2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring Power Retractable Hardtop Review
By Chris Haak
I just spent a week commuting to the office, running errands, and visiting friends in probably the smallest car that I’ll ever have a chance to drive – and I loved it. The MX-5 Miata is a very small two-seat convertible built in the mold of the original MG, Alfa Romeo Spyder, Triumph, and others, only with Japanese reliability rather than the British or Italian variety. I hadn’t driven a Miata in almost 15 years, when I borrowed a low-mileage 1990 model from my dad’s used-car inventory for a date. All I remember about that drive was that I barely fit into the car (I’m 6’4″, and was obviously the same height at age 20 as well) and that it was really easy to drive (aside from a severe lack of legroom), so I was looking forward to spending time with the updated model to see if it was any more comfortable, and whether it still had the charm of the first-generation cars.
When the rep from Mazda dropped off the car, my 3 1/2 year old accompanied me to the driveway, and upon looking inside, said, “Oh, this won’t work! It’s not a family car! It’s only for mommies and daddies.” Of course, he was referring to the two-seat layout. There actually is a set of LATCH anchors built into the front passenger seat, so it’s technically possible to install a child seat in that position (with the airbag turned off via a key-actuated switch), but of course the best choice is to not allow children to ride in the front seat of any car, ever.
When I mentioned to a friend that I was getting a Miata to test, she asked (quite seriously) if I would fit into the car. As the owner of a second-generation Miata herself, she offered to let me “try on” her car for size before receiving the press car from Mazda, but I politely declined, knowing that the latest Miata is the biggest yet, and that I somehow managed to squeeze into that 1990 model for a few hours many years ago. As I approached the car, though, I began to question the wisdom of my choice. The car is very small compared to nearly everything else on the road today. It’s only 49 inches tall (versus, for example, 58 inches for my Cadillac CTS), but the 49 inches is at the highest point. With the top down, the only part of the car close to 49 inches is the top of the windshield, with the door sills somewhere around my inseam level of 34 inches. I sometimes felt like a giant getting into or out of a circus car when getting into or out of the Miata. To the car’s credit, though, I only banged my head one time getting into the car, and that was when I was reaching into the passenger door to get something out of the storage compartment between the seats – I was in a hurry, and not paying attention to my head clearance.
I like what Mazda did with the Miata’s styling in the third generation car. The second generation’s organic shapes are still present, but the car has a more masculine appearance than past Miatas have had. The flaring fenders – and the front ones in particular – are a personal favorite feature. There’s a deep swage line cut into the lower doors and rocker panels to offset a certain degree of boredom between the flared fenders, and the car’s proportions are neat and trim, with a relatively long wheelbase and short overhangs. Part of the short rear overhang comes at the expense of trunk space, which is unsurprisingly small (5.3 cubic feet) and has a high liftover, but actually a decently-shaped cargo area that stays intact whether the roof is up or down. I was able to fit a soft duffel bag, laptop, tent, sleeping bag, and mattress pad into the truck with little challenge.
Once settled into the car, aside from the obvious snug accommodations, it’s pretty comfortable. The seats in my well-equipped test vehicle were covered in an attractive Havana Brown leather, and that color was also applied as an accent color on the door panels. The remainder of the interior was done in charcoal gray. The brown “leather” on the door panels (which is actually vinyl) has nice contrasting light-colored stitching around most of its border, and throughout the interior, there are touches of satin metallic-looking trim (really plastic, of course). The interior certainly wasn’t anywhere near luxury car standards, but it was well-screwed together, the plastics were low-sheen and high quality (though quite hard), and all controls were easy to understand and fell quickly to hand. The Miata’s steering wheel is a fairly small diameter and I would have preferred a thicker rim, but it gets bonus points for being covered in comfortable leather and for having a nicely-hidden airbag module. The handbrake and gearshift knob were also leather-wrapped.
