Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring - Power Retractable Hard Top

MSRP: $29,450
Price as Tested: $30,245

Since its introduction in 1989, the Mazda MX-5, better known as the Miata in the United States, has taken on the stereotype of being the quintessential "hair dresser's" car. With it small body and cute looks, many people ignored the great driving qualities possessed by the Miata. This stereotype seemed to persist throughout both the first and second generations of the car. Mazda was able to partially shed this stereotype during the Miata's second generation with the introduction of the Mazdaspeed Miata, which came with a turbocharged engine, revised suspension, and aggressive aero parts. However, as the third generation Miata was introduced, the cuteness factor returned with the Miata's "smiling" front fascia. In 2008, Mazda gave the Miata a much needed refresh, which introduced a far more aggressive version of the "smiley face" front end.

Fast forward to 2013. The third generation Miata has been on sale for eight years now, with minor face lifts and equipment changes along the way. For 2013, changes include another front end revision (this one more aggressive than the last few revisions), Bilstein dampers, new 17 inch alloy wheels, a bit of weight loss, and a whole host of other changes. The Grand Touring model I drove also includes a revised and more powerful version of the 2.0 liter MZR inline-4 engine. All these changes are supposed to make this one of the best and most aggressive MX-5 Miatas to date, short of the second generation Mazdaspeed Miata.

This version of the Miata is easily one of the best, and most aggressive looking version I have seen to date. I even think it is more aggressive looking than even the Mazdaspeed Miata from the previous generation. The lines of the car all seem to come together smoothly, especially with the power hard top. With the top closed, the little roadster could almost pass for a proper sports coupe. Admittedly, the power hard top does add quite a bit of weight, and it is one more expensive item to fix if something were to go wrong. Putting all that aside, the Miata with the power hard top is one of the best looking roadsters I have seen, top up or down.

In all the Mazda vehicles that I have driven to date, I have noticed that the quality of the interior materials used always looks top notch, and the Miata is no exception. Leather on the seats is quite good and the seats themselves were quite comfortable. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the seats offer vertical height adjustment, something that was never present on prior generations. Surfaces looked and felt like they were molded from plastic of a reasonably good quality. I did have a few gripes about the interior though, starting with the leather that is not on the seats. The hides scattered around the dash and center console feel cheap and fake. Another thing that bugged me was that the cockpit was not as driver oriented as I would like it to be. This might be because, as an S2000 owner, I expected all the controls to be angled and clustered around the driver, offering access to the most commonly used controls without having to move far from the steering wheel. Having steering wheel mounted controls for the audio and cruise control does alleviate this complaint slightly, but they are a bit limited in the functionality. And while we are on the topic of the steering wheel, it could stand to be thicker. The Miata's steering wheel feels fairly skinny, especially for a sports car. Most of the sports cars and sports sedans I have driven lately all have thick rimmed rimmed steering wheels that feel comfortable and substantial in my hands. It is unfortunate the Miata is lacking this feature as its steering wheel makes the car feel a bit delicate and fragile, which it is not.

After I got over some of the minor interior issues, I got around to starting the car. With a twist of the keyless electric knob, just like in the second generation Acura RL, the car came to life. There was not a whole lot of fanfare when the engine started, but revving the engine made some very nice sounds. Ready to take the car off the lot, I depressed the clutch pedal, which felt surprisingly light and short, and put the six-speed manual transmission into first gear. While the transmission has very short and precise throws, it does suffer from feeling a bit cheap and plasticky when slotting the lever into gear. It felt as if tugging or pushing on the lever too hard would cause the lever the snap. However, the short clutch pedal engagement was great despite feeling pretty light.

As I left the dealer lot, the salesman encouraged me to push the car. Stepping harder on the gas, the 2.0 liter engine at the front of the car really roared to life. The throaty intake sound was definitely not something I expected from a Miata. As I pushed the car, I also noticed that this car's power delivery felt pretty even distributed throughout the rev range. It definitely made acceleration feel quick, and also proved to be an advantage in normal driving conditions. Considering the size of the engine though, the bulk of its power capabilities are still going to be at the upper end of its rev range. This certainly would not be much of a problem since this is where most of the fun will be had.

