(Written by Jeff Walter)
The ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œFletch LivesÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â or ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œThe Godfather, Part IIÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â? ThatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s the question on my mind as I finish up my car rental paper work at John Wayne international airport in Anaheim, California. My wife and I have just scored an upgrade from a Ford Focus to a new 2006 Mazda Miata, I mean MX-5, and I intend to use this opportunity to review this new generation.
The press kit from the Chicago Autoshow is quite clear that this is no longer a Miata but an MX-5. And donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t get me started on the kitÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s multiple paragraphs philosophizing on the inspiration of Jinba Ittai, which is a Japanese expression describing how a horse and rider must work as one to fire an arrow accurately. Its times like these that IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢m actually embarrassed to work within the PR/marketing industry. Moving on . . .
So the question is will this new MX-5 bring to mind ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œFletch LivesÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â or ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œThe Godfather Part IIÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â? Both are sequels to blockbuster originals. One sequel delivered a follow up hit, the other left us asking ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“Who does Chevy Chase owe money to?ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â. The original Miata, and its second generation, were certainly hits (I think IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢m legally allowed to use ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œMiataÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â when describing previous generations). When the car first appeared on the scene in 1989, it was truly an instant classic. It represented the return of the affordable roadster. A fun to drive, dependable, rear-wheel drive convertible for under $15,000. It had a great gear box, superb suspension and adequate power.
My dad, who had never been much of a car guy, went out and bought one. This is the same man that used to actually demonstrate what ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œan appropriate amountÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â of toilet paper looked like to my brothers and I. In his defense, this was during the toilet-paper crisis of the late 1980ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s. Somehow, Mazda convinced this financially responsible man to part with the almost $14,000 a new, base Miata cost in 1989. ThatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s a lot of toilet paper.
Back to our new, 2006 MX-5. As my wife and I approach spot number four in the Hertz lot, we are greeted with the site of our chosen conveyance for our get-away weekend in Santa Barbara – a Galaxy-Gray MX-5 with the touring package. The first thing we notice is that this new MX-5 appears to have grown up, with less emphasis on cute, and more focus on the sport side of the equation. More aggressive front and rear facias, lower side skirts, dual exhaust tips, clear tail lights and flared wheel arches that wrap around 16ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â alloy wheels all work together to give a very athletic appearance.
The overall dimensions of the car are larger as well. This third generation car is 1.8 inches longer, 1.6 inches wider and .7 inches taller. The wheel base has been increased by 2.5 inches, with most of that increase being felt in the cabin. Mazda claims that this slight increase in overall size means the new MX-5 is much more comfortable, and even capable of accommodating taller drivers. It had no problem keeping this 6-foot, 218-pound journalist in complete comfort ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬” even after a solid 4 hour stint that included some L.A. traffic.
It would appear that cargo capacity has been significantly increased over the second generation as well. The car was able to hold my wife and I, two wheelie carts, a garment bag, two computer bags, a backpack, a toiletry bag, a large purse and even the addition of 8 bottles of wine on our return trip.
Though the MX-5 canÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t take all of the credit, as it was one of our better loading accomplishments. Good enough that two women came out of their Santa Barbara bed and breakfast just to congratulate us on getting everything to in ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬” they were convinced it wouldnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t possibly fit. Apparently we provided them with their morning entertainment.
The good news is that all of this increased size and capacity didnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t translate to a large increase in weight. Mazda worked diligently to reduce weight everywhere it could (.19 pounds by using a simplified rearview mirror assembly) to counteract the larger dimensions. The net result is a very slight increase of 27 pounds, which means the car tips the scale at mere 2,474 pounds.
So enough about how the car looks and how much it holds. As anyone who has spent time behind the wheel of a Miata can attest, the car is all about the driving experience. Does this third generation deliver the same experience built around stellar suspension, quick steering, a sporty engine and a near perfect transmission? Yes, yes, yes and probably.
Turn the ignition and the aluminum 2.0 liter in-line four comes to life with a significantly more aggressive sound. A blip on the throttle brings about a satisfying exhaust note that makes it instantly known that this is a more capable setup than either of the first two generations.
