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Mazda MX5 Miata – The soul of sports car motoring

Lightweight, fun to drive sports cars were introduced to our shores just after WW II when soldiers returning from Europe wanted to reexperience the joy of motoring. Our British ally was a principal source of true sports roadsters, shipping boatloads of MG, Triumph, Austin Healy, Morgan and other lightweight, crisp handling machines to our shores. And all these cars were reasonably affordable to buy, although often a bit challenging to maintain.

Today I’d submit that just one lightweight, great handling sports roadster still exists and it’s still honest to the original mission; Mazda’s MX5 Miata. I know what some are thinking. What about our great American Corvette? Isn’t that a fun-to-drive, two-seat convertible sports car? Yes, it’s all of that and with its powerful V8 to push 3,500 + pounds around, it belongs in the supercar, grand touring category. And besides the more than 1,000-pound weight disadvantage and lack of a manual transmission option, the ‘Vette is also three times the price of the Miata.

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When I review new vehicles, I search for competitive alternatives to give readers a few choices. Today, if the subject was a pickup truck, SUV, sedan or even minivan, I’d have a few choices to offer. But affordable, lightweight sports roadsters like our Miata have pretty much vanished in our good old USA. The closest I’ve found with somewhat similar attributes is the MINI Cooper convertible. But it’s a bit heavier, less powerful and front-wheel-drive, not exactly a formula for excitement. The closest true rival was the Lotus Elise, last sold here nearly a decade ago. If you love fixing cars as much as driving them, you can find a low mileage, used Elise for around $40-grand. A shiny new, reliable Miata with full factory warranty and nearby dealers is yours for under $30-grand. This isn’t even high math!

Our test Miata, like so many factory cars for press evaluation, was a top-of-line edition. In this case, it’s moved to what Mazda labels Grand Touring in the RF model, complete with a retracting metal roof to replace the convertible folding top. And it adds fully automatic roof folding and a few nice convenience features along with about 100-pounds of weight. Our tester also added about $8-grand to the window sticker for those who want a coupe-like demeanor when the top is up. My instinct is to keep the fun Miata pure roadster.

From my first moment in what is Mazda’s perfect recreation of the classic sportscar back in 1989 to the recent week in our 2023 test vehicle, each time behind the wheel is grin-inducing. A standard transmission, complete with three pedals in the footwell to choose from, is clearly on the endangered species list. Yet the Miata not only retains its precise, close ratio gearbox as standard gear, it hasn’t (yet) incorporated a rev-matching downshift scheme. That means you either do your own engine speed matching gear changes or opt for the affordable automatic. And if your shifting skills are above par, the pedal spacing is just right for heel-and-toe downshifts as you approach the corner’s entry. Enthusiasts know exactly what that experience is like.

Two seat sports cars aren’t for everyone, but over the years I’ve found the natural fit in two of life’s stages. First when you’re young and single – I owned my Austin Healy and Corvettes during this period. Then after the kids grow up and have flown the coop, perhaps to buy their own fun cars. If you’re in that category, Mazda has a wonderful, smile-inducing ride with your name on it.

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