When I was around 10, my dad surprised me with what still ranks as one of the best gifts I've ever received. I had just walked home from school and lo and behold, awaiting my arrival was a go-kart. Unbeknownst to me, my father had scrimped and saved to buy this from a neighbor. It had uneven red paint, a 3-horsepower engine that drove one wheel on a solid rear axle, and tires that had already lived a few lives. And it was amazing, the essence of liberation that, until then, I never knew existed.
That day sparked my decades-long love affair with motorized vehicles and is what I consider the catalyst to me becoming an automotive journalist. Over the years I drove countless miles in that go-kart, taking advantage of the fresh asphalt at commercial buildings as they blossomed in what was then bourgeoning Orange County, California. Those weekends of pedal-to-the-metal driving are some of my fondest childhood memories. In reality I probably wasn't going all that fast, but at the time -- and because of the fact that I was sitting mere inches from the ground -- it felt like I was doing Mach 3.
Every time I drive a Mazda MX-5 Miata these memories rush back, their intensity in direct correlation with my right foot. You've probably heard it said how Mazda's little roadster is essentially a go-kart for adults. This is true. I've owned a second-gen model for a decade, and experienced these thrills on a daily basis. In a Miata, even a trip to the grocery store induces grins. This is still the case, even as the Miata has grown more civilized over the years since its 1990 model debut.
Now in its third generation, you can even get one with a retractable hardtop roof, a la a Mercedes-Benz SLK or BMW Z4. Yet the Miata's basic recipe remains the same: two seats, a peppy-but-not overpowering 4-cylinder engine, rear-wheel drive, and one of the best manual transmissions in the business (yes, an automatic is offered, but in addition to committing potential Miata blasphemy, you'll be missing out on the full engagement this roadster offers).
The Miata continues to offer basic creature comforts and a decent stereo system, but you won't find newer technology like USB audio inputs or even an available navigation system. On the highway, the Miata remains rather loud and stiff, even in the retractable-hardtop version like the one I had on a recent weekend. The motor buzzes at freeway speeds and -- this shouldn't come as a surprise -- interior space isn't exactly abundant, though the trunk is big enough for several shopping bags. And where is the Miata's fuel-door release? Oh, that's right: oddly placed behind the seats, hidden within the small storage compartment.
Yet my wife and I couldn't get enough of it.
That's because there is magic to a Miata, and the cost of entry isn't steep. A base 2014 MX-5 Miata with a soft-top roof opens at $24,515, while a retractable hard-top model starts at $29,460. The Miata is a driver's car through and through, evidenced by its status as the world's best-selling 2-seat roadster and its presence on racetracks far and wide. But you don't need to be an SCCA racer flinging around a track to have fun in a Miata. You can take similar joy in the twisty route to the aforementioned grocery store. The Miata is proof that you don't need a thousand horses under the hood to have an exciting experience behind the wheel. Big and powerful cars are fun, but after about 4 seconds you'll likely find yourself breaking some law, and straight-line acceleration gets old after a while anyway -- not to mention the fuel they gulp.
The Miata is not like that. With 167 horsepower moving about 2,600 pounds (or roughly 2,500 for the soft-top version) it's spry but won't pin you to the back of the seat. Yet in many respects it feels faster than a much more expensive sports car. Remember that go-kart analogy? Here's where it comes into play: the way the Miata can hug a turn. Every corner becomes an opportunity to smile.
And to think, I haven't even mentioned the euphoria felt with the top down. Back when I owned one of these, I considered nighttime cruises on a warm California night as therapy for the soul. Years later, the Miata still tugs at mine. But with those years has also come the need to own a car that can carry more than two people and a couple of water bottles, and the desire to actually be comfortable on my daily crawl to work. For those reasons I wouldn't use one again as a daily driver, but if -- and when -- my garage can house an extra vehicle, I'd welcome a Miata the way I did that childhood go-kart.
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