By on August 31, 2016

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Automatic, Image: © 2016 Mike Allen

Please welcome TTAC reader Mike Allen. He recently took delivery of an automatic-transmission MX-5 and drove it through California in search of enlightenment!

The fourth-generation Miata is no stranger to these pages, having been reviewed by Tim Cain and Alex Dykes in the past year. But these reviews, like most of those you’ll find out there on the Internet, are based on short drives of manual-transmission models.

For many auto enthusiasts, the idea of buying a Miata with an automatic transmission verges on a Pelagian level of heresy. Yet for those of us who are condemned to the purgatory of Los Angeles traffic, even the most damnable heresy eventually becomes palatable. That’s why my loaded-up, Grand-Touring-spec MX-5 has just two pedals.

As you’ll see below, that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of your consideration. Shortly after taking delivery last month, I took it on a 900-mile trip to the heart of inland California and found that out for myself.

Many TTAC readers are “numbers guys.” So am I. Let’s start with a few numbers.

A loaded Grand Touring Miata costs $32,105. A lot of people out there think the Miata Club is the one to get, particularly the Club with Brembo brakes. But I’ll tell you the Grand Touring is the best Miata. It has all the modern convenience features and it still weighs under 2,400 pounds on Car and Driver’s scale. That same publication achieved a 15.1 second quarter mile out of the Grand Touring automatic. That’s not going to make any Corvettes nervous. It might not even win a stoplight drag race with a Toyota Avalon V6. But if you’re a drag racer, there are better ways to spend your thirty-two grand.

That’s not to say that the automatic saps the Miata’s energy. This is one of those rare cars where you can use full throttle pretty much everywhere. It will chirp the tires off the line and hold the gear all the way to 6,500 rpm for each shift. If you hold the revs at 3,000 or so before letting the brakes off, you’ll even bounce your passenger’s head a bit at takeoff. This is a traditional torque-converter automatic. There’s nothing weird or high-tech about it. I’m expecting it to last a long time and it’s less fragile than the new manual transmission that arrived with the ND Miata from what I’ve read on the forums.

There are three ways to operate your self-shifting MX-5. The first is to leave it in “D” and let the car make its own decisions about how to shift. This is what you want most of the time. The automatic Miata’s “D” mode is a lot like the “sport” modes you’ll find in other cars. It’s not in a big hurry to upshift and it doesn’t throw the car into high gear when you’re coasting to a stop. Driven with light throttle in traffic, you can expect most shifts to happen before 3,500 rpm.

Flicking the single-purpose switch on the console below the shifter will put you into Sport mode. Now you’re really getting somewhere. In Sport, the Miata will hold gears with religious fervor, often letting you zip down the road at a steady 5,500 rpm or a bit higher without an upshift. The grade logic that’s built into the transmission becomes hyperactive. During my long drive, which took me a few hundred miles away from the coast and into the heart of California oil country, I drove up and down a few 4,500-foot mountains. Sport mode is perfect for this. It keeps the revs very high both up and down the hill. Your fuel economy will suffer, of course — I’m used to 30-31 miles per gallon on the 101 Freeway, but 23 mpg is more likely when you’re hauling ass in Sport mode.

I’ve never driven a car that took “sport mode” as seriously as the ND Miata. But the minute you engage cruise control, Sport mode deactivates and the car shifts up to top gear. Cruise control and sport mode are mutually exclusive. Get used to it.

Last but not least, there’s an “M” mode that allows you to use the Tiptronic-style push-pull gate or the steering-wheel-mounted paddles. This gives you the satisfaction of calling your own shots, so to speak, but I gave up on using them after just a few hundred backroad miles in the Miata. Remember this is a conventional torque-converter transmission, so you’re not gonna get an instant DSG-style shift out of the system. Nor do the shifts happen exactly when you ask for them. The good news is that gear changes appear to bang home with a little more authority than they do in Drive or Sport.

As an automatic-transmission Grand Touring, the Miata has a unique and charming character. Everything you touch is high quality. The stereo is good and Bluetooth integration is solid. The primary annoyance is that the touchscreen deactivates when you’re on the move, forcing you to use the little clicky knob on the console if you want to change the radio station or switch audio sources.

