Sporty engine, slick shifter, ingenious convertible top, rigid structure, compliant ride.
Excessive body roll, nervous handling at the limit, limited legroom, mediocre Bose stereo.
Car reviews are often peppered with track-day jargon like "understeer," "heel-and-toe downshifting," "steering feel" and the like. If you're like most people, reviews of this nature are about as relevant to your driving habits as a comparison test of racing helmets. The average convertible buyer wants to have fun within reason: squealing tires are to be avoided, and comfort is not to be sacrificed on the altar of performance. For this demographic, the 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata is the perfect affordable roadster.
Note that "affordable" is a relative term here. With a sticker price of more than $29,000, our Grand Touring test car was within shouting distance of the high-performance Honda S2000, which starts at $35,000 and is widely available in lightly used condition for less than a new MX-5 Grand Touring. The MX-5 is frankly a more appealing proposition in the base SV trim, which undercuts our test car's price by more than $7,000. Nonetheless, some may be willing to shell out the extra cash for niceties like leather upholstery, heated seats and a Bose stereo — and for them, the MX-5 Grand Touring likely won't disappoint.
Sweetening the deal is the Miata's stem-to-stern rejuvenation for 2009. The exterior styling has been freshened, the interior has been spruced up a bit, and the powertrain and suspension have received notable revisions. The new sport suspension package (Touring and Grand Touring only) left us wanting more in hard driving, but we couldn't argue with our MX-5's agreeable ride. As for the powertrain, it's the most engaging setup you'll find short of an S2000: The reworked engine winds out to 7,600 rpm like a sport bike while still providing respectable midrange torque, and the quicker you shift the marvelously precise six-speed manual, the better it feels.
The 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring rides nicely, its slick convertible top operates with minimal fuss and its engine and shifter are a dynamic duo. As long as you don't treat every apex like it's part of a racetrack, the MX-5 is the roadster of choice at this price point.
The rear-wheel-drive 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated at 167 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. Our test car featured the standard six-speed manual transmission. At the test track, we recorded a sprint of 6.9 seconds from zero to 60 mph — half a second quicker than the last MX-5 we tested. Our track driver found the engine modifications for 2009 were readily apparent: "Doesn't bog like it used to," he noted, "and the upper revs are no longer wasted either."
Indeed, this diminutive four-banger is a joy to wring out, emitting a sporty growl that's a cross between a high-performance motorcycle and one of Honda's old-school VTEC fours. The Mazda mill doesn't offer that characteristic VTEC kick near redline, but it compensates with useful torque from about 3,500 rpm up. The shifter and clutch are among the best at any price: Unlike many manual-transmission tandems, this pair actually feels smoother and more precise when rushed. Sure, the MX-5 could use a little more power — we've often wondered why there hasn't been a Mazdaspeed version since 2005 — but anyone with an appreciation for sporting cars will get a kick out of running this ragtop through its closely spaced gears.
Handling is more of a mixed bag. Our test car's optional suspension package included sport-tuned Bilstein dampers from the Japanese racing-spec model, yet we found that this MX-5 was as prone to excessive body roll as any other Miata. Moreover, it proved rather tail-happy in hard cornering — if our car hadn't been equipped with the optional stability control system (available only on Grand Touring), we wouldn't have felt nearly as confident behind the wheel. The MX-5 Grand Touring feels composed and tossable at seven-tenths of its limits, and that's about as far as we'd recommend pushing it.
Braking performance was beyond reproach, with our standard 60-0-mph panic stop requiring just 110 feet. Fade was a nonissue — the MX-5's fifth stop measured 2 feet shorter than its first. Fuel economy is another MX-5 strong suit, at an EPA-estimated 21 mpg city/28 highway, and our test car yielded an impressive 22.9 mpg over 721 mostly spirited miles.
Our MX-5's optional suspension package gave it a downright pleasant ride for a tiny roadster, and the structure was remarkably rigid, with little perceptible cowl shake even when crossing railroad tracks. Road and wind noise are pronounced with the top up, though. Since we didn't have the better-insulated PRHT (power-retractable hardtop) model at our disposal, we simply put the top down at every opportunity. There's some wind buffeting at higher speeds, and we also noticed a persistent whistling noise coming from the folded top above 55 mph, but the MX-5 is generally an agreeable al fresco cruiser.
The Grand Touring model's leather-trimmed seats offer good lateral support and adequate long-distance cruising comfort, though the cushions are on the firm side. No one complained about the non-telescoping steering wheel, but two of our 6-foot-plus editors griped that they needed another inch or two of rearward seat travel. The door armrests are nicely padded, but the vinyl-covered storage bin cover on the center console is a poor excuse for a center armrest. Overall, we'd say the 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring is a laudably comfortable car given its elemental nature.
Any discussion of the MX-5's functionality has to start with the convertible top. In a word, it's brilliant. Simply depress the clearly marked "release" button where the top meets the windshield, pull down the adjacent release lever, flip the top over your shoulder so it folds into itself and reach back to click it into place (or flip it back with such force that it clicks on its own). The process takes at most 5 seconds, and one of our editors claims to have done it in 1 second flat. Raising the top is similarly hassle-free for those who have the seat slid back all the way — just pull the release handle between the seatbacks, reach back, soccer-throw the top toward the windshield and click the release lever into place. However, drivers with shorter legs may have to contort themselves a bit in order to reach the folded top without getting out of the car.
The MX-5 is a high achiever in other functional respects as well. The gauges are crystal-clear while maintaining a sporty ambience. The cabin is predictably short on easily accessible storage bins, but there are no fewer than three along the rear wall: one lockable bin between the seatbacks (which oddly contains the fuel door release lever) and another behind each seatback. Climate and audio controls are exceedingly user-friendly and fall readily to hand. However, our test car's disappointing Bose stereo lacked the power and thoughtful speaker layout required for enjoyable top-down listening.
Other missteps include an overly large HomeLink-equipped rearview mirror, which blocks the view around right-hand corners for taller drivers, and center console cupholders that interfere with shifting when in use. In real-world functionality testing, our standard suitcase barely fit in the MX-5's 5-cubic-foot trunk, and our golf bag ended up in the passenger seat.
We like the restyled front end of the 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata, grinning grille and all, but we're still not sold on the exaggerated wheel arches that have been an MX-5 trademark since 2006. Also, there's too much empty space between the tires and the wheelwells. Inside, the MX-5's low-slung seats and intimate cabin layout lend an appropriately sporting flavor to the proceedings, though the materials are uniformly hard to the touch and the silver trim on the dashboard is just painted plastic. Build quality was good on our test car, with doors that closed with a resounding thump and nary a squeak or rattle from the structure.
Roadster shoppers who appreciate ride comfort and a relaxed driving demeanor more than the frenetic performance of a more tightly focused sports car such as a Honda S2000.