A Sort of Homecoming
The 2006 Mazda MX-5, "Miata" to its American family, was born in Hawaii. 1989. A different sort of Bush was in the White House and the No. 1 song on the radio was forgettable. But it was a great time for new cars. The original Miata launch in Honolulu was a lulu. A fresh take on a classic, organic driver's theme: the inexpensive, lightweight, fun-to-drive, front-engine/rear-drive roadster. Pure and simple.
Sixteen years later — a few weeks ago — Mazda returned to Hawaii to launch the third-generation MX-5 on the perfect, manicured roads across the lava landscape of Kona. It feels good to report that the gen-3 MX-5 does a superb job of reclaiming its birthright as a car with no purpose, other than pure fun, to exist. It's still an inexpensive (relatively), lightweight (moderately), fun-to-drive (unquestionably), front-engine/rear-drive roadster. But simple, it ain't.
The original MX-5 Miata cost $13,800 offering one engine, one transmission and three colors: red, white and blue. There are, on the other hand, five degrees of the new MX-5 — from the $20,435 Club Spec model to the $26,700 Limited edition — and 13,800 colors. I'm not going to live long enough to break down each of the MX-5 packages for you, so let's just say that if you pay more, you can get more: a six-speed manual gearbox (versus the standard five-speed), black or tan leather seats (versus black cloth), a cloth top (versus vinyl), a seven-speaker Bose audio system (that sounds killer, top up or down), and a ton of options, including a six-speed automatic transmission.
From the Outside In
Neither scowling nor cute, the 2006 MX-5's exterior is a blend of Mazda styling cues. It's got the clean surfacing of Miatas past, blended with the RX-8's overdone front fender flares (and tastefully sculpted rears). The signature hood bulge is creased neatly into the car's aluminum bonnet.
Slightly longer, taller and wider than before, the new roadster maintains the proper human-to-car perspective that head-shrinking, oversized-for-safety convertibles like the Porsche Boxster lost long ago. There's decent legroom, and you sit lower than in the second generation (in which the sightline of tall-torsoed drivers smashes into the windshield header), so you feel integrated into the cockpit. No, the interior's not plains-of-Kansas roomy, but it is easily livable. It's still got a minimalist trunk, too. You'll live.
Taking the top down is a cinch: Undo one latch (always been two before), and ease the frame back to its latching station behind the seats, heated glass rear window and all. At highway speeds, there's a share of wind buffeting (eased significantly by a pop-up center diffuser behind the seats), but if you're the type that complains about wind in your hair, then I don't want to know you.
Top up, the outside world stays pretty well outside, but headroom is compromised. So just drive with the top down because if you're the type that drives a roadster with the top up, then I really don't want to know you.
From the Inside Out
One thing all the 2006 MX-5s do have in common — besides limitless top-down headroom — is a 16-valve, 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder engine. Short low gears and quick, clean clutch take-up give the MX-5 spirit off the line, and the engine's 170 horsepower (peaking just 300 rpm shy of the 7,000 redline) and 140 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm work especially well with the six-speed manual for passing performance. The exhaust note, although a little less throaty than the original, still sounds like heaven. And the short-throw MX-5 manual transmission still feels like perfection.
Hoop-skirted with the six-speed automatic transmission (oh, now of all times, would you just please learn to drive a stick!), the MX-5's horsepower drops to 166. And the "chick car" factor erupts to 100 percent.
A slightly bigger car usually means a slightly heavier car. Not as much as we would have guessed, though, thanks to the extensive use of aluminum, especially in chassis and suspension pieces. Fitted with easy-riding 16-inch or sporty, low-profile 17-inch wheel-tire combos, the MX-5 feels very light and the suspension is a hoot to play with. The five-link rear setup — lifted elegantly from the RX-8 — keeps the car steady in corners, allowing the tires to ease away from grip — a.k.a. "start to drift" — without any unexpected drama. A 2.5-inch-longer wheelbase contributes to the MX-5's superb ride.
Consistent with the rest of the MX-5's performance inputs, the steering and brake feel are exemplary. The immediate, positive response of the brakes — from the pedal to the pads — was especially memorable, and let's face it memorable brake feel doesn't come along often. Mark my words, this car plans to put down some terrific stopping numbers during testing.
Sixteen-year-olds can be so adorably fickle. Hence, we'll respect Mazda's wish that we not call the 2006 MX-5 a "Miata." I suppose that the nicknames of youth should never really be carried into young adulthood — just ask my Uncle Skipper. But it seems that many cars, like people, let the best of themselves slip away as they grow up. I dug the first-generation MX-5 Miata but, frankly, the second generation didn't do much for me — it was a poser and a business proposition, kind of like every generation of post-'60s Ford Mustang. But the new Mazda MX-5, like the new Mustang, has taken a long look in the mirror and remembered itself and how much fun it used to be. A little older, a little more mature, a lot more seasoned, and still a blast.