Less than 200 hp? Check. Feels like 500 hp? Check.
If you jump into a luxury vehicle, say a BMW 8 Series or the hot-selling Cadillac Escalade, the companies' plans are to take all of that capability and distill it into an every-day drivable experience. If you felt and heard the raw power of all 600 ponies at your back on every acceleration, it wouldn't be an enjoyable experience.
Most automakers, and especially luxury ones, like to take away the sensation of speed. To get that sensation back, as enthusiast like to, car companies can either add speed or take away the things that mute the sensation of speed, like a roof.
In the case of the Corvette, Chevy has been adding power to keep that sensation of speed going for decades as it has improved and solidified the platform. For instance, take a drive in the last, front-engine Z06 or ZR1. Even at triple digit speeds, they feel planted and calm. Once that real sensation of speed comes, you're already at an unsafe velocity.
Now let's look at a motorcycle. Modern consumer bikes have power-to-weight ratios far better than passenger vehicles, and no protective bodywork for you or the powertrain. The sensation of speed is amazing. Actually, both the sensation AND the speed are amazing. The question becomes, which is more important to you? For us, it's the sensation.
Take the Mazda Miata. It was never a fast car; it was quick, and it was fun. Without a roof, and with a suspension that leans like it's going faster than it is, the sensation of speed is amazing. It was amazing even when it had 143 hp, and now it might be flawless with 181 hp on tap. We spent a week with the vehicle and besides not having to tote the kids around (also a bonus), we've decided that it is the perfect mix of sensation and speed.
Firing up the naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four, the stick shift visibly trembles as you rev the throttle, and that continues as you drive, making a deeper connection to the powerplant. The top comes down in literal seconds with one lever to unlock it from the windshield and another to clamp it down behind you. Once you do that, the engine already seems stronger.
Push the shifter passed its notchy center into first gear, touch the pedal and you can feel the vibration there too. If you rev up first gear to 25 mph, standard speed in a neighborhood, the MX-5 feels and sounds like it's going 50 mph. We found ourselves tapping the brakes as walkers moved to the edge of the sidewalk-less road, imagining the angry neighborhood Facebook posts.
Get it up to 45 mph on a two-lane surface street and you'll be sure the cops are waiting around every corner. The tachometer sits in the middle of the gauge cluster, which we found more useful than looking at the speedo. With windows down, and a cool 55-degree breeze flowing through the cabin, we hopped on to the expressway to find out what 200 mph feels like, doing 85 mph.
Besides the need for a stiffer form of hair gel, you'll also notice that the Miata feels faster because of its diminutive size. That sensation of speed, which is closely related to fear, is heightened when passing semitrucks and massive SUVs doing nearly the same speed. Lane changes are sharp, though with so much extra width to play with between the lines, they don't need to be as accurate.
Finally, taking corners and placing tires where you want them is easy, but watching as the car leans as you head towards the apex is an exercise in patience. A Corvette barely leans. You take a corner at 20, 40 or 60 mph and it just sticks and goes. With the Miata, there's some flair, some drama. The tires don't let go - why would they at jogging pace - but the car feels like the car is at the edge, which is the best place to be as long as it's safe. You can't spend a lot of time at the edge of grip in a McLaren, the penalties are too high. But in a Miata, this all happens at such lower velocities, you can stay on the edge, play on the edge, take a vacation on the edge.
Enthusiasts are usually against convertibles. They're less stiff, less aerodynamic and much of the time you can't reach terminal velocity with the top down. But if what you're going for is the sensation of speed, and enjoying that time at the edge of the performance envelope, there's no better car than a Miata. We'll also add that the trunk is big enough for a whole worksite's-worth of power tools, the passenger seat will fit a big cooler and the little roadster does better than expected on grass and mud.
If you've never driven one, and value the sensation of speed more than the bragging rights of actual speed, there aren't many (any?) that do it better than the Mazda Miata. None can do it for less than the MX-5's price of $32,725.