Interior space was at a premium. I had to slide the seat to its rearmost travel point to give myself enough legroom to operate the three pedals, but doing so prevented me from reclining the seatback a few inches to artificially add headroom (I use that trick in my own headroom-challenged Cadillac all the time). While I never had trouble operating the pedals – or getting into the car, for that matter – I had to be careful about placement of my left knee while driving so that it didn’t interfere with steering wheel operation. Stretching my legs was not an option, although I did take the Miata on an 85-mile highway trip with the top down and had no comfort problems. Twice during the Miata’s stay with me, my gluteus maximus fell asleep while driving. I’m not sure if that was caused by the seats themselves or me sitting in them with more weight shifted to one side than another, but that is a phenomenon I usually don’t experience in a “normal” car. It was also fairly difficult for me to see traffic lights without either slouching to look underneath the windshield header, or straining my neck to look over the windshield if the top was open. Still, I found forward visibility to be superior to what I experienced in a Pontiac Solstice GXP last fall, where the windshield header was directly in my normal line of sight.
While the general interior quality was pretty impressive – particularly relative to a Pontiac Solstice, which lacks the glitz, as well as most of the padding, that the Miata had – there were a few places other than the hard plastic and cramped quarters that reminded me that I was in a sports car and not a luxury car. For instance, the inside of the retractable hardtop was lined in hard, black plastic, and a good deal of its hardware was exposed at the car’s B-pillar. The stereo, though fortified by Bose and supported by seven speakers, was severely lacking in power, particularly with the top down, although it at least had a feature to somewhat compensate for ambient noise. That noise compensation feature, however, was no match for 60 miles per hour with the top down.
Some wind noise made its way into the cabin during closed-top motoring, but for the most part, the dominant sound with the roof closed was the exhaust, which Mazda had tuned for a sporty sound. It was a somewhat pleasant sound, never to be mistaken for something as sublime as a Chevy V8’s growl or a Honda V6’s purr. In the continuum between a Toyota Corolla’s 1.8 liter four cylinder and a 1999 Dodge Neon with a coffee can muffler, I’d put it somewhere in the middle. With the roof open, of course the prevalent sound was wind noise, but it seems as if it wasn’t as bad as expected. Of the 350-plus miles that I spent with the car over the course of a week, over 250 were done with the top folded. Wind noise becomes noticeable above 55 miles per hour, frantic above 70, and almost intolerable above 80. When I had completed my open-top Turnpike trip and finally turned off the car, the world around me sound remarkably peaceful. Puttering around town or keeping the car below 55, however, and it’s enjoyable to hear the exhaust note firsthand via the open roof. The car’s optional Bluetooth cell phone synchronization worked well even with the top open below 55; I didn’t bother to try it at higher speeds.
I observed no body flexing either over uneven road surfaces or sharp cornering, which speaks to the Miata’s structural integrity with both the roof open and closed. The solidity is particularly impressive in that the Miata weighs almost 500 pounds less than the Pontiac Solstice, in spite of both cars having nearly identical interior dimensions. Folding the top was a simple affair. You have to push a release button, which unlocks the release latch at the windshield header, then all you have to do is push a button at the top of the center stack. That button automatically lowers the windows a few inches, opens the compartment in front of the truck, folds the roof into said compartment, and closes the compartment. While I didn’t time the operation, it can be done easily during a single red light. Closing the roof is a similar procedure, but done in reverse. You push the opposite button on the dash, the compartment opens, the roof unfolds, the compartment closes, and the car beeps to tell you that the top is closed. You then have to latch the windshield header manually. Many convertibles now do the latches automatically, but that would add cost and complexity to a fairly simple car, so I’m OK with the Miata having a single manual latch.
The Miata’s powertrain was outstanding, aside from being a little down on power and having very strange gearing to compensate for that lack of power. There are few cars on the road that wouldn’t be a little better with a little more horsepower, and a lot better with a lot more horsepower (for instance, the Cadillac CTS vs. the CTS-V, or the Dodge Challenger SE vs. the Challenger SRT8), and the Miata falls into that category as well. It wasn’t that the car was underpowered – it only weighs about 2,500 pounds, or about 3/4 of a ton less than many new cars on the road today – so it doesn’t need 300 horsepower to be quick on its feet. But its 167-horsepower, 140 lb-ft 2.0 liter four cylinder produced what I’d only call adequate power. It was easily enough to smoke the tires in first gear if the clutch was slipped a bit, and even to chirp the tires between first and second gears with an aggressive shift, but I have a feeling this excellent chassis could handle a lot more power comfortably. If only Mazda could find a way to install the MazdaSpeed3’s turbocharged four cylinder longitudinally under the Miata’s aluminum hood, the car would be another 100 or so horsepower closer to driving perfection.
