2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata: Bringing a Little Color to Death Valley
by Reese Counts, Vehicle Testing Assistant on March 15, 2016
I'm still new to California, so it's hard to justify staying home on the weekend when there's so much to see. It's even more difficult when you have a fleet of cars at your disposal and an obligation to tack on as many miles as possible.
This rationale led me to Death Valley in our 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Friday afternoons tend to be slow around the office. Most people work from home on Friday and the few that do show up usually question that decision by the time lunch rolls around. Afternoons devolve into watching car videos on YouTube and debating the merits of the Miata vs. the BRZ.
During one of these discussions, Kurt and Magrath told me about the super bloom going on in Death Valley National Park. Magrath threatened to punch me if I didn't go visit this weekend, so I text my wife and let her know we were going on a drive the next morning.
We left our apartment in East L.A. around 7:00 a.m. and headed north on Interstate 5. Our destination was Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, and roughly 300 miles from our apartment. In addition to the super bloom, I was eager to see if I could retake the MPG crown from Brent, not that it's a competition or anything. I filled up in Rosamond at the exit that takes you to Willow Springs International Raceway and from there we headed northwest towards the park.
The roads in this part of the state are surprisingly good. Ribbons of black asphalt trace a path that through the desert, occasionally passing by a borax or sulfur mine and the community that supports it (see: Trona, CA). The road, while not overly technical, is smooth and sweeping. The Miata was a joy through here.
This wonderful road came to an abrupt end. Road work had reduced a several mile section to something reminiscent of Mad Max. The dust, kicked up by cars and the sweeping winds, reduced visibility to less than 50 feet. It was hard to tell where the "lanes" were supposed to be, so I just kept my speed down and my eyes ahead. Eventually, we picked up pavement and continued onward.
Soon the elevation increased as the road moves through the mountains that eventually empty out into Death Valley. Some of the passes are nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, but despite being naturally aspirated, the Miata never felt out of breath.
The entrance to the park was fairly green, though we were still at some elevation. We parked so I could pay the $20 entrance fee at the self-service kiosk. At this point, I noticed how badly my ears were ringing. The soft top on the Miata does very little to muffle the sound, and after nearly five hours of driving the noise was starting to get to me. The seats — my least favorite part of the Miata — were starting to wear on me as well.
Most of what we could see from the road looked like the surface of some cracked and broken planet. The overcast sky threatened rain and didn't do much to lighten the scenery. We parked and walked through the fields, picking up interesting-looking rocks and admiring the red Miata against the muted grey and brown background.
As we continued downward, the occasional yellow flower eventually turned to fields of gold and purple that swept upwards toward the mountains. My iPhone camera couldn't do the scenery justice. It just continued for miles and miles as we swept deeper into the park.
The Miata isn't equipped with navigation, but the compass display also shows elevation. I kept an eye on it as we moved through the park. The numbers continued to fall, eventually dropping below sea level. Badwater Basin sits 282 feet below. The Miata obviously disagrees.
I took the photo above in the parking lot next to the boardwalk that led to Badwater Basin. The number was off by a bit, but it was still interesting watching it rise and fall with every crest and dip in the road. It settled into a slow fall as the road crept down towards the salt flat.
After exploring the salt and the stones at Badwater for a bit, I realized that I still had to make the journey home. We were already six hours into the day and I didn't know how long the return run might take. The Miata had about half-a-tank of fuel with an indicated 180 miles of range. As a man on a mission, I gingerly headed west out of the park and south towards Baker.
In Badwater, the Miata's indicated fuel economy was 40.5 mpg. These monitors tend to be generous, but it gave me a general indication of where I was at. It was all uphill from Badwater, but there were no other 4000-foot passes to cross either. I was set to beat both the best range and best average tank in one go. With my wife asleep in the passenger seat and our dog asleep on the parking brake, I settled in for the return leg of the drive.
Rain fell as we headed out of the park, partially rinsing the Miata of the layer of dust accumulated on Fury Road. The noise from the road, the rain and the wind was near headache inducing. I didn't even bother with the radio.
A couple hours later we rolled into Baker, just off Interstate 15. The Miata burned up 8.785 gallons of 91 octane over 329 miles. The math works out to 37.5 mpg, beating our previous best by 1 mpg.
We arrived home just after 7:00 p.m., 12 hours after departure. All the noise from the car had my ears ringing for days. As much fun as the Miata is to drive, it's pretty miserable on a long journey.
The journey was worth it, though. We saw bright flowers and a red roadster in one of the bleakest places on Earth. Badwater was 85 degrees in March. Magrath told me I need to go back in August to feel that triple-digit dry heat. I'll bring some eggs to cook on the pavement. Next time I'll take something with a fixed roof and double-pane windows.
Reese Counts, Vehicle Testing Assistant @ 6,908 miles