MAZDA Miata, how do I love thee? Let me count the days.
Um, two. On Saturday and Sunday, the Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster is utterly infatuating, a rorty, capering sprite, the nimblest of thimbletons, a bumblebee among stumblebums. The tiny roadster -- now emerging from the cocoon of its second redesign since 1990 -- is larger, quicker and more refined than ever, yet it remains what it started out as: a pur-sang sports car right out of the old British roadster playbook (except that it will always start and it will never rust). From its fiercely flatulent dual-exhaust note and buzzy metabolism to its stunt-kite agility, the MX-5 is all about sensory involvement.
Which is great, absolutely brilliant, two days a week, when the MX-5 can find the empty onramps and lightly patrolled canyon roads to practice its unique brand of necromancy. Weekdays, though, this car is a rolling root canal. One reason has to do with the way it's geared. The 2006 Grand Touring edition I drove is equipped with a six-speed manual (a five-speed is offered in the bare-bones Club Sport model), and it's geared so short -- that is to say, individual gears have a limited range of speed before the engine hits the redline -- that ordinary stop-and-go commuting traffic amounts to a miserable odyssey of clutching and de-clutching, clutch-slipping and shifting. It doesn't help that the car's final-drive ratio is 4.10:1 and that peak torque (140 pound-feet) resides at 5,000 rpm. Put it all together and you have a car that is screaming bloody jihad at 25 mph if you don't shift into second gear.
The problem is not actually with the car, but what might be called the loss of critical habitat. On weekdays, there just never seems to be enough open asphalt to give the car its rein, especially in Los Angeles.
The MX-5 is the sort of car for which two-car garages were made.
I've always thought of the MX-5 (Mazda has officially dropped the Miata name for inscrutable reasons) as a peculiarly misunderstood car. For sheer vividness of driving -- its hard-thigh suspension, its tail-wagging cornering, its neurologically quick steering -- few cars can compare. If we're talking endorphins per dollar, maybe no car compares. The MX-5, nee Miata, dominated showroom stock amateur road racing for years and is still the ax of choice for many weekend warriors.
And yet, because it's so little -- which Americans read as cute and effeminate -- it has been derided as a chick car. Also, by virtue of its wee ergonomics, the car fits women better than men.
W\o7ITH\f7 the latest redesign, Mazda has pumped the MX-5 with some visual testosterone, most notably in the perfect-circle wheel arches cut into the sheet metal, a look borrowed from other Mazda family members such as the RX-8. These arches, wrapped around 17-inch wheels and tires, give it a more serious, four-cornered stance. Behind the headrests are buff-aluminum trapezoidal roll bars, like the ones on the BMW Z4.
And yet, the MX-5 is still pretty dang adorable, and all these styling effects seem somehow pasted over the softly curved, ellipsoidal fuselage that peeks through. The hood has a shallow depression in its center, which makes the car look like it has an infant's fontanel. Meanwhile, the radiator opening in the front bumper is just a wink away from the grinning old Austin Healey Frogeye Sprite.
The other reason the MX-5 got tagged as a hairdresser's car is it never packed much heat. A 1.8-liter, 142-horsepower twin-cam motivated the previous generation of the car, which didn't make it fast so much as seem fast, with its fit-to-be-tied exhaust note that promised the onset of a thrombo. For 2006, the MX-5 rolls with a new 2.0-liter, 170-hp unit, a rev-singing inline four with variable-valve timing, variable induction and lightweight flywheel. Matched against a curb weight of 2,482 pounds, this engine gives the car newly respectable straight-line acceleration -- that is, if you stir the gears with adequate malice. Car and Driver's testers wrung a 0-60 mph time of 6.5 seconds out of the MX-5, an act of cruelty for which they ought to be brought up on charges.
Still, Mazda gets full marks for integrity. It would have been relatively easy to make the MX-5 half a foot longer and stuff a 260-horsepower V6 under the hood -- thereby neatly ruining the car. As it is, the company made what seems like only the most grudging of concessions to market expectations and its clientele's enlarging backsides. The wheelbase has been stretched 2.6 inches, while the length and width are up 1.6 inches. By the numbers, the cockpit is slightly more spacious than the previous generation, although for me, at 6-foot-1-inch and 180 pounds, taking a 42-long jacket, the MX-5 fits me like a 38 short.