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2012 Mazda MX-5 Road Test

The last simple sports car lives on.

What it is The Mazda MX-5's bang-for-buck capacity appeals to hardcore racers, driving enthusiasts of all stripes--and yes, the occasional fashion victim.
Best thing Sublime handling and a level of charm not seen on cars that don't require a third mortgage.
Worst thing Too cute for its own good. And it's not practical, but what'd you expect?
Snap Judgment There's no better sports car value for the money.


People often say to me, "Hey, Blake! You know about cars and stuff. What should I buy?" The last was my friend Bobby, who told me he needed a relatively new car, as in one built during President Obama's administration. He had exhausted all his options in the area and, after much soul-searching and spreadsheet analysis, had finally settled on the most rational choice he could find: a Smart. Bobby is 6 feet 7 inches tall, weighs 230 pounds, and is built like a sack of potatoes harvested by Viking warriors. He commutes two hours to work every day, mainly on frequently-jammed Interstate highways full of SUVs and 18-wheelers. He hadn't even sat in a Smart yet, much less test-driven the diminutive little golf cart. I told him, "If you're clinically insane, then that's your problem." He ended up buying a 2004 Audi A6 Quattro with a 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6 and silky, cream-colored leather seats. The last time I heard from him, it was in the shop getting a "torque converter clutch" installed, and he was asking ECKO-bedecked teenagers where the "racing scene" was.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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I tell this story to illustrate a point: When it comes to recommending a car, journalists have a few failsafe fall-backs available. For example, if he was still going through his impossibly-small-car delusion, maybe Bobby should have considered a Mazda MX-5 instead of that odious Smart. Why? Because the Mazda MX-5 is one of those cars that always gets an unflinching recommendation from members of the automotive enthusiast press, seemingly no matter what. You need a pickup truck to haul things? No you don't, get an MX-5. Room for the family? Get an MX-5 and a divorce. Want to go fast? Drop a Chevy small block in your MX-5 and blow all those "chick car" comments out your Racing Beat cat-back exhaust.

The venerable Mazda MX-5, 24 years young, is a staple in the enthusiast world. There's no other new car today that gets you the same amount of fun, balance, fuel efficiency, human-swallowing trunk space, and wind-in-hair romanticism for the price of a loaded Civic. "Why doesn't everybody drive one of these?" we lament. Turns out, there are a couple of good reasons for that. Read on.

What We Drove

Our 2012 Mazda MX-5 Grand Touring ticked the register at $29,655 with two packages: a Premium package ($1,390) that included a car alarm, keyless entry, Bluetooth, satellite radio, and xenon headlights, and a Sport package ($650) that added Bilstein shocks and a Torsen limited-slip differential; considering that the shocks alone would cost that much on their own, it's a steal and worth it for anybody who intends to drive their MX-5 hard.

All MX-5s are well-equipped already, but our Grand Touring model added heated leather seats, automatic climate control, and a Bose audio system on top of 17-inch alloy wheels and dual exhaust tips. We drove the soft top model. Mazda offers an excellent, fast-folding metal roof (open to close in 12 seconds flat) that adds only 100 pounds and another level of weather- and miscreant-proof security, but we prefer the looks and convenience of the ragtop. Plus, it can be opened with one arm from the driver's seat in 3 seconds.

The Commute

Because the Mazda MX-5 is a real sports car, you sit low, but you don't feel confined because the doors don't come up to your neck like they do in so many other convertibles. Visibility hasn't been made into a dirty word just yet, and even with the top up, sightlines are good. The seats are flat-bottomed, but sharply bolstered by the shoulders; your upper body stays put, but your butt slides around like it's doing the Charleston. The pedals could be spaced a bit further from each other for everyday driving, because let's face it -- how many drivers will be heel-toeing their downshifts in the Shoney's parking lot (bonus points if you know what "heel-toeing" is)?

Mazda was careful to move the centrally located cupholders far away from the elbows of shifting drivers, and to actually include cupholders in the first place. There are now four: one plastic-molded cutout per door, and two in the center console underneath a faux leather-lined sliding cover. All of the touch points -- where your elbows rest on the padded door and center armrests -- are trimmed in this stuff, but the rest of the interior is lined in brittle, scratchy plastic. At least the switchgear for the radio and climate control are wonderfully straightforward -- woe be the day when even the most elemental of sports cars gains a touchscreen and a multifunction-knob-controlled interface. As a sign of progress, the optional Bose sound system now has seven speakers, though unfortunately none of them are in the headrests as in the first Miata so many years ago.

Some of us found that at freeway speeds the diminutive MX-5 was pushed about by everything from grooved pavement to Range Rovers to principal lunar semi-diurnal tide constituents. Hey, that's what happens when a car weighs 2,511 pounds, as tested. I didn't have a problem with keeping the car on a straight line; the steering was nimble, direct, and lent itself easily to precise correcting. As befitting a sports car, of course, but more on that later -- it's not the weekend yet.

The Grocery Run

Being a two-seat sports car, the MX-5 is understandably limited by its practicality. But it's not all that bad--I can personally attest to the fact that one 5-foot-5 automotive journalist can fit into the trunk of the MX-5 with the trunklid closed, in the sort of pseudo-scientific inquiry that gets fraternities kicked off college campuses. What does this prove? Not much: it's surprisingly bigger, evenly-shaped, and livable than on previous MX-5s and sports cars alike--the dearly-departed Toyota MR2 Spyder comes to mind--but as always, pack light, and budget your Kroger runs.

Headroom in a convertible is theoretically limitless, but the top of the roofline renders the car strictly less than a six-foot affair. If you're of the NBA sort, the top-down, all-day-every-day credo might seem fun at first until middle schoolers start mocking your bald spot. Fortunately, the MX-5's soft top has a quality headliner and does an excellent job insulating the car from both road and wind noise. Flexible seat adjustments give the MX-5 plenty of legroom, but passengers will find a bizarre hump by their left leg that intrudes on their personal space like an unwelcome houseguest's lingering hugs.

Behind the seats are two more bins for various bric-a-brac. Surprisingly practical, they can fit a purse, or a box of diapers, or a dog-eared copy of Ross Bentley's "Ultimate Speed Secrets: The Complete Guide to High-Performance and Race Driving." And in between the seats, as always, is Mazda's secret locking trunk and gas cap release--an MX-5 curiosity since the first one. Want to have some mildly amusing fun? Bring a friend who's never been around an MX-5 to your car, hide the key fob, and ask them to open the trunk for you, which is exactly what we did when the MX-5 first showed up at the Automotive.com offices. To raise the stakes, there's no other way to open the gas cap. It's like a veritable automotive snipe hunt with just as much humiliation.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Weekend Fun

This is where it gets good.

There's a real, genuinely gratifying immediacy to the MX-5's controls. Everything from the steering, to the gearshift, to the pedals, to the driver's seat height adjuster was nice and light enough to be user-friendly, yet still satisfying -- it never dumbs down the driving experience, or insults you with its emphasis on parking lot navigation. The clutch and shifter are willing partners. They might not feel as well-oiled as in the dearly-departed Honda S2000, or as notchy on previous generations of MX-5s, but it boasts short throws, wonderful sensitivity, and lightheartedness. Teach your teenagers to drive stick on an MX-5 and they'll grow up to be future racers. And perhaps for the first time in the MX-5's history, you don't have to redline the engine to get anywhere quickly. Its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine produces 140 lb-ft of torque, and it felt readily available above 3,000 rpm in any gear.

With the Torsen limited-slip differential the MX-5 is almost telepathically agile, changing directions seemingly from somewhere around the driver's butt. The Bilstein shocks offer predictable handling with a bit of body roll, and the standard traction and stability control systems offer plenty of leeway with almost no intrusion during spirited driving. With both turned off the MX-5 is eminently driftable in a way that the new Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S are supposed to be, but Mazda doesn't want you to know that. It's no surprise that the brake has great feel and not a hint of mushiness, while the throttle is responsive if a bit overenthusiastic. If most sports cars are Rottweilers, aggressive and chomping at the bit, the MX-5 is a golden retriever puppy: friendly, eager, and perpetually happy, with a stupid grin on its face and a bit of drool on your sneakers. Recommended? Sure. Who doesn't like golden retrievers?

If your idea of weekend fun means attracting attention, the MX-5's cuteness is both a bane and a plus. If you're looking to pick up a member of the opposite sex with an MX-5, well Don Juan, don't expect much. The sort of girls you'd get with your vulgar display of financial insolvency aren't the sort you'd want to bring home, not without the latest copy of her recent vaccines signed in triplicate. No, the only people for whom the MX-5 gabs their attention are retirees in boat shoes and Tommy Bahama button-downs who once got dusted by a punk in an Austin-Healey; who, when sighting one, immediately launch into Abe Simpson-style reminiscing: "Hey, what kind of car is that," they ask from behind the wheels of their Buicks, "a Mazda MX-5? Why, I had an MGB back in the 70s that looked exactly like that, young man..."

And so on, and so forth. The MX-5 is almost so happy-looking that it can't ever be taken seriously -- Mazda, why do you insist on perpetuating the stereotype? -- but Mazda knows that the grin up front is supposed to reflect the grin on the driver's face. Maybe. After all, it could be worse. You could be driving a Smart.

Summary

The MX-5's foibles are few and far between. We struggled to come up with criticism for the MX-5: its trunk isn't very large; its gas tank has little range; it's a bit bouncy in freeway traffic. So what? It's a sports car. A second car. A plaything. Yet, it's also a machine that treads the line between all-out toy and something you can comfortably drive to work.

In fact, while the MX-5 makes for an excellent daily driver, it's also one of the last true sports cars: cheap to run, cheap to maintain, and cheap to modify. It's a legitimate working-class hero, a car utterly devoid of pretention and owner stereotyping. It's the sort of car that shifts paradigms, and changes philosophies.

Poor Bobby -- I told him to try out the MX-5, he could have obtained a pristine one for cheap, but he'll never know what he's missing out on.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $29,655
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 21 mpg
EPA Highway: 28 mpg
EPA Combined: 24 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 304.8 miles
Cost of Ownership: Above Average

Notebook Quotes

"If you think the MX-5 is cute, you're right. But if you've never driven the MX-5 because you think it is cute, you're wrong. It changed my worldview on driving." -Jason Davis

"What makes it an especially good car is that it can just as easily be used as a daily driver when you're not gunning it on canyon roads during weekend jaunts." -Jacob Brown

"The MX-5 was much more fun than I thought it would be. Its 167 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque are put to good use, perhaps because of the MX-5's light weight. You really sense all of that." -Matt Askari

"The MX-5 excels partly on virtue: it's the last genuinely simple sports car out there. Manufacturers used to build these in droves: the Triumphs, the MGBS, the Austin-Healeys, the Fiat 124s, Lotuses, Alfa Romeos, and such. Half those companies don't even exist any more, and the other half doesn't sell cars here. So the MX-5 stands on its own." -Blake Z. Rong

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