We go back a long way with the Miata. We drove the Miata in 1989, when there were just two of Mazda’s roadsters on the east coast. As former roadster owners—we won’t mention makes or models—the Miata was in many ways coming home again. Later, when we earned our Sports Car Club of America competition license, it was in a Showroom Stock C Mazda. A first ever win in a first ever race, we might add. And although we never actually owned a Miata (alas, a minivan was much more family practical), every time we’ve driven a Mazda Miata, it was yet another homecoming.
So it was with great anticipation that we scheduled a 2008 Miata for a road test. We didn’t bother to ask about the transmission. After all, in ages past it was nearly impossible to get an automatic transmission-equipped Miata for testing. The Miata was rightly famous for its slick shifting manual gearbox and the automatic was, well, an automatic. Plus in those days, the Miata was rated at 116 horsepower, quite appropriate for a lightweight two-seater. But not—so we believed—if it were asked filter the available ponies through a slush box.
So imagine our horror when we opened the door of our press tester and saw the shift lever of an automatic trans. How could they? Yet there was hope of salvation: paddle shifters on the steering wheel. We’re skeptical…but professionals that we are, we’re willing to give the automatic transmission—plus the Miata around it—a fighting chance.
It is a Miata, after all.
We were also interested in testing the Miata with the Power Retractable Hardtop. The Miata has always had a hardtop available but it was a lift-off bolt-on affair that was convenient as going to Tibet for a loaf of bread. We had been satisfied with fabric top, but with so many other convertibles/roadsters being equipped with hardtops that would section, fold and slide under a hard cover, it seemed Mazda had to make one too.
Indeed, a hard top has advantages. It’s more secure from theft and vandalism, it provides better protection from the elements, and it’s quieter. On the other hand, the PRHT adds about 75 to 100 pounds, depending on trim level and, well, the purist should prefer the ragtop.
But about that “weight gain.” There can be more weight difference, actually, between the base SV and fully-equipped Grand Touring trim levels. And at any rate, the PRHT adds less weight than the typical passenger. So there goes that objection.
All Miatas come with the same engine, a 2.0L DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder with variable valve timing. With a manual transmission it’s rated at 166 horsepower at 6700 rpm; with the automatic such as our test car it’s dialed back to 158 horses at 6700 rpm. Either way, that’s a significant jump from the 1.6-liter original’s 116 hp and it shows. The current generation of Miata scoots, even with the automatic transmission. We remember having driven at full throttle in certain places where in the new car we found ourselves not able to drop the hammer all the way.
But about the transmission… We’re not so closed-minded that we reject out of hand, so to speak, any shifting arrangement without a clutch pedal. But we’d like no torque converter in our clutchless sportsters, and would rather have an electronically-shifted “manual” transmission. The torque converter, a fluid connection between the engine and transmission, softens the link between the engine and road that’s one mark of a sports car. With the Miata, the paddle shifting (push for downshifts, pull to shift up), is prompt, quick and correct, but the connection between piston and pavement is just too loose.
Anyway, we missed shifting the transmission that has become the “shifts-almost-as-good-as-a-Miata” gold standard.
A downside of the Miata is highway noise and a harsh ride at freeway speeds. We expected the Miata PRHT to be quieter at highway speeds, but most of the noise we heard came up from below, not from the semi in the next lane, as would be the case with a fabric top. Our experience, however, is that the quietest way to travel in a Mazda Miata is with the top, fabric—or now hardtop—down.
We were unable to fault the Miata’s handling, however. It’s the best of what this class of sports car should be; supple enough to maintain contact with the road even over rough pavement and the Miata takes on corners with the joy of a cat with a new mouse. Freeway ramps are suddenly taken several notches faster and a driver can easily become frustrated with all those other drivers who are driving so dadgumbed slow. There should be words here about turn-in, lateral adhesion, rotation enabled by the front mid-engined design, and on and on. Sorry, but the Miata’s handling is ephemeral as the sweet spot on a Louisville Slugger or why Guinness makes your strong.
So that’s why driving a Miata on the highway, back roads or track is always like coming home, you know, to where the Miata knows my name. We’ve know each other for so long.
Our test vehicle was the top-of-the-line Grand Touring, fitted with heated leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, “faux leather” on the door panels, Bose audio, power locks and windows and of course, the power top, for $27,860. Our tester added Sirius satellite radio ($430), an interior trim package comprised of “brushed aluminum look” trim on the instrument panel and door switch panels (add $515—for a couple of pieces of plastic trim!?), and the Premium Package that adds the advanced keyless (proximity key) entry system, antitheft engine immobilizer, Xenon headlamps and stability/traction control ($1,250). Include destination of $595 and the total price comes to $30,650.
It’s possible to get a Miata SV 5-speed manual for only $20,635. To get a 6-speed manual requires moving up to the Miata Sport with a special option totaling $23,840. To get the $500 sport suspension package with tuned Bilstein shocks and limited slip requires the mid-level Touring trim at $24,430.