The rollout of the new 2006 Mazda MX-5 represents what is nominally the Miata's third generation, but it's actually the first total rework of everyone's darling roadster. And that makes it a high-stakes gamble. Confronting a new-generation Mazda Miata is charming and bubbly, yet at the same time scary and momentous, because so much could go wrong.
Ever since we first saw the Miata's Lotus Elan routine in 1989, the car has stood as a monument to basic driving fun. But light, balanced, responsive cars rarely benefit from the impulse to make them roomier, more comfortable and more civilized as they mature, in pursuit of a broader audience. And even though the Miata does not represent huge sales numbers (its projected 16,000 units a year in the U.S. equals two fair weeks of Camry traffic), it is still Mazda's defining product and a benchmark car for devotees of the driving arts and sciences.
So a lot is riding on how the Miata's new "upgrade" plays out. It is frighteningly important that Mazda not screw up.
Mazda, we can report with real relief, has not screwed up.
It's true the new Mazda Miata parts with tradition in one way: it isn't called the 2006 Mazda Miata at all. For marketing reasons that must have sounded convincing in the meetings, Mazda is going with just MX-5 henceforth. Fine. The world will always call it a Miata.
Remains True to Mission
As Richard Homan reported in our First Drive: 2006 Mazda MX-5, the new car does indeed remain true to the original Miata mission: be a lively, sweetly balanced little roadster with so much feel and reactivity in the controls that no one will even think about straight-line speed, luggage space or interior noise. True, the '06 is longer, wider, heavier and roomier inside than before, and it's packing more motor and more amenities. All of this could have deadened that characteristic Miata feel, but it hasn't. Not significantly, at least.
You know the car is bigger and more refined, but it still changes direction like a roller skate, speaks to you clearly through the steering wheel and driver seat, accelerates adequately with a classic inline-four growl and writes the book on manual-shifter precision, effort and feel. In other words, it nails the fundamentals.
That's not to say the new MX-5 is functionally indistinguishable from any old Miata. Longer-travel suspension (sourced from the RX-8 in back) provides nicely controlled compliance over choppy surfaces where Miatas used to feel harsh while bouncing and flailing about. Also, running vibration is better managed, so day-long 75-mph freeway cruising is notably less fatiguing. All of which makes the MX-5 a better car without making it a less effective Miata.
Sheer thrust has never been a critical ingredient in the Miata brew, but obviously, nothing happens without a little horsepressure. With 170 horsepower from 2.0 liters, the 2006 MX-5 nearly matches the peak output of the previous hotted-up, turbocharged Mazdaspeed 1.8 engine (it made 178 horses), and does so with newfound low-to-medium-rev flexibility. Though hardly a torque monster, the new engine pulls willingly and revs freely. It's a delightful instrument to play, especially in combination with the optional six-speed manual box.
Our test 2006 MX-5 ran zero to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, clearly quicker than previous normally aspirated Miatas (we got 8.1 seconds from a 2001) and close to the 2004 Mazdaspeed version (6.7 seconds). Quarter-mile numbers line up similarly; the '06 ran 15.3 seconds at 89.4 mph compared to 16.2 at 84.7 for the 2001 model and 15.2 at 90.4 mph for the Mazdaspeed.
Ask it to erase speed and the new MX-5 again delivers. Its 60-0 stopping distance of 116 feet was 5 feet shorter than we recorded in a 2001 Miata. Credit slightly larger disc brake rotors (diameter increased from 270mm to 290mm in front, 276 to 280mm in back) plus a larger vacuum booster, new linkage ratios and more rigidity in the lines and calipers. Response is crisp and pedal feel is excellent. The P205/45R17 tires that come on the Grand Touring package didn't hurt here either.
Weight is the enemy of performance, both having too much and carrying it in the wrong places, and Mazda sweated the details to trim mass wherever possible, shift some weight rearward, and move major masses closer to the center of the car to reduce polar moment of inertia. In theory, that means happier balance and more eager changes of direction, and it was key to retaining Miata-like behavior despite adding 2.6 inches to the wheelbase, 1.6 inches to both length and width, more beef to stiffen the unibody and the bigger engine.
Major changes (such as using aluminum instead of iron for the engine's block and mounting it 5.3 inches farther aft) as well as obsessively small ones (paring 0.19 pound from the rearview mirror) kept the overall weight increase to a claimed 22 pounds. Mazda says the front-to-rear weight distribution is just slightly nose-heavy at the curb, and comes back to 50/50 with two occupants aboard.
Those passengers will appreciate the more spacious layout inside. Big guys, especially, won't be rubbing elbows all the time now, and they'll find that the tastefully finished and flat-shaped dash seems to be mounted farther away and higher above the deeper, broader footwells. It's simply a bigger car. Still snug, but much more livable.
Tasteful and functional style plus richer finishing (in three choices of trim) make the MX-5 interior nicer as well as more spacious. We especially liked the bright-trimmed gauges in their new binnacle (though the orange markings can disappear through sunglasses, and the tach's redline is not obvious at night) and we welcomed the generous new storage pockets, cubbies, nets and cupholders.
Of course, the Miata's best interior feature has always been the ease with which it opens up. You don't even have to leave your seat, just unlatch the top and toss it back. The MX-5 actually improves on that tradition by using just a single central latch (instead of two) and cleverly folding into the well in a way that presents a finished appearance, almost as if you'd affixed a hard boot over it. And with the top down, turbulence and wind racket are considerably improved by reshaping the header, adding front-quarter window panels in the "V" of the A-pillars and providing a wind blocker behind the seats. All very tidy.
