In 1990, Mazda got it right with the Miata, and has not strayed far from the formula with the 2010 Mazda MX-5.
Both are reliable, affordable, fun sports cars that will remind customers of MGs, Triumphs, Fiats and Alfa Romeos, with one major exception: The Mazda would start every day. While the Miata has grown in size, power and price, and undergone a name change, it's hard to find a car that delivers so much for so little.
Mercury Capri tried and failed to make a dent in Miata sales, as did the last-generation Toyota MR2 Spyder. The Pontiac Solstice and its near-twin, the Saturn Sky, came closest to duplicating the Miata's bang for the buck, but now all four competitors are gone, and the Mazda just keeps plugging along.
The base MX-5, the Sport, starts at $22,960, plus $750 for shipping. That gets you the 5-speed manual transmission, air conditioning, power windows, a decent sound system and an EPA rating of 22 mpg city, 28 mpg highway. You will pay more for the mid-level Touring, or top-of-the-line Grand Touring, but you won't go any faster and probably won't have more fun.
The Touring and Grand Touring come standard with a 6-speed manual transmission, with a 6-speed automatic an $1,100 option. Mileage is the same for both — 21/28. The test car, a Grand Touring with the retractable power hardtop, had the 6-speed manual.
The only engine offered is a 2.0-liter, 167-horsepower 4-cylinder, considerably more powerful than that 1.6-liter from 1990. Opt for the automatic transmission, and the engine is detuned to 158 horsepower. The little engine sounds and feels stronger than it is, and averaged a commendable 26.1 mpg in daily driving. Mazda says premium gas is preferred, but regular is tolerated.
Inside, the Grand Touring was well-appointed, in part because the test car had the premium package, a $1,650 option, and the $500 sport package. The comfortable, supportive bucket seats were heated leather, and the Bose sound system sounded great. At 6 feet, I fit well in the MX-5, but I drove with the seat all the way back, and my hair brushed the closed top. If you are much taller, take a long test drive before you buy.
Speaking of the top, Mazda introduced a power-operated hardtop in 2007, and it has increased sales, especially in Northern states. While the standard soft top is superb — you can lower it from the driver's seat, with one hand — the hardtop doesn't take away from the already tight trunk space of 5.3 cubic feet, and when up, it increases structural rigidity. It adds 82 pounds and about $1,900. Lowering takes 12 seconds and requires unfastening a latch and pressing a button.
On the road, even with the stiffer optional sport suspension, our MX-5's ride was jarring only on the worst pavement. Handling, as always, was razor-sharp, and braking was sure and linear. With the top up, the ride is quiet. With the top down, wind buffeting is moderate.
At an as-tested price of $31,300, our 2010 Mazda MX-5 (which is basically unchanged for 2011) is no longer a bargain, but considering the level of equipment it still offers a lot for the money. Mazda is smart enough not to mess with success.
Test Drive: 2010 Mazda MX-5 Miata