Capsule Review: 2015 Mazda Miata Grand Touring PRHT
One of the burdens of being right is that people are always trying to prove you wrong.
The Mazda MX-5 Miata knows what I’m talking about. For a quarter century, the Miata has suffered the slings and arrows of upstart challengers. Those others have come and gone while the Miata remains. It’s right and Mazda knows it.
The Miata doesn’t get refreshed often, but it just happened again. Until you can buy that one, this old crock, the “NC,” is your only choice.
How can a car that’s 10 years old with less power than the Scion FR-S (which I have already commented about) and an automatic transmission still be right? I’m sure to like this car even less than I liked the Toyobaru, right?
It was disappointing to see an automatic transmission shift quadrant when I looked through the passenger-side window. The fleet driver had left a voicemail telling me he’d dropped off a Miata, so I wrapped up the weekly resource allocation meeting as quickly as possible and headed for the parking lot. I haven’t had a Miata to drive in several years, and with a manual, they are quite the delight.
I became indignant
Why do automakers do this? Why undercut driver engagement? Getting over my precious self, the answer is clear: most people buy cars with automatics. Even tidy convertibles with sporty personalities.
People are stupid. They are both lazy and incompetent behind the wheel. Because people are stupid, I was going to have to suffer a stupid week in this stupid car set up for stupid idiots.
I wasn’t expecting much out of the self-shifting MX-5. Boy, was I surprised.
The Miata is perfect, regardless of which transmission you choose. It’s lively and light on its feet. It’s involving to drive, and it doesn’t give a crap about the numbers that internet racers obsess over.
Whatever spec-sheet triumphs the Miata lacks, it makes up for in personality. It’s a car that wants to play. There’s just 167 hp coming from the 2.0 liter four cylinder, which drops to 158hp with the 6-speed automatic. The power reduction comes courtesy of a redline that moves down from 7,200 rpm with a manual to 6,700 rpm with the auto. Torque stays the same at 140 lb-ft, which makes me think the horsepower reduction is a camshaft/valve timing/redline thing. It also doesn’t matter, because the torque converter does its low-speed multiplication thing. Performance off the line is responsive, and the automatic knows what the hell it’s doing. Call the powertrain dated, I call it well-developed and proven.
There’s only about 2,500 lbs to deal with here. That’s why the Miata feels more lively than you might expect. The Miata is playing with just 10 fewer lb-ft of torque than the Toyobarus, but the Scion FR-S automatic I had a while back was 300 lbs heavier. And it sucked in ways the Miata doesn’t. The Miata’s torque peak is at 5,000 rpm, a full 1,600 rpm sooner than the FR-S, and that translates to more immediate delivery of what muscle there is. When shifted manually, the automatic was even responsive enough to be satisfying. I would have preferred a manual, of course, but the Miata’s glow doesn’t dim with an automatic, and Mazda is smart to offer it, because purists are crappy new car buyers.
The Miata isn’t without some horseshit. There’s a “Induction Sound Enhancer,” a membrane in the intake manifold that vibrates at specially-tuned frequencies to sound more like an MGB gulping through SU carburetors. More aural snarl enhances the experience, and it’s not as asinine as BMWs that play back engine recordings through the audio system, but it’s still something that took development time and dollars to create an artifice. There are also steering-wheel mounted shift paddles with a learning curve (buttons above for downshift, below for up, you’ll definitely pick the wrong one mid-corner.) That’s about it for shenanigans with the Miata, though, the rest is just solid performance and capability.
The interior is clearly a 10 year old design and uses materials from another era. The design is a plus, the materials, if you care, are a negative. Three knobs for climate, a pair for the radio, all within easy reach, who needs more? The plastic on the center stack of my test car had picked up a surprising amount of nicks and scuff marks in just three thousand miles; not a good look. The controls feel good, there’s no goddamn touchscreen to confound you, the steering wheel feels good in your hands, and it’s connected to one of the most direct rack-and-pinions in the business.
The Miata Grand Touring like I drove is the most luxed-up model. The seats are done up in leather, a handsome color called Spicy Mocha in this case, with fake cowhide on the door panels. It’s a classy look, especially in a color other than dour black. The snug cabin has all the charm that you’ve been told it does. Because I’m under 6’ tall, it’s a delightfully close environment. Taller or wider folks will bump into the physical limitations of the Miata, but reports are that it can still be comfortable, even for tall folks.