The double overhead cam, 16-valve engine puts its variable intake valve timing to good use, generating 170 horsepower at 6,700 RPM and 140 lb-ft of torque with 90% of that torque available from 2,500 rpm to redline. The result is a very capable engine with great linear power delivery. With a proper launch, the car can scoot to 60 mph in a respectable 6.8 seconds. Certainly not supercar territory, but straight line performance was never what the Miata was all about.
Mazda upgraded the brakes on the new MX-5 to match its increased power output, with slightly larger rotors on the front and rear. We found the brakes to be up to the challenge, delivering good stopping power with minimal fade and good pedal feel even after being pushed through several miles of tight corners and short straights.
Once under way, you canÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t help but notice how direct the steering feels. With the ultra-quick steering and great on-center feel, the car makes any driver feel as though theyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢re capable of tackling the tightest of corners. Especially when that steering is combined with the very composed chassis and suspension.
During spirited driving on some of the twistier sections of road we could find, we were continually amazed at the stiffness this open-topper delivered. More than once we caught ourselves looking over head to make sure there was indeed open sky above. Mazda claims that usage of ultra-high strength steel results in increases of bending rigidity and torsional rigidity by 22 and 47-percent, respectively. Anyone who has driven one of the earlier Miatas knows that this is equivalent to making the Pope 47-percent more Catholic.
And what an easy-to-open top it is. Mazda abandoned the dual side latches and the top now releases with a single, center-mounted release. With that release tripped, the driver need only to pull the top back and it drops neatly into the space behind the seats, and locks into position with a slight shove down. The entire process takes less than 10 seconds and can be done by the driver alone, while seated. A very impressive piece of engineering.
The double wishbone suspension up front and multilink system in the rear work well with the chassis to provide a very stable and confident feel. The car stays settled through tight corners, with minimal body roll and is very easy to toss around. The only down side is a slightly less refined ride over bumpy strips of pavement, probably more a result of the larger wheels than anything else.
The steering, chassis and suspension all combine to create a car that just eats up corners and curves, while communicating clearly with the driver exactly what each contact patch is doing. I can only imaging what a hoot this car would be on a local track or autocross course. It reminds me of a Japanese expression, Jinba Ittai. . . . . Not really.
Which brings us to our only real complaint about the car. Our touring package included the new for this generation Sport A/T 6-speed automatic, up two gears from the previous generationÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s auto. This transmission can be left in fully automatic mode and will do an acceptable job of rowing the box for you. Though we did notice that the gearbox tends to hunt a little bit in certain rpm ranges and throttle inputs, and it never seems to hold a gear quite as long as you might like while cornering. The overall experience while in the fully automatic mode is a little bit jerky and less than satisfying. You almost get the feeling that the addition of two gears has confused the transmission, which just canÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t quite figure out where it should be.
But in this car, itÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s hard not to feel compelled to switch over to the manual mode, to try and fully involve yourself in the driving experience. And itÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s here where things get worse. For starters, the placement of shift controls on the steering wheel lead to confusion. Two small buttons on the top of the steering wheel are to be used for downshifts while the paddles behind either side of the wheel are to be used for upshifts. We continually found ourselves using the two paddles as though they performed different functions, which left us wondering where the power had gone, until we realized we were in 6th gear cruising at 40 mph.
The actual shifting itself tended to be awkward as well, with up shifts sometimes not happening as quickly as you might like. Down shifts seemed to happen quicker, but resulted in less than smooth re-engagement. The system is a far cry from some of the others available on the market, systems like the Borg Warner DSG gearbox found in such cars as the VW GTI.
The easy way to fix all of the problems above is to simply stick with the manual transmission, either the 5-speed that comes standard or the optional 6-speed manual. Not only will you avoid the headaches and frustrations the Sport A/T creates, but youÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ll have more fun. And if the previous generationsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ manual transmissions are any indication, youÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ll be very pleased with your decision.
The new MX-5 stays true to the previous generationsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ formula ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬” solid engine with near perfect steering, chassis and suspension. This third generation adds a little more aggressive styling, nicer exhaust note, additional power and increased space and comfort. It looks like Mazda just might have a blockbuster sequel on its hands.