Mazda MX-5 Miata, Time In A Bottle

Red Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster (NC chassis designation)

Mazda MX-5 Miata

It was 1989. Mazda came out with this neat little car called the MX-5 Miata, an anachronistic two seat roadster that looked of 1960s British origin, with solid build quality (shiny paint, precise and consistent body panel gaps, reliable electronics), and a starting price of around $13,000 ($25,000 in 2014 dollars).

Lo and behold the market embraced it and the Miata became a runaway hit. Fast forward to 1998 and Mazda did it again with the next generation model. By 2000, with more than 700,000 units sold, it was named the best selling two seat convertible of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records.

At the 2005 Geneva Motor Show Mazda unveiled the third generation MX-5 for model year 2006. The U.S.-only Miata moniker was formally dropped in favor of global consistency, but seems to have survived nonetheless.

Body and Chassis

Designed as a lightweight, compact two seat roadster with the simple purpose of pure driving pleasure, it shares its platform with the rotary engined Mazda RX-8. Engineers worked diligently on a “gram strategy” to reduce weight wherever possible.

Compared to the outgoing model (internally designated NB), the third generation NC model is slightly longer and wider. The wheelbase grew 2.6 inches while track width increased more than three inches. These changes allowed for placement of the engine and gearbox about six inches further back in the chassis for improved weight distribution and reduced polar moment of inertia, which can be explained as running around a corner with a bowling ball instead of a ladder of the same weight. It’s easier with the bowling ball.

Further weight savings were achieved through the use of aluminum in the hood, trunklid, wheels and front suspension arms. Double wishbone front suspension and a five link setup at the rear, to better control toe angle, are connected to the road via standard 16 x 6.5 inch wheels all around.

As with previous models, the engine, transmission and differential are tied together with a backbone-like aluminum beam to enhance stiffness and dynamic responsiveness. The front strut towers are also linked to the firewall by means of a triangulated brace.

Combined with the use of high strength steel in the unibody, weight was kept to a minimum, growing only about 22 lbs. (10 kg) despite the increase in size. At the same time torsional and bending rigidity increased an impressive 47 and 22 percent, respectively.

The result is a more nimble car with 50/50 front/rear weight distribution. Curb weight of the svelte roadster is about 2,500 lb., depending on options and trim.

Electro-hydraulic power-assist steering, anti-lock brakes, and traction and stability control are standard. The system can be disabled at the push of a button. Brakes consist of 11.4 inch vented discs up front and 11 inch discs at the rear. Options include 17 x 7 inch wheels, a limited slip differential and run-flat tires.

Powertrain

Don’t be alarmed if you pop the hood and the engine looks like it’s keeling over. Power comes from an all-aluminum 2.0 liter four cylinder engine, canted over 10 degrees for underhood clearance. With four valves per cylinder and variable intake valve timing, output is in the region of 170 hp at 6,750 rpm for manual transmission models. On 2009 and later models redline was raised to 7,200 rpm while power remained the same.

Supposedly those equipped with automatic transmissions were tuned for 166-167 hp. But unless it comes to dyno testing or racing, there’s really no difference. Like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, the more serious issue is why someone would even entertain the thought of owning a Miata with an automatic.

Speaking of transmissions, it was offered with three choices: A five or six speed manual, and a six speed automatic with the “fake manual” mode to change gear via steering wheel mounted paddles or the shift lever. From 2009 and on, manual transmission models were equipped with a taller sixth gear.

Interior

Hip and shoulder room increased more than two inches over the previous model, though the interior, with standard front and side airbags, is still best described as cozy – perhaps mostly by more generously proportioned souls. Some of the coziness can be attributed to the center tunnel’s volume. The rest likely occurs when two aforementioned souls are placed in the same diminutive car.

No such issues exist for the trunk, however. The use of a separate compartment for the manual folding top means trunk size is the same 5.3 cubic feet with the top is up or down. The glass rear window has a built-in defroster.

Like a Fuddrucker’s burger bar, there were initially five trim levels, all the way from basic cloth seats and no air conditioning (unless you count putting the top down) to full on leather seats, fancy paint and badges to let everyone know of said toppings options: Club Spec (e.g. The Stripper, starting at 20,500 one-dollar bills), base, Sport, Touring and Grand Touring, with a sticker price of nearly $27,000.

The $1,800 Power Retractable Hardtop (PFFT PRHT) option, introduced in 2007, brought 80 lbs. and coupe-like comfort and rigidity to party. The top can be raised or lowered in 12 easy seconds. A removable hardtop is also available for the roadster.

Performance

Objective performance measures such as zero to 60 mph time of 6.5 seconds, lateral acceleration of 0.87g and an estimated 130 mph top speed are only moderately sporty by today’s standard. EPA fuel economy of 24/30 city/highway mpg (21/28 after 2007 due to a change in EPA test protocols) is reasonable, and stopping from 60 mph in about 112 feet is pretty good.

But excellent handling, simplicity and wide availability have contributed to its immense popularity as a staple of the autocross and club racing scene nationwide, such as the hugely popular SCCA Spec Pinata Miata class, open to first and second generation Miatas. Meanwhile, the third generation NC model has its own professional series, the MX-5 Cup.

The iconic roadster is unwavering in its mission of delivering a pure, and increasingly rare, driving experience at an affordable price – the attainable, quintessential sports car. There is no other that embodies that timeless philosophy quite like the MX-5.

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