The 2016 Mazda MX-5: A traditional sports car reborn

Written by George Webster on .

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In the post-war 1950s, the sports car movement grew up in North America based on our love of ‘sports cars’. While many magazine articles were written back then debating the definition of a true sports car, the consensus seemed to be that it was a small, two-seat, open-top roadster (with side curtains) that was equally suited to touring and racing. Indeed, in the era it was commonplace for a sports car owner to drive to the race track, tape up the headlights and go racing. Today, the rough equivalent might be track days, or lapping days.

Back then, examples of such true sports cars would be the MG-TC, MGA, Triumph TR3, Austin-Healey 100, the Morgan +4 or the Porsche Speedster. The Sunbeam Alpine, which came out in 1959 and had wind-up side windows had some trouble being accepted as a true sports car on account of its lack of side curtains. Eventually we got past that and dropped the notion that side windows (or coupe bodywork for that matter) disqualified a car from being a sports car. The introduction of the more sedan-like Mustang and Camaro further confused things, but that old notion of a ‘true’ sports car lived on.

The Mazda Miata (aka MX-5) which was introduced in 1990 was a deliberate throwback to that older idea. Indeed, the car was essentially a steel-bodied clone of the Lotus Elan from the early 1960s with its 1,600 cc DOHC four-cylinder engine and chassis layout (front engine, rear-wheel drive, wishbone chassis). This was a bare-bones sports car in the traditional form – a manual transmission, no creature comforts added, save for a radio and with a tiny trunk that would barely accommodate your small sports bag. It was such a success at reviving the best of the sports car ideals in a reliable Japanese car that the MX-5 has become the most popular sports car ever. This year, total sales passed the million mark.

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In the 1990s, I owned two different first gen Miatas (the first was written off after it was rear-ended) and I drove them for a combined total of more than over 200,000 km, making many long trips to Florida and to various races across America.

The first generation NA became the slightly restyled and upgraded NB. In 2006, the third generation NC was introduced with a 2.0-litre engine. This was a ‘softer’ redesign - slightly more interior space, some more accessories like cruise control and satellite radio, and a bigger trunk - and Mazda started to move away from the ‘Miata’ name in favour of the MX-5 moniker. Miata purists didn’t respond well to that.

Personally, I once had rental NC for a week while attending the Monterey Historics event in California and I did enjoy the car. It still offered the genuine open-air experience and the upgraded features were convenient but I never searched the pages of Auto Trader looking for a used NC the way I’ve looked for used first- or second-generation versions.

Finally, in 2016, Mazda has seen the error its ways and has produced the fourth gen ND, which is an obvious effort to produce a modern car with the old Miata character. It’s lighter and sportier than the NC, and as an unofficial member of the Miata nostalgia club, I approve.

Recently, I had to opportunity to borrow one of the new MX-5s to tour the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. The car I was given was a mid-range GS with the Sport Option package which includes an upgraded suspension, Recaro seats and 17-inch BBS wheels. The GS and the optioned-up GT models all have 17-inch wheels with 45-profile Bridgestone Potenza S001 maximum performance summer tires while the base GX makes do with 16-inch 50-profile tires.

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The new car reminds me of my first-gen cars, but with even more precise and confident handling and a bit more power. This new car has a 2.0-litre engine with 155 hp but that’s more than you need for any road situation and more than adequate to make the Sport Option version an ideal track-day car. Indeed, if you want to go racing in competition, there is a ‘spec-racer’ model available for licensed, would-be racers and there are lots of race shops willing to transform your road-going version into a competitive racer.

For me, I would simply want a tourer and this car was near ideal for our trip through the hills and valleys of the Finger lakes country. Once off the main throughways, the rural roads wind their way through and around the topography making for ideal sports car touring country. It is easy to see why Cam Argetsinger and others were inspired to carve out a true road-racing course on the roads through and around Watkins Glen.

The days we were there were among the hottest of the summer and we wimped out and kept the top up and the air conditioning going full blast much of the time. But we did manage to get in some open car touring and the new version of the soft top lived up to its claims. It’s very easy to drop the top and bring it back up again while sitting in the driver’s seat (a convenience that is definitely not in the old sports car tradition). For sure, this car provided the authentic, traditional sports-car experience.

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As I see it, the version we had, the GS with the Sports Options package, was the best version if you want to drive the car is a very spirited way on the road or during a track day experience. The add-ons that come with the GT are not really in keeping with the bare-bones sports car that this car is supposed to represent, and there may be other cars that offer a better mix of sporty and bells-and-whistles conveniences than the GT MX-5, but even with the top-of-the-line GT there’s not any real competition at that price point.

However, for my money, I would opt for the base model GX or the base GS instead, but not just to save money. The Recaro seats are designed to hold you securely in place no matter what but even for people with normal-width butts, the high, rigid side bolsters are confining and they make it difficult to get into and out of the car. The normal seats are more comfortable for everyday driving. Interestingly, so far the Recaro seats are not available in any package offered in the United States.

As for the other things the GS offers over the GX, there is an upgraded suspension with Bilstein shocks, limited-slip rear differential and a front strut tower bar. I like the leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob. You also get the touchscreen Mazda Connect which displays navigation, audio, Bluetooth and other information via a central screen. For my money, I would be happy with the basic radio and Bluetooth in the GX (audio entertainment in an open-top sports car is an iffy proposition at best anyway) and I could use my $150 Garmin GPS in this car or any other car, including rentals. The handling upgrades go a long way to justifying the $4,400 additional cost of the GS over the GX even if, like me, you don't find the Mazda Connect to be an essential feature. Besides, locating a GX could be a tall order. The impression I get from a casual search of Mazda dealers near me (west-end Toronto area) is that they are stocking GS and GT models by preference.

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There are alternatives within the sports convertible arena to consider, including the include the Nissan 370Z, BMW Z4 and the Porsche 718 Boxster, all of which are generally more expensive. To my surprise, I found that the convertible version of the Mustang comes in at a base price comparable to the MX-5 GX, while the Camaro is a bit more expensive but in the same price range. Of course, neither the Mustang nor the Camaro are ‘true’ sports cars in the manner I’ve described here - each to their own taste, however.

The other day I had a chance encounter with a neighbour who is now a successful novelist. As the royalties began to come in one of his first upscale purchases was a NC Miata. More royalties later, the Miata was replaced by a Porsche Cayman. Now he tells me that he has added a new ND MX-5 to his stable in addition to the Porsche. To me that says it all about the allure of the Miata.

It’s clear that the Mazda Miata/MX-5 has found its niche. It’s the best-selling sports car ever and there are more of them racing than any other kind of production model. For sure, they are not another cookie-cutter car built to appeal to all tastes. But if you think that an MX-5 might be your cup of tea, it’s well worth a test drive.

SPECIFICATIONS – 2016 Mazda MX-5 GS w/ Sport Option package

BASE PRICE / AS TESTED: $35,300 / $39,700
SKYACTIV-G 2.0L inline 4-cylinder
155 hp @ 6,000 rpm
148 lb-ft. @ 4,600 rpm
1,058 kg
front engine, rear-wheel drive
6-speed manual
8.8 / 6.9
36/ 80,000
BMW Z4, Nissan 370Z, Porsche 718 Boxster

Photography by George Webster

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