2018 Mazda MX-5 Miata Test Drive Review: Infinite Smiles Per Gallon

Test Drive

The Miata is now more comfortable and livable, but the Club trim harkens back to what this car was meant to be.

In my circle of friends, people like to let me drive their cars. During my week with the 2018 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club, I was handed to keys to a BMW M3 Competition Package—yes, my life rocks sometimes. After a brief drive in the M3, I took the owner out in the Miata to explain what makes it so special, and the M3 owner stepped out with a smile on his face. Sure the M3 could run circles around the Miata, but get on the power for more than a few seconds in the M3 and you’ll likely be sent to jail. The Miata is about more than just being the fastest.

The Miata is not the fastest sports car in the world—in fact, it may be one of the slowest in a straight line—but it offers something even more valuable: a joyous, grin-inducing driving experience that is hard to come by these days.

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Mazda introduced the long awaited fourth generation (ND) Miata in 2016, after the old NC sat on the market for a decade with minimal changes. This isn’t CarBuzz’s first rodeo with the Miata, and we’ve detailed the changes between this car and old NC in previous reviews. The ND is vastly superior as an everyday car. Mazda didn't even offer the NC with a navigation system, and the single-layer convertible top resulted in a loud, poorly insulated cabin. Even though Mazda has transformed the Miata to be more usable with more modern features, it managed to drop around 200 pounds from the previous generation and shrink the whole car by about 4 inches.

This Machine Grey test car was the polar opposite of the last Miata I reviewed: a 2017 RF Grand Touring with an automatic transmission. It isn’t often when a manufacturer sends me a car exactly how I would option it, but this Miata Club was just right. All Miata models come with the same DOHC 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine producing 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque. Unlike the RF I tested, this one thankfully came with the six-speed manual (a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters is available for $600). The automatic isn’t terrible, but it is a bit like putting ketchup on a perfectly cooked filet mignon. Sure, it will still taste pretty good, but the meat should be allowed to shine on its own.

As with the transmission, I wouldn't have selected the Grand Touring Trim as tested on the RF, starting at $30,195 with the manual. The Club trim is actually less expensive, starting at $29,155, and is the more succinct package. In previous model years, the Grand Touring trim was the only way to add safety features such as blind-spot monitoring, but Mazda has leveled the playing field for the 2018 model year. As far as I can tell, the only noticeable omissions in the Club trim are automatic climate control, auto dimming mirrors, and automatic headlights. Let's just say I didn't miss any of these features after driving the Club.

The Club now comes with many of the niceties found in the Grand Touring trim, such as keyless entry with push button start, navigation, nine-speaker Bose audio, heated leather seats, and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. It even comes with Mazda’s’ tablet-style 7-inch infotainment screen with navigation. I’ve made my opinions about Mazda’s infotainment screen known in my review of the CX-9 SUV, but my complaints basically boil down to a lack of smart search functionality and the failure of the built-in text message reading system. Both of these complaints would be fixed with the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Mazda says these system will become available retroactively on 2018 models, but it wasn't available during this test. Interestingly, the Miata still gets away with not having a backup camera, even though it was supposed to be mandatory on all 2018 model year cars. The cross-traffic alert beeps when the car is in reverse, but it is still a strange omission in a car with major blind-spot issues. Putting the roof down does alleviate these issues, as does the blind-spot monitoring system. Overall, it is worth forgoing the minimal increase in comfort provided in the Grand Touring trim to opt for the more aggressive Club trim.

Going back to the food metaphor, the Grand Touring trim feels like what would happen if a chef overcooked an otherwise perfect steak. The Grand Touring is still nice, but the Club trim is a perfect medium-rare. Buyers who have even the slightest proclivity to take their car to the track or on a canyon road should get the Club. This trim has all the right ingredients: a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers, front and rear stabilizer bars, front double wishbone and rear multi-link suspension, front shock tower brace, and a limited-slip differential. All of this makes for a stiffer, more aggressive ride, without sacrificing much in the way of everyday usability.