Other Grand Touring features are the Bose audio system, standard 17” alloy wheels, strut-tower brace, automatic climate control, and silver-trimmed rollover hoops. As welcome as the extra filigree is, the main point here is the underlying car. The Premium Package my car had goes hand-in-hand with the Suspension Package. This is where the real action happens. It’s a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein dampers and a limited-slip differential.
Despite its senior status, the outgoing Miata feels solid. It’s not as drum-tight as a Boxster, but there’s still a beefy sill to step over. Aluminum is used in the hood and trunklid to keep both weight, and the center of gravity, low. Some suspension components and the rear brake calipers are also aluminum. The strut tower brace under the hood ties the upper mounting points for the front suspension to the firewall for extra rigidity. What that means from behind the wheel is a steering column that doesn’t shake much, and a structure that doesn’t wind up during maneuvering. I was expecting the Miata to feel like a car that had been engineered in the naughties. Not so. It goes down the road with a contemporary attitude that’s relaxed, frisky, and capable, all at once.
That intake manifold honker thing pipes some pleasant growl into the cabin, but it’s still silly. The chassis is tuned with a fine balance between comfort and control. The Miata’s ride is absorbent, but that doesn’t mean the handling won’t make you grin. There’s all kinds of information coming to your hands through the steering column, and the engine’s response is eager and linear. Compared to that FR-S bogey, the Porsche-like precise feeling of the Scion is traded for more comfort in the Miata. It’s a loss on paper that makes the Miata a better car to drive in the real world. The Miata feels more responsive, the power curve doesn’t do funny whoop-de-dos, and it gives you what you ask for.
The Miata’s role as a modern-day MGB means you sit more upright than you might expect. It’s a small car, for sure, but it’s long-haul comfortable. The useable trunk and extra refinement offered by the power-retractable hardtop make the Miata an all-weather, all-seasons car.
While there are other sporty coupes for not a lot of money, there aren’t many. None are as well-rounded as the Miata. You want to go racing? It’ll do that. Taking your mother in law to the grocery store? It’s got that covered, as well. In Grand Touring trim with the automatic, the MSRP is $30,550, and the final tally was a luxurious $33,000 with my car’s Premium Package (HID lights, Bluetooth, Keyless Entry and start, satellite radio, alarm). That’s about as expensive as you can make it, and it’s not hard to stay in the $20,000s. The Miata won’t embarrass grown-ups, but it’s not dull in the least. There’s a reason why it’s one of the cars I recommend the most. Let’s hope they don’t screw up the next one.
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The review mentions the usable trunk. That's a hugely underrated plus of the Miata. All the hardtop coupes out there that are based on regular cars like Volvo, Infinit, etc drop their hard tops into the trunk and its basically unusable with the top down. The Miata's top drops into a dedicated compartment and has no impact on the trunk. Or as my brother who owns an Infiniti power hardtop coupe says, the Miata top drops into where the back seat should be. Fair enough, he has two kids who go on drives with them. But he also says you can carry a ham sandwich in his trunk, even with the top down as long as it doesn't have lettuce.
A week or two late here, back in Boston after visiting my '99 NB in Southwest Florida. The MX-5 is all about balanced open-top fun in real world driving. The NC is great for what it is. Its not so good for what it is not meant to be. As is true for the NB and NA, and most likely the ND. It may not compete well against other cars with different design briefs, at their own game. Don't buy one in order to do that. If Mazda wanted to make a Corvette killer they would go about it differently. Probably not succeed, but might compete. I sought out an automatic, since I wanted one. My NB and my Audi are manuals as are my bikes. The NB is more delicate, far less power, you work through its 5 speed gently to get to 45, or pin it in second to get to 45, watching the pickup trucks pull away. The NC on the other hand is as fast as any minivan off the line. It makes power equal to the NB turbo, more or less. The automatic is capped on the redline, who ever redlines a normal automatic? The NC is not a stiff car. The NB makes it appear stiffer. Body bracing is widely available for both. If mine had the kazoo, that would have been the first thing to change. I can't see my self ever test driving a BMW. All MX-5s have come with dummy oil pressure gages. The NA and NB at least have an on-off function to the gage, the NC has an artificial readout based on being programmed to look like it is plumbed. The NA and NB are easy to fix with a better sending unit, not the NC. This bothers me almost as mush as the remediable chassis shudder. I tried to turn my NC into a GT, as posted here months ago, and was about half successful. Tightened up the body, smoothed and slowed the ride/handling (more feel, more compliance) with non-race 16" rolling stock, new GPS radio, donut spare tire flopping in the trunk. I think I may never want the ND which is lightened and sharpened, closer to the Elise which nobody here seems to think of when talking about MX-5. Wonder why about that.