When it debuted in 1989, the Mazda MX-5 (then called the Miata) heralded a return for a previously extinct species. At the beginning of the decade, the affordable open sportscar had become an anachronistic holdout of a few European marques, with suspect build quality and poor reliability. As the band Cake put it, forward-looking 1980s buyers soon traded their MGs for white Chrysler LeBarons.
The MX-5 brought it all back, as if Mazda was running the automotive equivalent of reintroducing the Peregrine Falcon to the wild. People went nuts for the NA-chassis Miata. The NB that followed sold nearly as strongly. The NC didn’t do quite as well, but was still popular. The fourth-generation ND was a return to form for performance and feel, but it again sold slightly less well than previous generations.
Anybody who has been on the fence about snapping up one of these brilliant little cars should quit messing around, because the writing is on the wall. A breakthrough in battery technology that allows for greater power density and the preservation of lightweight, nimble sportscars isn’t quite on the horizon. And as far as mainstream manufacturers are concerned, it doesn’t matter. The weight of a big battery back is shrugged off by electric torque, to the point that Kia is about to put out a version of their EV6 that will run door-to-door with a Lamborghini.
Just as it was with the twilight of the European sportscar, we’re probably approaching the end of the chapter for light and fun Japanese rear-wheel-drive performance. Now in its seventh year of production, the 2022 Mazda MX-5 gives a heck of an impressive exit interview.
First impressions are all about the paint, Soul Red Crystal Metallic. Usually I wouldn’t bother listing a paint name, but you can get this colour on a more family-friendly Mazda crossover, and it’s stunning. On the sharp-yet-flowing MX-5’s bodywork, it delivers the look of a much more expensive car (as-tested price, $37,750 plus freight and taxes).
Having said that, it’s long been a slight disappointment that Mazda doesn’t offer a greater range of colours on the MX-5. If the company follows tradition, a few special hues should arrive over the next couple of model years, just ahead of whatever the next-generation car. If we get one.
Here, Soul Red is the sole interesting option, the other offerings being black, white, or a choice of two greys. Some British Racing Green would be appreciated.
Still, the red dips over the sills into the cabin, where the driver sits, looking out over the raised wheelarches as if you were in a tiny Corvette Stingray. That cabin is cramped — any one coming from a previous-generation NC MX-5 will feel claustrophobic. There’s not a great deal of storage, and longer-legged drivers will find the seats slightly lacking in lower support.
But, if you fit, the MX-5 fits like a driving glove. Except driving gloves are stupidly pretentious and the Mazda’s the opposite of that. The controls have enough adjustability to find an ideal setup, and the small size means that dropping your right hand from the steering wheel to snap off a downshift is the work of milliseconds. There is a six-speed automatic transmission available, and Mazda Canada does provide the option across all trims (in the U.S., it’s only on the top GT trim). But if you want an MX-5, you want the stick shift. Find someone to teach you how.
The Golden Twilight of the traditional sports car is here
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The driving experience is all humminbird-quick reflexes and suspension that leans just enough to communicate where the weight distribution is going. There’s a reason that the MX-5 has long been considered the ideal track day stepping stone for would-be racing drivers, as it instructs you while you drive. Learning is fun!
And it’s quick, too. This generation of car launched with a 155 hp, 2.0L four-cylinder engine that was a step down in power from the previous MX-5. Performance was improved thanks to a lower curbweight, but the engine wasn’t particularly special. For the 2019 model year, Mazda did some old school tuning on the 2.0L, bumping power to 184 hp by lightening the reciprocating parts and improving airflow.
Redline on this car is a zesty 7,500 rpm, at which the motor has a great induction noise. Even with the top down, the MX-5 isn’t a loud car, but it makes all the right mechanical noises as you watch the tachometer spin clockwise. Getting that top down is the work of seconds; the hardtop RF version is pretty clever too, but can’t match the soft top roadster for flexibility.
Correction: the MX-5 is not a loud car, but it is a very noisy car. With the top up, even short highway commutes are filled with wind and road noise. This mid-level GS-P trim gets an upgraded stereo with speakers in both headrests, but you have to crank it up to drown out the background noise. By comparison, the BRZ or GR86 coupes might as well be Aston-Martins.
But that’s the whole point of a little roadster like this: it’s an immersive experience. You aren’t isolated from the road, you’re experiencing every nuance of it. The only way to get closer would be on a motorcycle or in some shed-built special like a Caterham or an Ariel Atom.
This year, Mazda’s engineers tweaked body roll without stiffening the MX-5’s suspension. Very slight brake pressure applied to the inside rear wheel in a fast or tight corner acts on the rear suspension to move the wheel up slightly.
In practice, the difference is pretty slight; it’s a honing of an already well-tuned machine. The fourth-generation MX-5 drives like it always has: quick to change direction, as much grip as you need, and eager to blast out on corner exit. It’s so much more fun than many more powerful machines, not least because you get to use more of its abilities without being an antisocial road user.
We’ve already reached the point where performance numbers tell you little about driving experience. The big-battery electrics are staggeringly fast, and almost everything else is turbocharged. It’s a sea of horsepower out there.
Small and impractical, the MX-5 doesn’t fit the do-everything requirements of the average new car buyer. And, while it’s not exactly slow, it’s outperformed by any number of performance-tuned crossovers.
Yet it remains absolutely excellent at carrying the banner for the small open roadster. It’s a bit of an endangered species. But the MX-5 still delivers the joy it always has.