It’s almost time to pour one out for the affordable roadster. While there will always be top-dollar topless exotics catering to the two-seat crowd, and despite the continued presence of sub-six-figure choices from Chevrolet (the Corvette), Jaguar (the F-Type), Porsche (the Boxster), BMW (the Z4) and Audi (the TT), those seeking to score sporty open-air fun for less than $50K have exactly one option available to them.
The 2022 Mazda MX-5 Miata is the very last of its breed, a magnificent modern echo of an era of motoring that has vanished almost completely from America’s roads. Whereas hordes of relatively cheap European and Japanese drop-tops once flitted back and forth across the country’s most engaging secondary map squiggles, the attrition caused by SUVs and the shift towards larger and more luxurious automobiles has almost entirely wiped them off the map.
The Miata stands as the lone survivor. It’s a car with 30 years of history propelling it at right angles to current sales trends. Not only does Mazda’s roadster survive, it thrives, with the latest edition giving up nearly nothing in its career-long quest to aim a perfectly balanced attack at the nearest apex. Realistically, it couldn’t have happened any other way. The Miata manages to succeed where so many of its would-be rivals have failed precisely because it stays true to its original playbook in a world that has seemingly passed it by.
The Miata’s Winning Formula
It can sometimes feel like the automotive market only has room for a single anachronistic exception in any given segment. By raising a dedicated army of followers less concerned by the march of time than they are by the pleasures proffered behind the wheel, models like the Jeep Wrangler, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class and the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat carved out unlikely niches. By leveraging new technologies to enhance old-school driving experiences, each easily outlasted more recent efforts to dethrone them.
So it goes with Mazda’s MX-5 Miata, a model that has resisted the temptation to push upmarket and instead cling to the initial vision that has made it so compelling for so many years. Prizing lightweight design and a simple chassis free of high-tech trickery, the modestly powered Miata (which starts at just $27,650) simply has no direct competitors. While the Toyota GR86 and its Subaru BRZ sibling are similarly priced, they are hundreds of pounds heavier (and feature a fixed roof), and Porsche’s mightier Boxster is equal parts more ponderous and more expensive.
Near-Nirvana in a Mazda
Being different solely for the sake of novelty rarely results in accolades for anyone, and as such each of the Miata’s counter-car-culture choices serves a very specific goal.
Mazda has avoided succumbing to turbo temptation in order to keep the vehicle’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine feeling frisky, and while its output might not impress on paper, on the road its 181 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque scream up to its 7,500 rpm redline with a smile-plastering swing of the tach. The MX-5’s standard manual transmission offers up its six forward ratios at precisely the right point to maintain momentum, regardless of whether the car is hurtling forward at full throttle or downshifting to set up corner exit.
The Miata can easily get away with delivering fewer than 200 horses thanks in large part to its startlingly emaciated 2,400 pounds of curb weight. It’s here again that Mazda’s engineers have employed the latest techniques and materials to ensure that the car tips the scales at nearly the same mass it enjoyed when it first debuted three decades previous, a claim that few of its drivers could ever make good on.
Finally, there are no complex all-wheel drive systems to sap front-end feel, nor does the Miata benefit from an array of drive modes or software controls to quantize the content of its character. The only barriers between the road below and the cockpit above the MX-5’s chassis are an electric power steering system (not quite as chatty as its original hydraulic or even unassisted rack options) and a new-for-2022 braking system that gently tugs the inside rear suspension into a more pronounced pivot in sharper corners.
The end result is near-nirvana. With the right foot flat, the Mazda Miata feels fun but remains well within the limits imposed by the local constabulary. This allows for the exploration of its chassis at speeds that are real-world accessible, a stark contrast to the terrifying Le Mans-level limits imposed by more expensive two-seat convertibles.
Its tiny size and well-distributed proportions also encourage a virtual Vulcan mind-meld between driver and the driven wheels, a bond that’s all too often missing in more insulated performance machines, where every forward inch is dutifully doled out by computerized controls. There’s no need for digitized interpretation when even the use of language is obsoleted by the Mazda’s direct connection to the road and joy becomes the common currency for anyone lucky enough to be along for the ride.
A Must-Drive for All Enthusiasts
It’s hard to say what the horizon holds for the MX-5 Miata. Mazda is facing the same pressures as any other automaker to boost overall fleet fuel economy while maintaining a healthy profit margin. Given the company’s relatively small size, it’s certain that these demands exert themselves more acutely, making any future sports car strategy contingent on reading the room.
The Miata has never been a strong seller, but given its importance to the brand’s image, that has never been an insurmountable problem. As the sports car pool continues to shrink, however, and the temptation to flirt with electrification or forced induction muscularization becomes harder to resist, one is forced to consider a world where the MX-5 deviates from tradition just enough to launder its charms through the mainstream.
Before that can happen, any and all automotive enthusiasts owe it to themselves to spend at least a moment behind the wheel of what might be the final verse in Mazda’s understated ode to driving pleasure.
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