The conventions of auto writing require that we come up with at least one labored metaphor for every comparison test, so here goes: You guys remember that movie It Might Get Loud? Obviously, the Scion FR-S is Jack White: deliberately stripped-down and retro, perhaps too self-consciously context-sensitive, adored without reservation by a bunch of people who have never signed a mortgage. The Genesis 2.0t R-Spec is the Edge: a lot of sharp edges and technical brilliance intended to cover up a fundamental deficit of talent.
The Miata? Well…
When we meet Mr. Page in the aforementioned movie, he is being chauffeured to an ancient English home. He is a sixty-ish man in a bespoke greatcoat: quiet, reserved, old. He tells a few stories in a voice that barely registers over the road noise and looks thoughtfully out the window at the lovely countryside and whatnot. You know he wouldn’t fit into the infamous dragon suit, and you wouldn’t want to see him in it even if he could manage the trick. Sure, he used to be a rocker, but now he’s a dead ringer for your college roommate’s grandfather.
Then, somebody hands him a guitar. Oh, look, old chap, it’s that 1959 Gibson he used to carry around. Frightfully ancient now, just like the fellow wielding it. Jack White is watching him dispassionately, perhaps wondering exactly why they’ve disinterred the man and the instrument for the movie when he, Jack White, is the man of the hour, he‘s the one who soaks the panties now, he‘s the one with the hipper-than-thou record company and super-precious Nashville building chock-full of limited-press vinyl records, this guy is as dead as Elvis, just doesn’t know it yet, and it appears Mr. Page is plugging in now, and might manage to give it a strum or something OH MY GOD HE’S PLAYING WHOLE LOTTA LOVE.
At that precise moment, anything and everything associated with the movie disappears and it becomes plainly obvious to everyone that, despite their millions of record sales and undisputed merits, Jack White and the Edge aren’t fit to carry Page’s dragon jockstrap.
The same thing happens as I, fresh from ten laps each in the FR-S and Genesis, hop in the Miata, loaf down the front straight courtesy of the never-impressive normally-aspirated MZR/Duratec/whatevs, and tap the brakes briefly before bending in for Turn One. Well, this car is cramped, and it’s slow, and OH MY GOD IT ISNT EVEN CLOSE. This is a sports car. Pay attention, Toyota. Once upon a time, you guys made a sports car. You made a few of them — the star-crossed turbo second-gen MR2 and the miniature-Boxster MR Spyder — that equaled or surpassed the greatness of this particular Miata. You know how to do it.
More importantly, Mazda’s made it easy for you. The Touring-spec power-retractable-hard-top Miata is the least charming MX-5 in history. To begin with, it’s too big, it sits too high, and it has neither the Elan-through-a-copy-machine charm of the first-gen car or the sleek sports appeal of the second-gen. It weighs too much and it sure as hell costs too much; no matter which country you call home, this is probably the most expensive car of our trio and it delivers the least content by some large margin.
It’s possible to whip the “NC” Miata into shape as a race car, as I know from experience. Our test car, however, hasn’t received that sort of fettling. Instead, it has a folding metal hardtop. Why? The Miata has always been a convertible. It makes sense that way. For more than twenty years, however, people have been demanding a Miata Coupe. Other than a very brief Japanese-market production run of 200 NB Coupes, Mazda’s never felt like responding to that request. Instead, we have the PRHT. I can’t see weekend warriors spending the extra money for it over the soft-top, and the people who want a Coupe want one for reasons of weight and stiffness which the PRHT explicitly fails to address. Call it the “Miata New York”; it only makes sense if you live in an area where people cut soft-tops open to steal whatever’s been left in the glove compartment. We didn’t ask for a PRHT, but we aren’t a color rag and we don’t get free Honda S2000s with signed-over titles sitting in the glove compartment so we can go play SCCA racer on someone else’s dime. Instead, we got what happened to be in the press fleet, and that was the retiree-spec PRHT. Ugh.
