Affordable, fun, freedom

One of the greatest takeaways from my divorce a few years ago – aside from the chance to start over, of course – is my 1995 Mazda Miata.

Not that I had to slug it out in court for custody of my attainable little dream car; quite the opposite, actually. For years I wanted a first-generation Miata only to be shot down each and every time the prospect of putting one in the driveway came to pass.

It didn’t take long after I settled into my new life to find a locally owned example with low mileage and a colour-matched hardtop – two must-haves on my shopping list. My Miata quickly became my freedom machine in more ways than one, with summers spent crisscrossing southern Ontario behind the wheel.

My bond with this car is so strong not just because of my circumstances at the time I bought it, but because it’s so damn lovable. The charisma oozes out of every corner and crevice, with the kind of innate character that’s exceedingly rare these days.

Some 26 years its junior, the 2021 Mazda MX-5 is as close as it comes to catching the spirit of the original Miata – and not just because it’s the direct descendant of that very car. Make no mistake, this fourth-gen car is thoroughly modern, with heated seats, touchscreen infotainment, and all manner of advanced safety equipment; but the execution is unmistakably the same as it was when Mazda first launched its little roadster. If you’re looking to bond with a car, it doesn’t get much easier than this.

Driving Feel: 10/10

There’s long been a balance to Mazda’s quintessential roadster, and it’s as good now as it was back in ’95. When it comes to weight distribution, only those who are deeply in tune with the world around them will notice a difference between, say, a 57/43 front-to-rear split and 55/45 – and even that’s a stretch. But what’s palpable even at moderate speed on a winding road is the 50/50 balance of the MX-5. The way it rhythmically sways is like a metronome, allowing momentum to be added (or subtracted) with the same sense of confidence and predictability no matter the speed.

You don’t simply drive this car – you control every bit of it. It’s one you become deeply in tune with the moment you climb inside, with an immediate and innate understanding of each other that normally takes all kinds of drive time to develop. There’s no get-to-know-you period, just unadulterated fun from the moment you depress the clutch and tap the start button next to the steering wheel.

Which reminds me: get the manual. While it might not be physically possible for some, those who are able-bodied enough to operate three pedals – or at least learn how – would do well to get this the way the car gods intended. The clutch action is outstanding and the shifter is sublime, making this six-speed ideal for novices and veterans alike.

Blip the throttle as you toss the MX-5 into a turn and you’ll feel it lean into its signature soft suspension to provide a sense of exactly how the centre of gravity is shifting around. There’s a bit of body roll here, sure, but it’s communicative rather than sloppy. There’s plenty of aftermarket support to tighten the ride and handling but it’s best left as is, with this little Mazda’s weight shifting from front to rear and side to side as it works its way through the sharpest of corners unscathed.

Power: 10/10

The MX-5 isn’t a large car, nor is it a particularly heavy one. In fact, at 1,066 kg (2,350 lb) a manual-equipped example like this is the lightest since the second generation. That means an abundance of output isn’t necessary to make it go, though Mazda has cranked this 2.0L up a couple notches compared to my car’s slightly smaller four-cylinder.

With 181 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque to play with alongside a 7,500-rpm redline, winding this motor out is as rewarding as it gets – particularly when paired with the manual transmission. Rev it up and dump the clutch (with traction control off, obviously) and a proper little smoke show will follow as the rear tires spin maniacally under the force of a thousand angry sewing machines.

Fuel Economy: 10/10

I’m a firm believer that fun trumps efficiency in a car like this. However, it’s comforting at the very least to know you can push the MX-5 to its utmost limits and barely burn more gas than the average compact. Officially, the manual-equipped MX-5 is rated to consume a combined 8.1 L/100 km, while the automatic version does a little better at 7.9.

My week with it was a fairly extensive one, with some 660 km of top-down driving in the early summer racked up on some fantastic ribbons of road. Through it all, I still managed to average 7.4 L/100 km – an impressive number when the recommended diet of premium-grade gas is taken into account.

User Friendliness: 9/10

Honestly, I don’t know what’s more entertaining – having this much fun while burning as much gas as I did in the Toyota Corolla, or doing it all on the good side of the law. There’s an old cliché in this business about having more fun driving a slow car fast than a fast car slow, but the MX-5 manages to land somewhere in the middle. Because nothing this side of the now-defunct Ford Fiesta ST is capable of this much amusement while staying outside of the reach of the long arm of the law, and even that car’s a close second.

Getting the hang of heel-and-toe downshifts isn’t quite as easy as it is in my first-gen Miata, but it doesn’t take long to get a technique sorted before it becomes second nature (seriously, if I can do it I’m all but positive anyone can). You can hustle the MX-5 hard into a corner, blip the gas, and glance down on the speedometer to discover you’re travelling 10 km/h below the speed limit despite feeling like you’re 50 over – and that’s one of the purest bits of joy this car delivers.

That’s truly the magic of the Mazda MX-5: its endless usability. This is a tremendously chatty car to drive, providing updates in real-time about absolutely everything that’s happening. Steering, suspension, brakes, and powertrain are all mere extensions of your own being when you’re behind the wheel. It’s the same essence that exists in my first-gen car, just thoroughly refined and modernized.

Everything else is basic, for better or for worse. Simple buttons on the steering wheel for cruise control, phone, and audio; tactile knobs on the centre stack for the HVAC system; and a touchscreen above them for infotainment purposes. Unfortunately, it’s rendered useless when the car’s in motion, making the controller on the console the only way to interact with the laggy and outdated interface. That’s all well and good when navigating Mazda’s system, but when it’s time to use either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay it’s a lost cause, with endless scrolling that’s far more distracting than a couple taps of a touchscreen.

Safety: 7/10

On the safety front, Mazda has included a decent selection of advanced technologies to accompany the basics. Of course, there’s traction and stability controls, hill-start assist to keep the car from rolling backwards as the clutch is released, and the back-up camera that the federal government mandated a few years ago, as well as a quartet of airbags inside. Advanced items include blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, and low-speed automatic emergency braking both front and rear – and that’s all standard across the lineup.

Features: 8/10

I tested the MX-5 GS-P, which might well look like the tail number on a plane but it’s actually the sweet spot in the lineup for both what’s included and what’s available. Building on the fundamentals of the base car, it adds a limited-slip differential, strut tower brace, and a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein shocks at all four corners. The caveat is that those upgrades are exclusive to the manual-equipped car, providing a trio of outstanding reasons to pick three pedals instead of two.

A sport package can also be added to the manual GS-P and brings with it Brembo front brakes, BBS wheels, and Recaro seats – all nice touches for the combined $4,400 they add to the price. Whether or not the Recaros are added, the seats are heated (not the case in the base trim) and get a pair of headrest speakers each for both the driver and passenger.

Otherwise, the equipment is mostly the same as the cheapest trim. That means power windows and locks and automatic LED lighting all around to go with manually adjustable seats and a basic climate control system – though it does include air conditioning. There’s also that touchscreen infotainment system with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections, but no satellite radio or built-in navigation (it’s not a good system anyway, but it can be added through the purchase of a $475 SD card loaded with the maps software).

Practicality: 7/10

My advice? Skip the pricey accessory and use Google Maps through your phone instead. Or don’t use navigation at all. This is a car that was built for you and a companion to get lost in cruising the countryside. The trunk isn’t big by any stretch, but there’s enough room for an overnight bag or two. I even managed to stash a folding camping chair in the back during testing.

Comfort: 8/10

It’s not exactly spacious up front, with a cozy cockpit that’s far from a one-size-fits-all affair. At 6-foot-3, the only way I fit inside with the roof up is to slouch in my seat – a seat that features narrow lower bolstering (at least with the optional Recaros), forcing my thighs to rest rather uncomfortably on top. But then this is a car to be driven with the top down as much as possible, so stash a hat and some sunscreen in the storage bin between the seats and thank me later.

It’s also a car that packs some surprising road comfort, with that soft suspension doing well to smooth out all kinds of bumps before they spill that morning coffee (unlike my Miata, this car actually comes with cupholders). Keep the windows up while driving with the top down and it’s even quiet enough to hold a conversation, with the wind barely whistling across the top of my head that poked above the windshield.

Styling: 9/10

It’s nothing against the MX-5 RF and its targa-like retractable hardtop, but I happen to prefer the presentation of this roadster version. There aren’t many stylistic similarities to my cheerful and chipper first-gen car – what I wouldn’t give for Mazda (or any other automaker, for that matter) to bring back pop-up headlights – but this latest version is a looker nonetheless. Inside, it gets colour-matched panels on the doors to go with the exterior finish, and circular air vents that pay tribute to my car’s original design. Otherwise, it’s a simple space for two, which has its pros and cons.

Value: 9/10

Should you care only about the basics of the Mazda MX-5 you can get into the cheapest model for $35,050 before tax but including a non-negotiable freight charge of $1,850. That’s a few grand less than the convertible versions of both the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro – this car’s closest drop-top competitors, although that’s not saying much. The upcoming Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ twins are similar in performance and will undercut that price by at least a few grand, but then both are coupes.

Moving up to the GS-P trim brings with it some meaningful upgrades like the limited-slip diff and sporty suspension for its $4,000 premium, and rings in at $39,050 before tax. It also unlocks the optional Sport pack that sweetens the pot with those factory upgrades for $4,400 more, while the GT trim does without it for $42,150 before tax. Should the six-speed manual transmission be out of the question, the six-speed automatic is a no-charge upgrade across the lineup.

The Verdict

The 2021 Mazda MX-5 is a lot of car for the money – well, not physically, mind you, but as a total performance package. It’s not particularly quick in a straight line, but trust me: it’s got more than enough giddyup to satisfy the need for speed. And more importantly, it’s plenty quick in the corners, which is a key trait that dates back to the earliest days of this car’s development back in the 1980s.

Which brings us back to my ’95 Miata. This isn’t some tale about a sports car being my salvation, or how people can hurt you but machines won’t (at least not emotionally). No, it’s as simple as finding that bond that can sometimes only be created with a car.

My Miata helped me through a difficult time in my life – but perhaps more importantly, it helped me rediscover my independence. And I hope one day it can do the same for someone else. Not that I’m in a rush to part with it, but eventually the day will come when it’s time to move on – to make new memories in a new machine. If you can’t wait for that day to come, you might just find what you’re looking for in the 2021 Mazda MX-5.