2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata: Easy Driver, Great Teacher
by Jonathan Elfalan, Road Test Editor on February 4, 2016
About seven years ago, I taught Christine, my then-girlfriend and now wife, how to drive a manual transmission car. The trainer car: A 1991 Mazda Miata I'd rescued from an owner that had stripped it for parts and sentenced it to a salvage yard. It cost me $200 and a tow from AAA to get it home safely, due to missing seat belts and four flat tires, then roughly another $300 to get it road worthy. Essentially it ran like clockwork forever after.
Our new 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata has come a long way since 1991, but it's also very much in essence the same car it was 25 years ago. I'd argue it's also the easiest manual transmission car to drive, which makes it the best car to learn in.
This wasn't Christine's first encounter with a manual gearbox. She had a pretty good grasp of the concept after getting her motorcycle license earlier. But prior parking lot trials in other vehicles failed to instill enough confidence for her to venture out on the road.
Climbing into the rescue Miata idling in the office parking lot, Christine's apprehensive first attempt at engaging the clutch was met with a relatively smooth departure off the line. A handful more starts-n-stops and she was ready for second and third gear.
"I love this car!" she exclaimed. I'll remind you that this car, the object of her affection, was a write-off without a roof just a couple of weeks earlier. So what exactly makes the MX-5 Miata a car that novice and experienced drivers can enjoy on equal levels?
1. It's lightweight. Whether learning to engage the clutch without stalling the engine or flinging a car into a corner, the less mass, the better. On a flat surface, the MX-5's low curb weight allows you to release the clutch pedal (slooowly) without applying any throttle. This is a good way for a beginner to get the feel for clutch engagement and it avoids premature clutch wear from excessive throttle and clutch slip.
2. It has easy controls. From the weight of the clutch pedal to the easy responsive steering to the precise and positive gearbox, the MX-5's controls require little effort from the driver. This frees up your mind's attention reserves which are better spent on other aspects of driving.
3. It communicates well. New drivers likely won't be probing the dynamic limits of under- or oversteer, but having a good sense of when a clutch is in the friction zone or if the wheels are pointed straight is also valuable information when learning to drive.
4. It has great visibility. Experiencing open public roads as a new three-pedal pilot is daunting. You become hypersensitive to things around you and possibly overly concerned with how other drivers perceive your competence. A car's cabin can feel like it's contracting around you and its blind spots seem even more obstructive. In the Miata, drop the top and you gain instant, 360-degree clarity and a large payload of fresh, mind-clearing air.
5. It feels resilient. Despite its size and lightness, the Miata's running gear feels anything but frail. The solid shift linkage delivers positive gear engagement and the inline-four engine feels willing, even eager, to stretch its legs running up to the rev limiter. Feeling like you're not damaging the hardware helps with confidence and confidence helps you progress as a driver.
After driving around the neighborhood a bit, Christine drops me back off at the office.
"Would you mind if I drove around a little more and practiced my hill starts?" she asked.
"Of course not, " I replied with a smile and much internalized pride. At the time I thought that meant I was a pretty great teacher. Turns out it was mostly the car.
Jonathan Elfalan, Road Test Editor @ 4,852 miles