Better Than Ever
This bigger new non-Miata Miata is packaged in sheet metal intended to give it a stronger character and — though Mazda doesn't care to put it this way — a less feminine look. Being a chick car has always been a rap on Miatas, and moving beyond that image is likely one rationale for dropping the Miata name. It's certainly one goal of the redesign, with its stronger face, more rakish lines and accentuated fender contours.
At $27,095, our top-of-the-range Grand Touring model crowds closer to the $30,000 mark than a light-hearted roadster maybe should. But the 2006 Mazda MX-5 still strikes us as decent value for the money. Especially since the driving experience's fun quotient was not lost as the car got bigger and nicer. We all survived the scary and momentous part of a new Miata introduction to enjoy the charming and bubbly part.
Senior Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I've never been much of a Miata fan. They were always too cramped for my over 6-foot frame, and although I could appreciate their capabilities it never was enough to make me want to drive one for more than a day. The chick car aspect certainly didn't help, but it wasn't so much the styling as it was the sound of the measly four-cylinder. It goes from a low buzz to a high thrash. Not exactly a sound that begs you to run up and down the gears for fun.
The 2006 MX-5 fixed a few things but left others alone. Sitting in our garage next to a Z4 the MX-5 looked every bit as muscular thanks to its big fenders, and the large multispoke wheels fill them out so nicely. Firing it up reminded me of why I never much cared for it before. There's no character to its sound, just the cost-conscious burble of a 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Ripping through the excellent six-speed transmission, the MX-5 felt plenty powerful and the steering is solid. There was more body roll than I expected but it rode well and cornered precisely. It was amusing but not particularly thrilling.
Just when I thought the MX-5's femininity was too much for me, it showed me something. Or more precisely, it showed a big SL55 something. The Merc came whomping by on a tight section of Sunset, so naturally I gave chase. Diving into a long right-hander, he jammed the brakes while I just kept the pedal down. The Miata tucked under his tailpipes and never let go. He pulled away embarrassed. I eased off impressed. I think I understand this Miata thing now.
Senior Editor Scott Oldham says:
For me, the Mazda Miata has always been like manly mixed drinks. I love the idea of 7-and-7s and Long Island Iced Teas, I even order a Scotch neat every couple of years because I like the way it sounds, but in practice they just aren't my thing. I always end up leaving them on the bar untouched.
It's the same story every time I drive Mazda's little two-seater. The week kicks off with fantasies of Panasport wheels, padded roll bars and little wood shift knobs. I always go in looking to lose myself in the whole perfect-balance-between-horse-and-rider, modern-British-roadster-from-the-1960s trip. You know, the whole giant killer thing. But it never lasts. By Day Two reality sets in and the Jersey boy in me wants more grip, more space and a lot more engine. By week's end I'm wondering if I can slide "chick car" past the copy editor.
Last year, the turbocharged Mazdaspeed unit came close to changing all that, but the only Miata I've ever really lusted after was powered by a 5.0-liter V8 swiped from a Ford Mustang. It was called a Monster Miata and built by a couple of crazies in San Diego. It understeered like a pig, but went like stink. Think pint-sized Corvette.
This new Mia I mean, MX-5, however, is very much to my liking. Thanks to increased suspension travel, larger tires and adjusted weight balance, it handles much more agreeably than any of its predecessors. Plus, it has enough room inside and is actually fast enough to get you in trouble.
I drove it in the hills for the better part of yesterday and had a blast. Made me think my palate may be ready for a Grey Goose martini. Oh, bartender.
System Score: 6.0
Components: Our MX-5 was equipped with the optional seven-speaker Bose audio system. It adds a few extra speakers, but unless you specify the extra-cost CD changer, it sticks with the standard single-CD setup. The faceplate layout is spacious, with large, well-labeled buttons and switches. It uses unusual toggle-type switches for the scan and seek functions that work fine once you get used to which is which. If you really wanted to get picky, the large Bose faceplate between the toggles is a waste of space that would be better utilized by a tape deck, but it keeps the looks clean so we didn't knock it for it. The speaker setup consists of a pair of midrange/woofers in the doors accompanied by separate tweeters just above and another pair of midranges that sit just over the driver's right shoulder. A single full-range driver is mounted dead center in the dash to fill out the front.
Performance: Small convertibles don't make for very good sound stages. With minimal space to put speakers and the swirl of wind noise with the top down, we rarely expect great sound. Add in the MX-5's relatively modest price point and our expectations were admittedly low. After putting the system through its paces, the MX-5's setup sounded as though it tried to compensate for quality with quantity. There's plenty of power available, but cranking up the volume exposes weak speakers. Bass notes come through shallow and with little punch. You can get reasonably tight response at lower levels with the setting cranked up, but it's rarely very satisfying. High-frequency sounds weren't much better. The dash speaker fails to create much of a sound stage and you never get any sizzle out of the door-mounted tweeters. The system does offer AudioPilot noise compensation technology for when the top is down, but there's only so much it can do when the sound isn't that great to begin with. The abundant power makes it an adequate system for those who just want to crank up some favorites on a weekend drive, but anyone expecting accurate Bose sound reproduction will be disappointed. It does sound better than the base stereo but the low score is a reflection of our disappointment with the Bose system in light of the fact that it is a premium brand that doesn't deliver premium sound quality.
Best Feature: Clean, easy-to-use layout.
Worst Feature: Extra speakers fail to deliver the kind of sound quality you would expect in a premium system.
Conclusion: With average sound quality and a single-disc CD player, this system hardly qualifies as a must-have option. — Ed Hellwig
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