Review: 2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata

The Good: British sports car handling, low price, retractable hard top

The Bad: Downscale interior with little storage, mediocre fuel economy

The Bottom Line: Minimal price, maximal fun

Make: Mazda

Model: MX-5 Miata

Model Year: 2011

Body Type: Two-door, two-passenger

Price Class: Mid-range

Product Name: Mazda MX-5 Miata

Up Front

The MX-5 Miata is the Ivory Soap of sports cars, one of the few long-enduring models that marketers haven’t diluted to the point of ruination with line extensions and plus-sizing. The Miata has evolved over the years but remains pretty much what it was when Mazda (7261:JP) first introduced it back in 1990: an affordable, fun-to-drive take on classic rear-wheel-drive British sports cars such as the Austin-Healey, MG, and Triumph. It’s a perennial entry in Car and Driver‘s list of the 10 best cars of the year.

With the demise of General Motors’ (GM) Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, and Honda’s (HMC) S2000, the Miata also is the only car in its class. Its closest competitor is probably BMW’s (BMWA:GR) Mini Cooper Convertible, which is a fine car but doesn’t have classic sports car roots. German competitors, such as the BMW Z4 and Porsche Boxster, cost far more.

The great thing about the Miata is that you can afford to buy one on a whim without breaking the bank. Starting price is $23,905 for a basic Sport with a stick shift, rising to $26,245 for the Touring, $27,505 for the Grand Touring, and $31,720 for the limited-production Special Edition being offered this year. An automatic transmission costs $2,260 extra in the Sport but only $1,100 in the Touring and GT, and $600 in the SE.

The trade-off is that the MX-5 Miata is underpowered compared with higher-end sports cars on the market. Under the hood is a 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder engine rated at 167 horsepower with a stick shift and 158 hp with a six-speed automatic with steering-wheel paddle shifters. The stick shift is a five-speed in the Sport and a six-speed in higher trim levels.

However, the appeal of British sports cars was always their emphasis on finesse over raw power. The Miata feels surprisingly quick and nimble because it only weighs between 2,447 lb. and 2,619 lb., depending on its top and transmission. By comparison, a Chevy Corvette Grand Sport Convertible weighs nearly 3,300 lb., a BMW Z4 convertible 3,252 lb., a Porsche Boxster Spyder 2,811 lb., and a Porsche Cayman R 2,855 lb. At about 2,700 lb., even a Mini Cooper Convertible weighs more.

Given its diminutive size, the Miata’s fuel economy is disappointing, especially considering that expensive premium gasoline is recommended. The base-model Sport with a five-speed stick shift is rated to get 22 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway, 24 on average. Mileage drops slightly to 21/28/24 with the six-speed stick shift, and 21/28/23 with the automatic.

The Mini Cooper Convertible does much better: It’s rated at 28/35/31 with a manual transmission and 27/36/30 with an automatic. Even much heavier and more powerful rivals come close to matching the Mazda’s fuel economy. The BMW Z4 convertible is rated at 18/28/22, and the Porsche Boxster at 19/27/22 with a stick shift and 20/29/24 with an automatic (yup, Porsches are not only quicker but get better mileage with the high-tech PDK automatic than with a stick shift).

The 2011 Miata doesn’t have government crash-test ratings but standard equipment includes antilock brakes, braking assist and brake force distribution, seat-belt pretensioners, and front and side air bags.

The Miata is a niche model that accounts for less than 3 percent of Mazda’s U.S. sales (which are dominated by the compact Mazda3). Miata sales fell slightly, to 3,085, in the first six months of this year while Mazda’s overall U.S. sales rose 5.8 percent, to 122,379.

Behind the Wheel

There’s a reason the Miata is a favorite of weekend racers ("A Fast Look at Amateur Auto Racing"): This car offers tons of fun per dollar spent. The Miata accelerates from zero to 60 in about seven seconds, but it feels quicker. The car is so light and small that it skates through curvy winding roads. When you hit gravel or rough patches of pavement, it slides and hops a little, which to my mind is a good thing.

If you’re really into sporty driving, consider opting for a stick shift and the suspension package that come together in the Touring, Grand Touring, and Special Edition trim levels. As mentioned above, the horsepower rating rises by nine with a stick shift. The suspension package, which costs $500 in the Touring and Grand Touring but comes standard in the SE if you opt for the stick shift, improves handling by adding sport-tuned Bilstein shock absorbers, a larger rear stabilizer bar, and a limited slip differential.

If you’re more interested in comfort than handling, consider the retractable hardtop. The soft top is lighter and relatively easy to raise and lower (most drivers can do it with one hand). The hardtop adds about 80 lb. to the car’s weight but also makes the cabin quieter and provides extra protection from the elements during winter driving. It’s very easy to use: You undo a latch at the top middle of the windshield and push a button. The top glides into a covered space between the seats and trunk in about 12 seconds, and raises up just as easily.

Trunk space is 5.3 cu. ft., with the top up or down and whether you go with the ragtop or the retractable hardtop. That’s par for the course for a sports car but barely enough for two people on a weekend jaunt if they pack carefully. Stuffing two golf bags into the trunk would be a chore.

The Miata’s interior isn’t one of the car’s strong points. The pale-gray leather seats in my test car, the Special Edition, were good-looking and seemed to be well-made and durable. But nice-looking seats couldn’t offset the ugly black plastic on the dash, doors, and rear wall of the cabin. The downscale materials in the cabin give it the look of an economy rental car. However, that’s one reason the Miata’s list price is so low.

There’s very little storage space in the cabin, though there is a little lockable storage box between and behind the seats. One oddity: You open the gas door by pulling on a little loop in the lock box. This makes sense, I guess, because locking the box protects you from gasoline thieves, but it’s a bit cumbersome.

Buy It or Bag It?

There’s nothing with the Miata’s 24-grand base price that can compete with its sportiness. The Mini Cooper convertible, which starts at $25,550 with a stick shift and $26,800 with an automatic, comes closest and doesn’t cost much more if you want an automatic transmission. Alternatives such as the six-cylinder Ford (F) Mustang and Chevy Camaro convertibles start at $28,105 and $30,125, respectively, but aren’t really the same sort of vehicle. You get the ragtop (and a rear seat), but not the quickness and handling of a sports car.

I test-drove the Miata not long after testing the Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4, an SUV-style version of the Mini Cooper whose weight has ballooned to 3,208 lb. I was overjoyed that Mazda hasn’t done anything stupid (like making the Miata bigger or adding all-wheel drive) that would alter the little sports car’s driving dynamics. Even with the additional weight of a retractable hardtop, the Miata zips around like a hyperactive water bug. This is a great little second or third car for shoppers on a tight budget.

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