Going into our test, I was reasonably certain that the hardcore, touge-tofu-dorifto FR-S was going to humiliate the Miata. It made sense: a newer, faster, stiffer car should win against this thoroughly-compromised end-of-run special. I could not have been more wrong. The FR-S and Genesis are both far too large and clumsy to compete. You don’t realize how big the Scion is until you sit in the Mazda. Yes, the current car is pretty monstrous by Miata or Elan standards. No, it’s not a 1.6-liter NA. It’s not that good. (Full disclosure: your author owned an ex-SCCA National Solo Winner Miata “C” package ’94, purchased as a surprise gift for his wife, who drove it twice and pronounced it “weak” before returning to her Stage 3 SRT-4.) It’s still good enough, however.
Against an MR2 Turbo, the Miata would seem slow, weak, prone to pushing. Against an MR Spyder, the Miata would seem like a bit of a Bayliner, truthfully, particularly in tight sections. Against the FR-S, the Miata comes off like a freakin’ Caterham. It’s only a couple of inches narrower by the tape, but in practice it feels like the FR-S is a foot wider, a Testarossa to the Miata’s 308GTS. This is not something that anybody on the Internet wants to admit, but if you have to group our trio by driving characteristics, the Genesis and FR-S are in one basket and the Miata is in another.
It’s such a joy to steer around Toronto Motorsports Park; the Miata always communicates exactly what’s happening. Even at the more-present-in-magazine-articles-than-reality 10/10ths, I can’t imagine that anybody short of a ham-handed idiot could crash this car. Anything the Scion can do, the Mazda can do better. At a place like VIR, the lack of power and undesirable aero profile would cost the little convertible money, but on the Alan Wilson-style tracks with their short straights and compound corners the Mazda can deliver the tofu just as well as the FR-S. Naturally, the Genesis has so much more power that it just disappears into the distance regardless of track layout. You’d need an SCCA rulebook autocross course, complete with 45mph max corners, to equalize the two.
Driven in isolation, the Miata’s 167-horsepower four seems energetic enough, and as has been the case since 1990, the shift quality is outstanding. The brakes are thoroughly unremarkable sliding-caliper affairs but they work fine. All the control efforts are light and well-matched. It’s possible to get better steering feel in a production car, but you’ll need to hurry, since the 987 Boxster has almost disappeared from showroom floors.
The current Miata has been roundly criticized for its suspension tuning, and that criticism is valid. There’s more roll than strictly necessary and the car can feel a bit tippy-toe at times. For about $1400 you can do Koni Yellows and aftermarket springs. I’d certainly make that change on my personal car, but descriptions of the stock settings as “scary” or “uncontrollable” are either hyperbolic or incompetent. You’re not going to roll the car. I tried, believe me, mostly to upset our News Editor Derek Kriendler who was in the passenger seat at the time.
Mazda’s perfectly aware that the Miata is a third car for most of its owners, and they build it that way. What I mean is this: the interior is high-quality and clearly built to last. The plastics are durable, the vehicle is easy to service, and save for the aforementioned PRHT there’s no stupid gimmickry. There’s no SYNC system or the like, because Mazda understands you’re going to keep your Miata for ten or twenty years and by the time you’re ready to sell, today’s most advanced system will be as embarrassing as the “Your Door Is A Jar” electronic-voice system from a 1982 Datsun Maxima would be today.
At the end of our testing day (which, again, we shared with AutoGuide) we were informed that we had about half an hour with which to drive a shortened variant of the track. The AutoGuide crew heard this news and immediately ran for the FR-S, which was sitting next to my Boxster in the grid. Derek and I were between them and the FR-S. We looked at eachother… what should we do? As one, we turned away from the Toyota and walked back to the Miata to put fifteen or so more laps in. This current MX-5 may be the worst Miata in history, but it’s still the best car in this test. Deal with it, kids.
Images courtesy of Julie Hyde, who thought she was just coming along for the Mike Stern gig in Toronto that night.