Test Drive: 2009 Mazda MX-5 (Miata)

Two-seat sports car may have retractable hardtop these days, but fun-to-drive quotient has stood tall for two decades

by James M. Flammang

2009 Mazda MX-5 with retractable hardtop

This year, the world's best-selling two-seat roadster celebrates its 20th anniversary. Launched in 1989, as an early 1990 model, the initial rear-wheel-drive Miata held a 1.6-liter engine, tuned to mimic the sounds of dual-carbureted sports cars from the 1960s. Several reworkings over the past two decades haven't altered the original concept, which was reminiscent of an earlier British roadster.

Almost 900,000 Miatas have been sold worldwide. A couple of years back, the Miata nameplate was abandoned, in favor of MX-5. Whether as a Miata or an MX-5, Mazda's goal all along has been a simple one: provided a spirited, fun-to-drive road experience at an affordable price.

For 2009, the MX-5 gets refreshed exterior styling, interior enhancements, and a higher-revving, stronger engine that promises better gas mileage. With manual shift, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 167-horsepower engine has its redline limit raised from 6700 to 7200 rpm. Depending on model, the MX-5 uses a five- or six-speed manual gearbox, or can be equipped with a six-speed Sport automatic transmission that includes paddle shifters. Six-speed manual models get an Induction Sound Enhancer, to improve engine sound.

Mazda promotes the MX-5's "ideal" weight distribution. Modest front suspsension changes for 2009 aim to make handling even better. A Bilstein-equipped suspension package is available again. The optional traction and stability control system has been returned to be less intrusive during sporty driving.

Appearance has changed modestly, led by a bigger five-point grille and a more "aggressive" face with reshaped headlamps. Sculpted triangular front foglamp bezels are installed, and wider air deflectors sit ahead of each front tire. Side sills have been redesigned, too.

Inside, seat shapes have been refined to improve lower-body comfort. The center console has been reworked for more storage verstility. A padded armrest now sits behind the gearshift lever. An auxiliary-audio input jack now is standad, as is a CD player with MP3/WMA playback capability.

The standard fabric manual top raises or lowers with one hand. For the past several years, though, Mazda has offered a power retractable hardtop that does the job in 12 seconds.

Touring models now include auto-dimming inside mirror with "Homelink" and a trip computer. The Grand Touring edition adds automatic air conditioning, five-way adjustable seat heaters, and a leather-wrapped handbrake lever.

The MX-5 lineup begins with an "entry-level" SV model that includes a five-speed manual gearbox, 16-inch aluminum wheels, power mirrors and windows, dual exhausts, six-speaker audio, and side-impact airbags. Sport roadsters add air conditioning and a leather-covered steering wheel. Touring models include foglamps, cruise control, remote keyless entry, steering-wheel cruise and audio controls, and an in-dash six-CD changer; plus a six-speed manual gearbox and 17-inch alloy wheels. The Grand Touring has heated leather seats and seven-speaker Bose audio.

Some manufacturers fall short on a given model's most notable characteristic, but that's hardly the case with Mazda. The original Miata was sheer fun to drive, and so is its 2009 successor. This is one car that hasn't lost any of its charm over the past 20 years.

Acceleration won't set hearts thumping, unless you really push hard on the gas - which means the engine starts to sound a bit strained. Mazda's gearbox is a joy to manipulate: not quite the slickest of them all, but close to that level, and highly inviting to use. Just-right clutch operation permits quite easy takeoffs, yet the clutch stands ready to absorb all the engine delivers, without balking.

Handling is the MX-5's Number One attribute, including a beautiful quick-steering feel. Steering is not light, but it doesn't demand great muscle, either, whether on straightways (where virtually no correction is needed) or through curves and corners. At the same time, the ride is surprisingly comfortable for a sports car. Only really harsh bumps produce nasty reactions.

Getting in and out is easier than some might think, but occupants do drop down into the seat, then swing their legs around. Trunk space is more substantial than expected. A deep well holds a roller suitcase with space to spare. Traditional white-on-black gauges are easy enough to read. Noise is definitely an issue. Some drivers welcome the sounds, but others might deem them a constant annoyance. Like them or not, these sports-car tones do give the MX-5 a traditional flair. With the top up, visibility is somewhat restricted toward the rear corners. The power-operated roof rises and retracts easily, after manually releasing a catch.

MX-5 pricing starts at $22,500 for the SV edition with a fabric top. Topping the line, the Grand Touring with automatic starts at $30,040. With five-speed manual shift, the roadster earns an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 22 mpg in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway. A six-speed gearbox, or the automatic transmission, drops the city figure to 21 mpg. (8/15/09)

Attention Editors: This complete 2009 Mazda MX-5 review is available now for your publication. Please contact us at JF@tirekick.com for details.

© All contents copyright 2009 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang