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MF Review: 2006 Mazda MX-5

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(Written by Jeff Walter)

The “Fletch Lives” or “The Godfather, Part II”? That’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 don’t get me started on the kit’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 I’m actually embarrassed to work within the PR/marketing industry. Moving on . . .

So the question is will this new MX-5 bring to mind “Fletch Lives” or “The Godfather Part II”? Both are sequels to blockbuster originals. One sequel delivered a follow up hit, the other left us asking ‘Who does Chevy Chase owe money to?”. The original Miata, and its second generation, were certainly hits (I think I’m legally allowed to use “Miata” 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 “an appropriate amount” of toilet paper looked like to my brothers and I. In his defense, this was during the toilet-paper crisis of the late 1980’s. Somehow, Mazda convinced this financially responsible man to part with the almost $14,000 a new, base Miata cost in 1989. That’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 16” 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 — even after a solid 4 hour stint that included some L.A. traffic.

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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 can’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 — they were convinced it wouldn’t possibly fit. Apparently we provided them with their morning entertainment.

The good news is that all of this increased size and capacity didn’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.

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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 can’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 they’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 generation’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 can’t quite figure out where it should be.

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But in this car, it’s hard not to feel compelled to switch over to the manual mode, to try and fully involve yourself in the driving experience. And it’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 you’ll have more fun. And if the previous generations’ manual transmissions are any indication, you’ll be very pleased with your decision.

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The new MX-5 stays true to the previous generations’ formula — 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.

Written By: Jeff Walter

  • http://www.blokspeed.net Eelke

    One practical comment: the 2006 MX-5 is also labeled as a 1989 Miata…

    Also, I had a quick scan through the article and I don’t think it’s mentioned that the Miata has always been called MX-5 in Europe (and possibly also other parts of the world).

  • http://www.blokspeed.net Eelke

    OK, second comment from me as wel as I felt I had to compensate my first which was just whining (although constructive whining ;) )

    Good write-up, and it is nice to see MF run some “side-related” topics once in a while.

  • Nathaniel Salzman

    Great write up, Jeff.

    I’m just curious how you think the Mazda compares to the MINI – especially to the MCSc if you’ve had the opportunity to drive one.

  • Jon

    Yes, that would be the thing I’d be interested in knowing…

    Both the MINI and the MX-5 (it will always be a Miata to me), are known as handlers. So which handles better? Any insights here?

  • Jeff Walter

    Eelke -

    Actually, the photos above are of a red 1989 Miata and a silver 2006 MX-5. I was hoping to show the design evolution of the car, but I had limited access to royalty free images.

    Fair point on the MX-5 nomenclature in Europe, I hadn’t really stopped to think about that. I still think it is a mistake to change the name of an iconic car in the U.S. market. The name “Miata” has a lot of brand equity, and to leave it on the table is an odd decision in my opinion.

    Nathaniel and Jon -

    I own a 2004 MCS (IB/W), but have spent some time in an MCc. Thanks to some of the MINI’s quirks, I have been able to expereince a few interesting loaners from the local dealer, one of which was an MCc (no MCSc I am afraid).

    With my limited seat time, I would say that I am a fan of the MCc. The car is fun to drive and communicates pretty well with the driver. It tends to understeer a little too quickly sometimes, but remains neutral in transition. Overall, provides a sporty ride that any enthusiast would enjoy.

    I think I might have to tip my hat to the Miata on the overall handling/suspension category though. The car is slightly more rigid, carries 230 pounds less and is rear wheel drive. I would say that the Miata’s handling can be pushed a little harder than then MCc before it becomes unsettled.

    It’s awful tough to try and make a front-wheel drive car that carries an additional 230 pounds competitive with the rear-wheel drive lighter Miata. With that said, I think MINI did a commendable job.

    But that’s just my opinion, so take it for what it’s worth.

  • cct1

    Although I still prefer it’s direct competitor, the S2000, I’d still have to say Mazda has done an excellent job evolving the Miata; this latest edition is really a beautiful looking car, it’s going to be in high demand.

  • Micah

    Over the weekend I just test drove an ’06 MX-5 (6 speed with Bilstein shocks and LSD), and from this experience I can say that it handles as well as or better than a stock MCS. The car felt very balanced and had overall neutral handling characteristics (I couldn’t really push it because the salesman was already protesting a bit around a couple of corners). The shifter was dawn near perfect – best I have ever experienced in a car in terms of feel and placement – and the brakes were firm and balanced, and scrubbed speed quickly. Steering feel was also outstanding. The engine has a nice torque band past 3K that makes you want to rev it, but overall I thought it could definitely use more power (the chassis could certainly handle it). I also really liked having rear-wheel drive. Finally, at 6’1” I was finally able to fit in the car.

    I then got back into my lightly modded ’06 MCS (Webb Motorsports supercharger pulley, intake, and rear sway bar…) and quickly discovered that my MINI would hand the Miata its proverbial a** on a platter. The engine pulled much harder, it handled just as well, and the steering feel was as good as the MX-5.

    I would still like to own a Miata as a second vehicle for weekend road trips and canyon runs, or better yet spec Miata racing – but since I am a one-car guy (just can’t afford another vehicle), I’m not about the trade my MINI in on the Mazda.

  • Micah

    Gabe, last sentence should read “…I’m not about to trade my MINI in on the Mazda.” Thanks!

  • Ken

    I guess I can add my impressions of the difference in handling as I own both cars. My Miata (yes, it has an MX-5 badge on the back also) is a 2003 but I’ve also driven a 2006 extensively. My opinion is the MINI S has the upper hand on handling, but not by much. I base this on a couple of high speed corners near my house that I use for a guage. I can take the corner at just a shade under 45 in my Miata, but can do it in the MINI at just over 50. Both cars have a stock suspension. I think the overall response of the MINI is a bit better also, but again, not by much. This is of course very subjective.

    With that said, I enjoy cruising in the Miata better than the MINI, it’s much more tame at lower speeds and not nearly as rough. When it comes to speed and all out fun though, you just can’t beat the MINI.

    As MINI drivers, if you get a chance to go “Motoring” in a Miata, I’m sure you will be impressed.

  • Chad

    I would hardly consider an s2000 to be a direct competator to a Miata. The same way I wouldn’t consider a M6 a direct competator tothe s2000.

  • ChrisW

    Focus to MX-5 = best rental upgrade ever!

    I miss my ’94 Miata terribly. Sure, my ’05 MCSc is a fantastic car, and I love it dearly, but at the end of the day the Miata was simply a more enjoyable motoring experience for me. My MINI is faster, and has far more amenities (not to mention seating for 4), but the Miata was something special (despite the craptastic interior of that vintage). The on-the-ground seating, the more open feel, the RWD, and that shifter, oh sweet mother, that shifter! Shifting my MINI feels like shifting a school bus in comparison. Why can’t every car just copy the Miata’s shifter?

    It was also my first-ever new car. I’ll probably forever regret selling it.

    I also lament the loss of the Miata name. A real tragedy, that.

  • JasonH

    I traded in my 03′ Cooper for an ’06 Mia…MX-5. I still miss my Cooper, but this is a fun car, seeing that I drive w/ the top down every time I get in. (I live in Orlando.) The top is great, and very easy to use. Trunk space and the ease of the top is what made me get this instead of a Solstice. The only thing that I disagree w/ about the write up is that I like the AT. I was very worried because I hate AT and wanted a 6 speed. My wife said that I could only get the car if it was AT. You do have to plan ahead for up-shifts or you go too far past the redline, but it is still fun, and that is what this car is about. It is not a smooth transmission either, but it comes across as being sporty and it seems that it is at least trying to appease buyers like me who really wanted a stick. P.S. – My Cooper w/ H&R springs and anti-sway handled better :)

  • JasonH

    Oh yeah, In 3000 miles I have never left it in full auto mode, so I don’t know how it performs that way, but I can ask my wife.

  • DarkSilver

    I have a stock 04 MCS, and recently tested the 06 MX-5. On dry days, they are close in handling. On wet days, I can’t imagine driving as fast in an MX-5, not to mention sliding out of corners…

    The MX-5 engine is quite strong, but sounds not anywhere as exiting as the MCS. For reference, I also tested the RX-8, which felt much more solid – shifter, engine, steering… a bit heavy and cramped if one switched back to MCS right away; I would consider it a worthy substitute if for some reason I cannot get a MCS.

    A comment about BMW selling MINI to VW… unfortunately, I won’t be buying bigger BMW for myself, but maybe a smaller one if they will make one, perhaps not quite the brand loyalty BMW wanted. My boss who has an M5 commented that the MCS feels just as solid, only lighter…

  • http://www.blokspeed.net Eelke
    Actually, the photos above are of a red 1989 Miata and a silver 2006 MX-5. I was hoping to show the design evolution of the car, but I had limited access to royalty free images.

    That’s what I figured. It’s just that both images were labeled the same :) I see it’s corrected now.

    Fair point on the MX-5 nomenclature in Europe, I hadn’t really stopped to think about that. I still think it is a mistake to change the name of an iconic car in the U.S. market. The name “Miata” has a lot of brand equity, and to leave it on the table is an odd decision in my opinion.

    Certainly. FWIW, I think the name Miata is more inspiring than the “cold” designation MX-5, I think they might have had a better bet with calling the car Miata across all markets (at least in Holland there are a fair few Miata-badged cars cruising around – imported from the US – so the name isn’t completely new). Then again, it’s more in line with the other typing Mazda uses – the RX-8 is also called RX-8 in the US, is it not?

  • Brick317

    Great write-up!

    One question, isn’t the the 6 speed automatic tranny in the MX-5 the same as the Aisin unit in the MCSa? I thought I read elsewhere that they were the same units. Also, the paddle shifter operation works the same in that push of either button shifts down and pull of either paddle shifts up.

  • http://www.motoringfile.com/ Gabe

    DarkSilver – BMW is not selling MINI to VW. That post was an April Fools day joke.

  • http://link Tom

    After 2,500 miles with the MX5 6AT the paddles (that you did not like) are really wonderful. At first, I would have agreed with you that they seemed confusing and perhaps counter-intuitive, but they become natural and allow quick, hands-on-the-wheel, use of that great 6 speed (sport) auto, which the little 4 banger can well use here in the mountains. (North Carolina)

    Thanks for your objective write-up.

  • Ernie

    Refreshing read, but my experiences with my 06 GT differ in two areas: handling is indeed compromised substantially ONLY by excess roll; replacing the stock antisway bars with Eibach-supplied MAZDASPEED larger ones (as used OE with the heavier PRHT) COMPLETELY removes this roll, and improves centerline and turn-in feel to boot. Great DIY $300 mod…. The 6sp AUTO is the only practical choice (IMO) as both its 5th and 6th gears are much taller than the top gears in the 5sp AND 6sp manuals! Since I do a fair amount of driving above 70mph the added 30%+ gearing results in much quieter performance, and a combined fuel eco that so far has stayed above 28mpg! (33-35 fast hwy). If Mazda had added a 6th on top of the 5th’s ratio for the 6sp I would have been tempted, but they squashed all 6spds in slightly TIGHTER (-1%) than the 5sp in order to provide perceived improved acceleration. But the damned ting’s screaming above 4k rpm around 80mph, whereas the automatic’s just serenely sipping at 2.7k! This huge difference in gearing portends real practical advantages for those interestred in using their Miata as a daily driver…. I haven’t used the paddle shifter, prefering to use throttle inputs, and do find that the TCU upshifts for economy a bit early. But downshifts are so satifying that I don’t really mind. One very real difference is that the new autobox is VERY FAST off the line in real world starts, completely blowing away SUVs and 6cyl Jap/Euroboxes initaially so that city driving can be very spirited and safe. This is a far cry from wondering how much clutch life to use up each time one wants to assure getting out of the way of that V8 Jeep driver who can’t see me stooped at the light in the right lane! (I also drive a 6sp chipped Audi S4, so know from whence I speak. The S4 and MX-5 are complete opposites, but fully complementary if one wants an ultimate practical “fun” car under 80mph and another for use at extraterrestial speeds.) The trunk is surprisingly voluminous. The cupholders ARE useful, and don’t get in the way of the long-legged. The seats are TOO LOW (really now set for 5’10”-6’4″ drivers!), so that lifting the rear anchors on 1/2″ spacers (with longer bolts) proved perfect for my 5’11” frame. Indeed, this is no longer “chick” geometry…. The HID Low-beams are so good that the highs are unecessary. The useless single horn is easily accessed to add more (I added a pair of Subaru horns on the right side…HUGE difference…feel MUCH safer as I warn larger vehicles wanting to cut in front). The run-flat BS RE-050 17’s are indeed hard, but work best (centerline and turn-in feel) up near 40psi. About 1/3 down at 8k miles…and quiet so far…. Tan/saddle center console is cheap and hard to disguise, as center cupholder design precludes modding easily and retaining function. Leather steering wheel too narrow and hard. I added another leather cover to reduce grip-stress. Torque delivery is so linear that it’s hard to complain about only 166hp; wanting a bit more passing ability isn’t too valid when one considers the MX-5’s nature. The airbox is big enough such that aftermarket systems will probably have no aerobic benefit.
    Hidden gas-flat release is a small annoyance, as well too-low trunk release (didn’t find it until a month later!). Keyless functioning (Prem2 pkg w/ auto, inc HID, traction, and Bose) is a hit, as you don’t have to fumble remote buttons or a key when running to close the roof when a t-storm hits! Ditto allowing a passenger access. The cloth top is nicer, and quieter, than the vinyl one. Fuel tank’s small (11.9g), and gauge speeds up dropping from 1/4 to E, but there’s still about 10% left, so it’s easy to range 350+ miles (but only with the automatic!). Lap-height vents allow heating/cooling with top-down so as to extend seasonal use.

    Air management in light rain is so good that one need raise the top only in moderate rain! (But leather’s a good idea, anyway, for ragtops).

    As with other manual transmissions (I’m Boston’s indy SubaruGuru), there is inherently more fun when pushing at moderate speeds, but ultramodern automatics are far more satisfying for urban dynamics, and in the Miata’s case, also for touring serenely at speed.

    Thanks again for your fun review, and hope my comments help. Cheers. Ern

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  • Mike

    Great review Ernie! I also have an ’06 with the AT and was debating the choice of gearboxes. I’ve always have had 5-speeds and this was going to be it as well…until I drove the AT with the paddles. I almost peed my pants I had so much fun.(sorry) Nothing even close to what I was expecting considering I last drove a Miata in the early ’90s with a 4sp AT. ACK! Talk about mid corner shift! This does nothing of the kind unless I get sloppy with my braking and put on to much juice exiting but it’s still less of a shock. Brake before the corner and smooth through and she’ll wind up just nicely. Needless to say the paddles have no issue there. Miliage is great and I too notice the gearing issue as well and i’m glad for it since I like to take my fare share of extended drives on the highway and it rides wonderfully. Handling for me is unreal. Maybe just a hint of of less roll would be welcome but I haven’t yet broken it loose so I don’t wish to drive that crazy to find out what it takes anyways. LOL. But the main thing that was accomplished with this purchase was finally getting my Miata since I wanted one back in 1989! I still admire it everytime I see it. And most of all…I haven’t been bored of driving it. They day I stop that is the day I no longer have a pulse.


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