I mentioned the odd gearing – I felt that the car was geared too low, which resulted in probably leaving a few miles per gallon of EPA highway mileage on the table, plus a more cacophonous engine noise during steady-state, sixth-gear cruising than would otherwise be necessary. The gear ratios are very close together, so that I often found myself skipping gears when driving at a leisurely pace around town. To illustrate the low/close gearing, at 60 miles per hour, here were the various engine speeds that I observed:
3rd gear: 6000 RPMs (1,000 RPMs per 10 mph)
4th gear: 4200 RPMs (700 RPMs per 10 mph)
5th gear: 3500 RPMs (583 RPMs per 10 mph)
6th gear: 2800 RPMs (467 RPMs per 10 mph)
This means that at 75 mph in 6th gear, the Miata is buzzing along at 3500 RPMs, while many cars lope along at close to half that engine speed on the highway. With the flexibility afforded by six gear ratios, why not make 6th gear a tall overdrive to improve highway mileage? The car is rated at 21 city/28 highway, but a 3/4 ton-heavier Camaro V6 is rated at 29 mpg on the highway. I could see the Miata easily topping 30 miles per gallon with different gearing in 6th gear. Incidentally, I observed fuel economy of 26.8 miles per gallon, which is far closer to the highway rating than I usually manage during my evaluations of vehicles. No doubt that my observed fuel economy was helped by my 160-mile round trip highway jaunt, but even prior to that trip, I was seeing similar numbers on the car’s trip computer thanks to its good city fuel economy number.
The best part about the car’s powertrain, however, was its gearbox (aside from the ratio problem) and clutch. The shifter was short and stubby, throws were short, and its action was precise. The clutch take-up was just right in a Goldilocks kind of way – not too hard, not too soft – and the engagement point was exactly where I would have expected it to be. Not that I am any kind of hero, but I didn’t stall the car in my time with it. Stalling often happens to even the best of drivers when beginning with a new clutch. The bottom line on the transmission and clutch is that the combination makes the Miata probably one of the easiest cars in the world to learn to drive a stickshift with.
The Mazda MX-5 Miata starts at $22,500 including destination (that’s the SV model with 16 inch wheels, a five-speed manual transmission, and a soft top). The MX-5 Sport adds air conditioning and a leather-wrapped steering wheel for another $1,000 ($23,500 total). Stepping up to the Touring model at $26,340 adds the chrome grille surround, a six-speed manual, 17 inch wheels, power locks, remote keyless entry, leather-wrapped shift knob, and an AM/FM/in-dash 6-disc CD/MP3-compatible changer. The Grand Touring ($27,100) adds a cloth convertible top, automatic climate control, leather heated seats, and Bose audio. The $760 price difference between the Grand Touring and the Touring seems like a relative bargain; I don’t see why anyone would buy a Touring unless they hated leather seats. In the PRHT (Power Retractable Hard Top) realm, the Sport costs $26,140 (vs. $23,500 for the soft top), or a $2,640 difference. The Touring PRHT ($28,040) costs $1,700 more than the Touring soft top, and the Grand Touring PRHT ($28,940) costs $1,840 more than the soft top Grand Touring. My test car also had the $500 Suspension Package (sport tuned suspension, Bilstein shocks, limited slip differential) and the $1,650 Premium Package (antitheft alarm, advanced keyless entry system, Bluetooth, Xenon HID headlamps, stability control, and Sirius Satellite Radio) for a final MSRP of $31,010. Mazda has increased its destination fees from $670 to $750 since the test car was built, so the same car ordered today would have an MSRP of $31,090. Certainly a lot of money for a Miata (I remember when the first Miatas were listing for $13,000 to $14,000 for a base model), but there’s a lot of technology and features packed into that little car.
If I had the disposable income, if I was six inches shorter, if I didn’t have two small kids, and if the Miata had another 100 horsepower, I might be swayed into buying one. It was a thoroughly enjoyable car in which to spend time. I found it easy to zip into small holes in traffic when necessary, it carved back roads with aplomb, and had a sublime shifter and clutch. Steering and brakes were also enthusiast-oriented. I probably wore a smile most of the time that I drove the Miata, though admittedly not one as large as the smile on the front of the car.
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