, the suite includes blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, adaptive headlights, automatic high beams and rain-sensing windshield wipers. Unfortunately, forward-collision warning isn’t offered.
See all the Miata’s safety features here.
The Miata’s price would be justified by its lack of competition and its performance, which comes in its base model. But it also gives you more than that if you want it. In addition to features already mentioned, at its highest base price of $30,885, the GT includes automatic headlights, rain-sensing windshield wipers, automatic climate control, heated seats and an auto-dimming rearview mirror with HomeLink universal remote control, plus a driver’s side auto-dimming side mirror (great for a low-slung car).
Options at this level are limited to some paint colors, keyless access and the automatic transmission, for a top possible price of $32,390. One factory option you won’t find is all-season or winter tires, so if you foresee driving in cold temperatures or snowy/icy conditions, you’ll have to make your own arrangements. You might opt for all-season tires anyway to provide some of the wonderfully controllable drifting you can do even in normal driving. The 2016 hasn’t become isolationist, like some sporty cars are, so a fun time is still assured. But it’s now a little less flappable — such that the supplied summer performance tires might take the gentle four-wheel drift on your highway off-ramp to the other side of the speed limit, or due caution.