The rest of the package is standard Miata: fade-free brakes, razor-sharp handling with very little sense of inertia, adequate interior room for drivers up to six-foot-three, very small trunk, limited cabin storage space, one-hand-operation fabric top, ice-cold air conditioning.

Once upon a time, getting an automatic transmission in a Japanese car meant that you were a masochist or an idiot. Remember the two-speed Hondamatic in the original Accords? The first-generation Miata lost a lot of charm when you bought the automatic, largely because the engine simply didn’t have enough twist to keep a slushbox moving with authority. But this 2016 Miata can be enjoyed without recourse to either masochism or embarrassed justification. In a perfect world, we’d all drive stick-shift Miatas … but if you’re forced by traffic or other considerations to make a decision between a self-shifting Miata and a traditional sedan or CUV, trust me, this is the automatic choice.

[Image: © 2016 Mike Allen]

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28 Comments on “Guest Review: 2016 Mazda MX-5 Grand Touring Automatic...”

  • avatar

    The Miata with an automatic has been a driver’s car since the NC model. Period. They are that good. I notice that more “traditional” automatics are being tuned to feel more like DSG. The F56/5/4 MINI Cooper automatic is just a 6 speed auto slushy, but it is quicker I think than the Miata in terms of shifts. And it downshifts for coasting (unless in green mode), not upshifts.

    Congrats on your new Miata! Grand Touring FTW!

  • avatar

    You just took my fantasy driving trip, FYI. Congrats!

    And good to know this car isn’t ruined by the automatic. Still, I’d buy the manual.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Nice review!

    At 6’6″, I guess the Miata’s not going to be my mid-life crisis car.

  • avatar

    Great review. Covered most of the things I’d look at driving a new vehicle very well.

  • avatar

    The Skyactiv transmission’s gimmick (super-fast lockup) does wonders for fuel economy and driving feel while leaving out the worst part of DSGs (lack of shift smoothness). It’s probably the best compromise in ATs today. It still won’t be as responsive as a DSG due to that but some will call that a feature, not a bug.

  • avatar

    I’ll never forget getting into one at a car show. At 6’5″, I wouldn’t be able to drive one if my life depended on it. My leg was wedged between the wheel and the door :(

  • avatar

    “But this 2016 Miata can be enjoyed without recourse to either masochism or embarrassed justification.”

    I think what I just read was embarrassed justification.

  • avatar

    I love my 5MT NB. But, at near the same price point as this ND, the EB Mustang makes a very strong case for itself if you need a slushbox in your ragtop.

  • avatar

    Grand Touring Trim and an automatic – so, the perfect car for people who sit down to pee.

  • avatar

    “Nor do the shifts happen exactly when you ask for them.”

    This right here is a deal breaker for most enthusiastic drivers. If you want to be in control of the gear, those paddles need to have all the authority short of violating the redline. Otherwise, they might as well not be there.

    But not to worry, there’s always the manual for those so inclined.

  • avatar

    I used to live in So Cal and I remember getting cramps in my left leg after an hour or so of repeatedly letting out the clutch in my CRX while stuck in traffic on the 405 or the 210.

    In some situations a Miata with an automatic would be the ideal car.

  • avatar

    I drove the manual and automatic back to back at a Mazda event last summer, and wasn’t particularly enthused with the auto, even though I believe I tried to lock it into second. It just didn’t have the same level of verve as the stick (not to say none, just it’s a wonderful little car with a manual). But, my 45 second lap is hardly equal to your experience.

    That said, did you consider the 124 Spider, or was it on the market too late? I feel like the torquier engine would make for a better match for an auto, as that’s a necessity for you.

  • avatar
    White Shadow

    There are some cars that I’d never even consider driving unless they were stick. This is one of those cars.

  • avatar

    Since when is traffic a reason to not drive a manual? It’s not like the clutch on a manual Miata requires any great deal of effort. I’ve lived in Southern California for the past 5 years and I drove an NB Miata with a 6-speed stick as my daily for 3 of those years and it was perfectly fine. My current car (2008 Viper) has a much heavier clutch but even that is tolerable, and I’ve had 2 knee surgeries on my left leg. The idea that an enthusiast would be unable to tolerate a Miata’s clutch pedal in traffic is ridiculous in my opinion

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