Review: 2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata Special Edition

The world's favorite modern sports car reminds us why it's good to be a car enthusiast.

Just when you've seen enough Pontiac Vibes and Chrysler Sebrings taking up space on the road, a snarky Mazda MX-5 Miata darts through traffic.

Odds are pretty darn good that the driver has a big grin on his or her face, for the Miata is one of those rare cars to be genuinely fun to drive on just about any road you'll encounter anywhere. And, thanks to its relative age within the Mazda lineup, the Miata is almost free of the outwardly grin that was bestowed upon its showroom siblings by now-departed designer Laurens van den Acker.

We couldn't resist the chance to take the latest special edition Miata out for yet another spin.

What is it?
Now well into its third generation, the Miata is the car that saved Mazda. It pumped life back into an automaker with an otherwise mostly dull lineup - rotary-powered RX-7 aside. The brainchild of automotive journalist Bob Hall (how come nobody listens to us anymore?), the Miata took over where British and occasionally Italian sports cars left off.

Britain's auto industry was in the doldrums by the 1980s. With rapidly consolidating parent companies unable to invest money in new and fun products, the MGBs, Sprites, Spitfires and TR-6s of yore bit the dust. Only the pricier Alfa Romeo Spider carried on the torch into the 1990s, but even it was a dated - if still charismatic - machine.

Enter Mazda, which genuinely shocked the world at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show when it unveiled its MX-5, known in Japan as the Eunos Roadster and here as the Miata (a word that sounds Japanese but actually translates to "reward" in Old High German).

Two decades on, Miata has generally stayed true to the recipe. Increasingly stringent safety and emissions standards have forced it to pack on a few pounds, but Mazda's Skyactiv engineering mantra should shave some weight for the fourth-generation model.

Our tester is the latest in a countless series of special editions. Just 749 other Special Editions will help Mazda celebrate its 900,000th Miata. They add unique interior trim and two exclusive exterior shades, but not much else. Fortunately, you can still buy a new Miata for as little as $23,110.

What's it up against?
You could trawl Craigslist for a half dozen British and Italian roadsters or you could buy a new Miata. Your choice.

Miata is pretty much without rivals these days unless you spend the extra coin to get yourself a Nissan 370Z, Mercedes-Benz SLK, BMW Z4 or Porsche Boxster. But you could get two Miatas if you went a little lighter on the options for the price of the Germans.

Any breakthroughs?
On the market since 2006, Miata hasn't been subjected to too many updates, although it did get a nip-and-tuck treatment for 2009 that give it a bit of a grin.

It still brings with it an optional trick power-retractable folding hardtop and an induction system that pipes some extra (some would call it artificial) engine growl into the cabin.

How does it look?
Although clearly bigger and bulkier than its dainty predecessors, the Miata is still a little bugger that has generally stayed true to its original design.

The shape is sleek and elegant, but we don't think the 2009 update did it any favors with its slightly happier front fascia.

The metal hardtop follows the soft top's general profile when it is erected, which leaves the car with the appearance of an elongated rear deck thanks to its trim cabin area. It's not so much that the proportions are off, but rather that the hardtop is covering a particularly small area.

We do wish that the Special Edition offered a little more than just a unique paint scheme. The 17-inch alloy wheels on our tester are shared with other range-topping Grand Touring models; they seem like an obvious starting point for a unique appearance.

And on the inside?
Miata bridges the gap between retro-cool and modern pretty well, even though any vintage effort would only hark back two generations. The dashboard reminds us of the first-generation Miata with a low and flat top and round waffle-style air conditioning vents. Simple gauges are surrounded by chrome for a classic touch, while two supportive sports seats are covered in particularly soft and aromatic leather. The same is true for the three-spoke steering wheel, which feels perfect in almost every way.

Naturally, Miata is pretty tight and confining - something you'd expect given its small footprint. But it makes excellent use of its space, especially with the top down. Storage bins abound in places where you might not expect them.

The seating position is top notch. You sit low to the ground, arms stretched out in the style of a '60s Italian sports car, but the wheel is closer to your knees than the bus-like position found in Alfa Romeos and Fiats. Leg room is good enough for the Big Foots among us and the pedals are positioned for quick responses and easy heal/toe maneuvers. Speaking of shifting, the six-speed manual transmission lever is perched right where the driver's arm falls naturally, although the armrest behind it isn't the world's best-padded parking spot.

Interior materials are hit-or-miss. While nothing looks cheap, few soft-touch surfaces can be found. At over $30,000 for the range-topping model, we expect a little more.

But does it go?
In an era of 250-plus horsepower midsize family sedans, the Miata's 167-horsepower 2.0-liter twin-cam four-cylinder certainly doesn't seem like much on paper. But the four-banger is motivating around 2,500 lbs. for our hardtop model. That's not as light as Miata once was, by any means, but it still certainly makes this two-seater one of the lightest automobiles on the market.

Horsepower peaks just shy of the 7,200 rpm redline, although maximum torque is available a little lower at 5,000 rpm. Open the hood and you'll find plastic covering the engine to hush out unwanted noise and to look pretty for the rare owner who understands what a hood release does; we wish that the unique twin-cam cover found on the original models - and most British and Italian roadsters - were more obvious. But how this engine loves to rev. Snarling and growling its way to the tachometer's lucky 7, the Miata is an adroit and snappy cruiser.

All but base Miatas get a six-speed manual transmission obviously passed down from the gods. It clutch is light, but features a positive feel, while the gear lever is precisely the kind of snick-snick device that other automakers should benchmark.

Miata will happily meander around in a high gear when you're in town, but once it finds itself on an open road - or even with an open spot in traffic - it begs to zip forward. Response is phenomenal, with the Miata's tight dimensions exacerbating the feeling of speed. We will always have more fun driving a slower car fast than anything else, for it gives us the opportunity to test the car's limits.

On a curvy road, the rear-drive Miata positively shines. Its double wishbone front and multilink rear suspension is firm but not punishing, which gives it limited lean in corners. Bilstein schock absorbers included on the Grand Touring trim level provide just a little more ride sophistication and a faster rebound. Steering is simply sublime, offering as much feel as a hydraulic rack and pinion setup can.

Miata is brilliantly balanced, but it'll happily swing its tail out given the opportunity to become a hooligan. But unlike big-power V8 ponycars like Camaro SS, Miata is infinitely controllable. It is a car that can be readily enjoyed by any driver with any skill level; we know professional race car drivers who swear by the Miata's balance.

And even though its small size hardly makes it a family car, the trunk will swallow more than you might think and it's reasonably quiet on the highway. Fuel economy isn't a strong point, however; we found the EPA's 21/28 mpg figures to be about spot on.

Why you would buy it:
Good things come in small packages and the Miata is about the best way to have fun without getting into too much trouble.

Why you wouldn't:
Horsepower is your thing. Compensating for something?

Leftlane's bottom line
It might have a reputation that leaves lifted pickup and souped-up Mustang drivers sneering, but the Mazda MX-5 Miata remains unbeatable for its accessible performance and personality. It's the kind of car that will make anyone feel like a great driver and it rewards the over-confident with its utterly unflappable nature.

We're glad that cars like this still exist.

2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata Special Edition base price, $30,925. As tested, $31,720.
Destination, $795.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz