I thought that I was through with “Back to the Future” references, but that’s where Mazda is heading with the 2016 MX-5 Miata.
After 25 years of getting bigger and heavier, the two-seat roadster has made a sharp U-turn, dropping weight and a couple of dress sizes with it.
At 2,332 pounds, the fourth-generation Miata is the lightest sports car you can buy in the United States and weighs around 150 pounds less than its predecessor. That loss is nearly half the weight it’s gained over the past quarter-century thanks to all of the safety equipment and creature comforts that had been added.
The new one still has all of that stuff. But an increased use of aluminum and high-strength steel, plus a few other tricks – like reducing the weight of the air conditioning system – have turned the tide.
Mazda’s engineers cut the fat wherever they could find it. The seats, for example, use dense foam, eliminating the need for springs. Instead of having a separate height adjustment system, the rails are angled so the seat rises as you move it closer to the steering wheel.
The Miata has gotten a style makeover to go with its trim new form, too. Where previous versions were cute and toy-like, this one verges on sexy, with bulging fenders and steely-eye headlights sitting at the end of a long and remarkably low hood.
Behind them is a 155 hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder that’s nearly overkill in a featherweight like this. It’s paired with a six-speed manual transmission or, to completely defeat the point of this car, a six-speed automatic.
Fun fact: The manual transmission has no overdrive. Sixth gear is a 1:1 ratio. Compare that to an economy-minded runablut like a Chevy Sonic, which uses three overdrive gears in its search for fuel efficiency, and that pretty much sums up the ethos of the Miata. Nevertheless, its EPA rating is 30 mpg combined, up from 25 mpg for the last edition, so that weight loss clearly pays all kinds of dividends. (Meanwhile, the automatic transmission does have overdrive, and gets 36 mpg hwy, so it has that going for it.)
Prices start at $26,035 for a base Miata Sport. Step up to $29,720 and you get the autocross-ready Club, with its nifty bodykit, stiffer suspension and wider wheels and tires. Fork over $31,185 and you get the relatively luxed-out Grand Touring, which has leather upholstery, navigation, a lane departure warning system and a blind spot monitor.
You can eliminate the blind spots on all the Miatas by unlatching and tossing back the manual top, which – surprise surprise – is also lighter than before. This car was literally designed to have it down. The aerodynamics have been optimized to sprinkle just a touch of wind in your hair without filling the cabin with too much turbulence.
You can leave a few cars in your wake, though. The Miata steps off so smartly that it’ll chirp the tires shifting into second gear if you keep your right foot to the floor, and it’s easy to kick the tail out even with the wider rubber that comes on the Club.
The pedals are placed and work perfectly. The light clutch is easy to engage, and the accelerator and brake are so close together that even the tiniest feet can cover both at the same time. This enables the ancient and dying art of heel-and-toe downshifting, where you blip the throttle with the side of your foot as you brake in order to smooth out the gear changes, something I’m terrible at in every single car on sale today except this one.
The shift lever is right where you want it, and it’s similarly excellent, with short, direct throws that require barely a flick of the wrist. And while the steering now has electric instead of hydraulic assist, which is typically superior in feel, it’s quick and slack-free, the best of its kind I’ve encountered. Crank it left or right and the Miata keels over as it always has, a trait that enhances the sensation of speed at any speed that makes even a rush hour commute interesting.
But far from that kind of slog, out on a twisty road that nature clearly provided specifically for the Miata, it all comes together to create the most instinctive and enjoyable driving experience imaginable. No, it doesn’t come too cheaply, but the next two-seat convertible you can buy will cost at least $40,000, and it will provide a diminished fun-for-your-dollar return on investment.
Is this the perfect sports car? That depends. If you’re small, like the Miata, it probably is. But if you’re over 6 feet tall and weigh many more pounds than it has lost, you’ll be wishing after about an hour that there were a few more inches of legroom and cushier seats.
But then it would be bigger, and heavier, and not so perfect anymore.
2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Base price: $26,035
As tested: $33,120
Type: 2-seat convertible
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder
Power: 155 hp/148 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual
MPG: 27 city/34 hwy