Friday, June 26, 2015

2014 Mazda Miata PRHT

In the automotive enthusiast world, there is a joke that "Miata is always the answer." It is one of those things that is usually spoken half jokingly and half seriously because the Miata is truly one of those gems of a car that is capable of so much and is one of the rawest driving experiences that we can get at an affordable price. As a former Miata owner, I have a serious love affair with how the little roadster drives. The NB generation 10th Anniversary Edition that was our only car for nearly a three year period was absolutely one of the funnest cars to own and I had many an adventure in that car because of how easy and fun it was to drive. Unfortunately, the confluence of a pricey repair and a pending relocation to a much snowier climate forced our hand and we ended up parting ways with the beloved roadster in the summer before we moved to Boston.

I continue to miss that car dearly so when someone rear-ended our Focus Electric and the car needed to be in the shop for a week, the other party's insurance company offered to pay for a rental car for the duration of the repair. While I was at the rental car office, examining their available stock, the presence of an NC generation Miata with the power retractable hard top (PRHT) was rather conspicuously catching my attention. A bit of prodding around at the other cars available and some shrewd negotiation later, I was seated in the Miata and dropping the top.

Now admittedly, I find that the NC generation of the Miata is probably the least attractive of the first three generations. It is a bit too rounded and smiley from certain angles and from others, it looks like someone saw a Tylenol tablet and thought that would be an attractive shape for a small roadster. The overall proportions, from the length of the hood to the shortness of the rear deck, to the location of the windshield A-pillar, are classic British roadster. The wide stance, which gives the tiny car a much needed dose of machismo, is a welcome feature as it adds to the car's performance character as well. Dual exhaust pipes hint at performance under the hood, though are largely cosmetic, and that retractable hard top offers a clean profile that is often missing in cars that are not designed as convertibles from the start. There is much to love about the rather puppy-dog playfulness of the Miata's appearance and the desire to strike a balance between taut form and rounded softness allows it to appeal to a much broader audience than some of its competitors. Thanksfully, they did away with all of that in the ND generation that is just starting to hit the markets now.

Inside, the Miata is a poster child of simplicity. No fancy touchscreens or capacitive controls. Everything is traditional dials and switches and I am honestly quite thankful for that. There is something refreshing about going back to basics and not giving a damn that the car is not tarted up with all of the latest electronic wizardry. It fits with the mission of this car, which is to deliver a purity of driving experience. All that fancy electronic stuff is just a distraction. Of course, simplicity has its limits and the simplicity of some of the materials is erring dangerously close to cheap. Luckily, this is largely in places that you will have limited contact with, but does serve as the occasional reminder that this car was engineered not so much for comfort as for fun. One very noticeable difference, which is easily attributable to the presence of the hard top instead of the cloth top, is that this Miata is noticeably quieter at city speeds than the NB version we owned. However, get up to freeway speeds and the plastic liner of the hard top along with the metal roof structure itself seem to conspire to reflect sound back into the cabin, keeping it just as loud as its predecessor.

Luckily, the best thing to do with the Miata is to drive it with the top down. From the first twist of the conventional key in the ignition, this car screams at you about its purity. The well-designed, but not overly engineered, motor under the hood delivers plenty of power to motivate light weight roadster down the road at a suitably brisk pace while returning leagues better fuel economy than the motor used in previous generation cars. It retains its 4-cylinder character, which is to say that power can get a bit peaky, but at least the mechanical noises combined with the raspy intake and brassy exhaust note create an appropriate orchestration of sound to accompany the drive. It is certainly not the best sound in the world, but is one that seems appropriate when tossing around such a light weight vehicle. The only area where the rental failed to deliver on a pure experience was the presence of the six-speed automatic transmission in place of the six-speed manual. This is hardly surprising given that the car is a rental, but something this small and light just begs to be driven with a manual. Luckily, the automatic that Mazda saw fit to include is far from the worse one on the market. It generally responds well to requests for shifts and provides just the right amount of feedback to the cabin when changing gears to avoid completely draining away that aspect of the experience. Still, a proper Miata should never come with anything but the excellent manual transmission.

Out on the road, the ocean breeze whipping through my already messy mane, I settled in for several brief, but highly enjoyable, drives. Each minute behind the wheel reminded me of why the Miata is one of the best selling sports cars in history. The steering is not overly heavy, but is communicative and playful. It sings to the driver about the road and delivers beautifully composed operas about grip, adhesion, and wheel position. Know what to listen for and you can make this car dance beautifully around on just about any road. That delightful steering is accompanied by a suspension that operates as a finely tuned orchestra of mechanical components, delivering a wonderful balance of comfortable ride and fun enhancing grip. Even without a limited slip differential to help with power delivery, the combination of steering and suspension allows a skilled driver to make beautiful music on their favorite twisty back road. This is what driving should be about. This is why people love this car.

Sadly, the little roadster is no longer practical for my lifestyle. With the addition of a 40-lb dog to the family and my propensity for wanting to bring bikes along on nearly all road trips now, such a simple car is just not practical to own. That is not to say the Miata is not a practical car. For nearly three years, it served as the only car for my wife and me, being taken on road trips or used for our regular daily life tasks. The tiny trunk is actually bigger than it looks and is capable of swallowing a shockingly large about of groceries. The top, even the retractable hard top, folds into its own well outside of the car area, meaning that space is actually not compromised when driving with the top down. If you rarely see more than one or two people in your car and do not have large pets or children to lug around, the Miata is really as close to perfect as a daily driven car as one can get. Heck, even in one of DC's worst snowstorms when people with a million inches of ground clearance and every-wheel-drive were getting stuck, I powered our little NB Miata home through several inches of snow and slush by taking full advantage of the cars light weight and limited slip differential, summer only tires be damned.

So the moral of this story is that there are few cars as simple and as fun to drive as a Miata. Any gearhead worth his salt should take a day and just take one out for a few hours of fun. And if the NC, which is the heaviest and most bloated Miata to date can be this much fun, I cannot wait to try out the recently on-sale ND generation that is supposedly a clear throwback to the original roots of this wonderful little roadster.

So I guess the answer is always Miata.