While it is possible to buy a base Miata Club for $29,155, my test car came with the optional Brembo BBS Recaro package for $4,470, pushing the MSRP up to $35,240. This non-imaginatively named package adds four piston Brembo brakes up front, black 17-inch BBS wheels, and heated leather/suede Recaro seats. None of these additions are strictly necessary to make the Miata better, but they do add to the overall aesthetic of the car. The Recaro seats hold the driver in tight, though they can be a bit constraining for longer journeys. Those who are on the large side, as I am, may find the side bolsters to be too narrow.

If you discover you don't like the feel of the Recaro seats, Mazda also offers the BBS wheels and Brembo brakes separately for $3,700. It is also worth noting if you absolutely love the Recaro seats, they are not offered on the Club trim RF model. The BBS wheels received a lot of praise in my car-centric circle, though enthusiasts may want find a cheaper option on the aftermarket. The Brembo brakes felt good when I took the Miata to an autocross event, but the car is so light, it was hard to notice a major difference in street driving. Only the front brakes are Brembo branded, and on a car this light and nimble, they just felt unnecessary.

My tester was also fitted with $300 Machine Grey paint and a $425 interior package that added alloy pedals, door trim, and oil cap. An appearance package with a front air dam, rear lip spoiler, rear bumper skirt, and side sill extension came at no charge on the Club trim, as did the red roof package, which was either loved or hated. The EPA rates the Miata at 26/33/29 mpg city/highway/combined, and even after taking driving the car like a lunatic, I managed to average over 28 mpg. Though the Miata excels at getting miles per gallons, where it really shines is getting smiles per gallon.

This six-speed manual transmission is one of the best on the market. Throws are extremely short, allowing the driver to get their hand back on the wheel as soon as possible. Clutch engagement is easy, and placing the shifter into each gear is notchy and satisfying. When you shift, the Miata even shows what gear you are in on a little screen. When driving a manual, it isn’t difficult to remember what gear you are in, but it was cool to see it on display as I ran through shifts. The screen also gives recommendations on when to shift, and will even recommend a shift from fourth to sixth if it would improve fuel economy. I didn’t always follow the recommendations, because the Miata loved to be revved out beyond reason.

Once you squeeze yourself into the tight cabin, the driving position is nearly perfect and the shifter falls perfectly to hand. The cabin is a bit crammed, so fitting into the Miata may be a personal dilemma. At 5’9” (on a good day), I fit just fine in the Miata, though the steering wheel didn’t raise as much as I would have liked. If you can fit in the car, you will be treated to one of the most electrifying driving experiences at any price. Mazda’s 2.0-liter SkyActiv may be one of the nicest sounding four-cylinder engines on the market, and thanks to a low curb weight, 0-60 mph takes just under six-seconds, though straight-line performance still isn’t the Miata’s forte.

This car loves to be chucked into corners at a moment's notice. Even with the Bilstein shocks, the Miata still leans into corners, keeping the driver grinning from ear to ear. If you are looking for a car to take corners without an ounce of body roll, the Miata Club is not your car. The aftermarket may fix that, but Mazda’s philosophy has always been to keep some body roll to improve the overall comfort. The Club is trim is definitely the most firm Miata over harsh bumps, but it is dampened well, so drivers won’t feel fatigued after a long journey. Many people asked me how the soft top Miata compared to the hardtop RF model, and I am now able to deliver my final verdict.

Though I think the RF is the better looking car, I prefer the full open feel of the soft top and the simplicity of being able to lower and raise the roof manually. The RF is ever so slightly quieter on the highway, but still requires occupants to raise their voices to have a conversation. Unless you simply prefer to have less wind on your hair, I would save the roughly $2,000 premium for the RF and opt for the soft top. The Miata Club trim is exactly how the ND Miata was meant to be. It could do with a little extra power, but a modern turbocharged engine wouldn’t fit the character of this car. I prefer the Miata to the Fiat 124 Spider because it is happier living at the top of the rev range, whereas the 124 has punchy mid-range torque.

There are rumors of a slightly more powerful Miata in the works, but it still won't be a car built for straight-line performance. The Miata was built to chuck into a turn, and grin from ear to ear as the steering communicates every nuance of the road through the wheel. Few electric steering systems offer this much feedback, especially not at this price. As always, the Miata remains one of the best smiles per gallon cars at any price.

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