A 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Pilgrimage

The new Miata’s tires fling pebbles into my windshield. My car’s 1.6-liter engine, which has turned more than 131,000 miles, revs past 6,000 rpm, momentarily drowning out the note of the new Miata’s 2.0-liter as I bound over a crest and cut a corner like Alex Zanardi in effort to keep pace. Glancing for a split second at my rearview mirror, I see more old-school Miatas in hot pursuit.

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These are our cars, in both a spiritual sense—the MX-5 embodies AUTOMOBILE’s “No Boring Cars” slogan—and a literal one—several staff members own Miatas. And so, when a U.S.-spec 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring arrives in Michigan on a Monday morning, it meets Detroit bureau chief Todd Lassa in his 2008 Miata, daily news editor Jake Holmes in his ’97, and me in my ’93. Daily news editor Eric Weiner does not own a Miata—he’s like that fifth dentist who does not recommend your toothpaste—but volunteers to pilot the new car when we rotate out of it and hop back into our own Mazdas. “Great, that means I’ll have to spend most of the time in your little shit boxes,” he realizes. We all want to determine whether this MX-5, only the fourth new one in 25 years, is still our Miata.

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It looks the part, without really trying to. This car shrugs off most of the classic cues—no squarish taillamps, few chrome touches, and certainly no flip-up headlamps. Whereas the old Miatas seem to glance over their shoulders at vintage European roadsters, this one, with its anime face and origami surfacing, looks modern and proudly Japanese. And yet, there’s no mistaking a car this size for anything but a Miata. It’s smaller than Lassa’s 2008 and falls within an inch or so of the original in every dimension save width, where it has gained almost 2.5 inches. Some will be sorry to hear it’s still cute. Our photographer can’t suppress a laugh when I sound the horn, a falsetto “Meep! Meep!”

To give everyone quality time behind the wheel, we head for Michigan’s hilly, scenic Leelanau Peninsula. Some 280 miles north of Detroit, it’s quite a distance to cover in three old roadsters bearing scars accumulated across a combined 450,000 miles. The 2016 car presents its own worry: “Please keep aware that these are preproduction vehicles with a rather limited parts supply,” e-mails the not-at-all-worried Mazda public relations specialist. But these are Miatas, aren’t they? We lower our tops, lather on sunscreen, don dweeby-looking hats, and head off.
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The first revelation that comes from sitting in a new Miata is how non-revelatory it feels. Certainly, Mazda materials and switchgear have come up in the world, and none of our old Miatas has a touchscreen or click-wheel controller. But my right foot instantly recognizes the spacing between the firm brake pedal and throttle, and my left elbow props comfortably on the doorsill. Lassa, whose third-gen hardtop is the most grown-up of Miatas, complains that there is not as much storage space in the cockpit. “Disappointed by the lack of a good old-fashioned glove box,” he says, noting how the compensatory cubby between the seats is awkward to access. Still it seems a small price to pay for such a delightfully intimate cabin. A Porsche Boxster feels like a truck in comparison.

The second revelation is how quick the car is. I chirp the wheels from a stop and beam ahead of the first-gen cars when I hit a passing zone. Miatas sold elsewhere will offer a 1.5-liter, 128-hp base engine, but for the United States it comes with only a 2.0-liter, 155-hp four-cylinder. It feels faster than Lassa’s car despite 11 fewer horsepower and a taller final-drive ratio. Credit the low curb weight—around 2,330 pounds for manual transmission models—and an impressive (for a Miata) 148 lb-ft of torque. “The 2.0-liter engine’s torque, combined with the impressive 34 mpg it gets on the highway, make it the right engine for our market,” opines Lassa, who previewed the Japanese-market car earlier in the year.
The engine sits farther back in the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata, which contributes to a livelier character at the limit. Dialing into the first of many turns along our route, the back end kicks out momentarily, something that never happens in my car. “More like a Boxster than anything Miata drivers are used to,” confirms Lassa. Rest assured, the Mazda hasn’t become a widow-maker. We all feel comfortable disabling stability control, which, in any event, rarely intervenes during spirited driving. Body control, even on this plush Grand Touring model, is much improved over the last-generation car and feels comparable to the stiffer-than-stock suspensions Holmes and I installed on our first-gen Miatas. Only, the new car doesn’t make you wince over every road imperfection. “Your car didn’t like those train tracks back there,” says Weiner. In the new car, I hadn’t even noticed there were train tracks.
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It’s late afternoon by the time we hit the best stretch, a winding 13-mile loop around Glen Lake. Most modern sports cars would trample this road with their fat tires and powerful engines. The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata converses with it. The electrically assisted steering loads up naturally, much like the hydraulically assisted steering in the older cars. (Mazda says it experimented with manual racks but found them unworkably heavy.) Steep hills require one or two downshifts. “A lot of fun because the shifter and clutch are so good,” says Holmes. The suspension compresses just enough when turning into a corner for you to feel the forces at work. We chase each other through the trees, the old cars scrambling madly in the new car’s wake like a pack of wound-up puppies. For all the effort involved, the Miatas probably look pretty slow. They are slow. A Miata driven well, however, reveals the joy that comes from really driving.

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We indulge in this joy through the long, warm evening. The next morning is far less kind. A cold, damp breeze blows off Lake Michigan, and we raise our tops reluctantly. The new Miata’s roof, although operated manually, requires hardly any effort, gliding into place with a mere flick of the wrist. In this sense, the power retractable hard top offered for the last generation seems completely unnecessary. On the other hand, Lassa’s 2008 Miata with the power retractable hardtop suffers noticeably less wind noise around 50 mph than does the new car, even though the Grand Touring receives extra insulation. Mazda won’t comment on whether a hardtop model will return, but given its popularity—60 percent of all third-generation Miatas—we can’t believe one is not in the works.
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Of course, if consumer demand were the primary driver behind the new Miata’s development, it probably wouldn’t exist. The same number of years now separate us from the first Miata as separated the first Miata from the Lotus Elan, and a lot has changed in that time. Nowadays, most people with $30,000 to spend want something with a raised suspension, and they’re probably too preoccupied with their phones to enjoy the wind in their hair. “We may never see another new Miata,” Holmes remarks.

For now, though, it’s a new day. We lower our tops again as the sun rises and wrap around the last few curves in our Miatas, more than satisfied with our club’s newest member.

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2016 Mazda MX-5 Grand Touring Specifications

On Sale: Summer
Price: $30,885/$31,015 (base/as tested)
Engine: 2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4/155 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 148 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
EPA Mileage: 27/34 mpg (city/hwy)
Suspension F/R: Control arms, coil springs/multilink, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Vented discs/solid discs
Tires F/R: 205/45R-17
L x W x H: 154.1 x 68.3 x 48.8 in
Wheelbase: 90.9 in
Headroom F/R: 37.4 in
Legroom F/R: 43.1 in
Shoulder Room F/R: 52.2 in
Cargo Room: 4.59 cu ft
Weight: 2,332 lb
Weight Dist. F/R: 53/47%
0-60 MPH: 5.8 sec (est)
1/4-Mile: 14.5 sec @ 94.2 mph (est)
Top Speed: 125 mph (est)

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