Along with encouraging me to push the engine hard, the salesman also encouraged me to get on the brakes hard. Stopping power of the Miata was actually quite good as the car came to a stop rather quickly. The discs are not exactly huge, but then they have no need to be given how light the car is. Brake feel felt very progressive, which is an attribute that I miss in a lot of modern performance vehicles. I feel like this is how you want your brakes to feel instead of having brakes that grab way too hard while barely touching the pedal, or brakes that do not grab at all until you put the pedal to the floor.

Handling in this car is very flat and neutral and there was surprisingly very little body roll. Of course, the retractable hard top does provide some added structural rigidity over the soft top. Even with the top down, the Miata proved to be a very competent handler. I cannot really say whether or not the addition of the Bilstein dampers helped to improve the Miata's handling and overall driving comfort, since this was the first Miata I had ever driven. Nonetheless, I was quite impressed how the car handled through corners. What did disappoint me in this car was the steering, which was way too light, especially for a sports car, and could have been just a bit more communicative. I am the type of person that prefers to be able to feel where the front wheels are pointing through the steering wheel. While the Miata's steering was not completely devoid of any feeling, you barely get a sense of what is going on at the front end of the car through the steering wheel. Coupled with the really light steering, and the fact that the steering wheel itself does not feel very substantial in your hands, creates a somewhat nervous driving sensation.

Mazda's main selling point for this car, besides the pedigree that comes with the Miata name, is its power retractable hard top. Though it does add more weight to the car, it also adds more structural rigidity to the car when the top is closed. Being a hard top, it also does a better job of keeping the elements and excess noise out of the car, and ensures some jerk is not going to be able to walk by and stab a hole in your roof. The powered hard top also opens and closes reasonably quick. The salesman claims it is 12 seconds, but it did feel longer than that. Once the top is open, it retracts into its own compartment behind the seats. Despite all the advantages the powered hard top offers, there is one big problem with it: if it does happen to break or malfunction, fixing or replacing it is not going to be cheap.

Two things about this car really surprised me. First, the brake and gas pedals were extremely close together. This was fine with me, as it made doing heel-toe downshifts very easy. However, though I may have been fine with it, any person with feet bigger than mine could potentially run into a problem. How close together are the pedals? Every other manual transmission equipped car I have driven to date, including my own car, required me to shift my heel over at least three inches (give or take) in order to blip the throttle. In the Miata, I barely had to move my heel over an inch and I was already on top of the throttle. Second the trunk is surprisingly large. While it is still a very tiny trunk compared to what one would normally see on a coupe or sedan, it is decent for a two-seat roadster. The additional trunk space is there thanks to the fact that the Miata's power hard top retracts into its own compartment, rather than eating away at what precious trunk space is available, unlike some other convertibles. For comparison, back in 2011 when I attended the Los Angeles Auto Show, I opened the trunk to an Infiniti G37 Convertible with its hard top retracted. Upon opening the trunk lid, all I saw was the roof with just a tiny sliver of space to store items. According to the Infiniti representative that was at the LA Convention Center that day, the G37 Convertible is reduced to one cubic feet of trunk space with the roof retracted.

Mazda has certainly done a good job with the Miata over the years. The current version is certainly a good car with a decent amount of power and sharp handling. Its looks are a big departure from the "cutesy" look of the previous models, and the addition of the powered hard top means
fewer worries about keeping the elements out while still maintaining the fun factor of this car. It is unfortunate that some of the modern updates do take a bit away from this car, like light and numb electric power steering. Despite this minor shortcoming, the Miata makes for a good sports car, but I feel like it makes for a better weekend beach cruiser.

*Special thanks to South Bay Mazda