Monthly Archives: December 2015

Owner Review: 2016 Mazda MX-5, One Month In (Miata “ND”)

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When I walked out of the dealership with two sets of keys to my new 2016 MX-5, I had spent approximately 20 minutes behind the wheel of a Miata in my life. 10 of those minutes were two months prior when test driving one, and the other 10 earlier that day when I took my own car out for a pre-acquisition shakedown.

I have never owned a convertible. Or a 2-seater car of any kind. This is my only car and will remain so for the foreseeable future. I point this out because MX-5s are almost exclusively weekend or leisure “second cars” when purchased new. Very few people get a new MX-5 and use it as their daily driver, probably because they’re not terribly practical. The big asterisk for me is that I work from home, and therefore have no commute. If I did have a commute, I’d probably think twice about an MX-5.

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So, this is basically what a month of 2016 MX-5 daily driver ownership has been like for me. It’s not a review so much as a story.

For reference, going forward, I may refer to the car as the “ND” Miata or MX-5 – this is the internal Mazda name for the all-new generation of MX-5 introduced for the 2016 model year. Old versions were the NA, NB, and NC. Make sense?

PRACTICALITY

The ND MX-5 is allegedly the most practical Miata yet. So far, I’m not finding it terribly impractical in any sense, aside from the fact that it only seats two people.

In terms of storage, this is the largest trunk of any MX-5, and you could easily toss two overnight bags or one full-size piece of luggage and one overnight bag in the back. You wouldn’t have room for much else, of course, but that’s enough for me. Without a passenger, you also have the passenger seat and footwell for storage, and that can net you another overnight bag and a backpack.

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The main glovebox is situated between the seats.

The glovebox is positioned between the driver and passenger seats above the cupholders, and it’s not very large. You can toss some sunglasses and your USB cables and a few knick knacks in there, but nothing unusually long or wide is going to fit. There are also two similarly-sized stowaway boxes behind both seats, only accessible when the seats are reclined forward. These little boxes are great for things like the vehicle manual and registration, insurance, etc., since you’re not likely to use them for anything else. Between the trunk and all the cubbies, I’ve seen no reason to have anything simply lingering in the cabin of the car aside from my always-attached USB cable.

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One of the storage cubbies behind the seats, with its cover removed.

The cupholders are functional, but good luck reaching them: you’d have to be double-jointed to grab a beverage from one as the driver, since they’re basically positioned behind you at the back of the center console. Both can be removed from the console (useful if you find your elbows bumping them often), and the passenger cupholder can be reinstalled in the passenger footwell to the right of the gearshift so that the driver can actually reach the contents of the cupholder while driving. I generally just use it to hold my phone.

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You can see the removable cupholder to the right of the e-brake and shifter here.

Going back to connectivity, the USB ports (there are two, woo!) are positioned directly below the HVAC controls on the center stack, and they’re recessed enough that a plugged-in cable won’t get in the way of the shifter. This is also where the aux jack is located. You will notice, though, that the AC adapter is not here – and you’d be hard-pressed to find it if nobody told you where to look. It’s hidden deep in the left side of the passenger footwell, which essentially says to me that Mazda doesn’t anticipate owners will use it much when they have two USB ports available to them already. It’s definitely a practicality concern if you use plug things in and out of the AC adapter regularly.

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Seeming to make up for the not-easily accessible AC jack, there are 2 USB ports.

The HVAC system on this Club model is manual, and in my experience, it works great. The one thing I’ve noted is that with the A/C off but the temperature control set to the coolest level (recirculating or not), air coming through the vents gets hot quickly if you’re just driving around town, suggesting that the HVAC routing is not particularly well-shielded from drivetrain heat. But if you flick on the A/C, it blows icy cold. The heater, as one might suspect based on my earlier comment, works brilliantly. I haven’t had an opportunity to test the defrosters.

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The Sport and Club feature standard manual HVAC controls, pictured.

The top is absolutely no cause for concern on practicality – it is brilliantly simple. You can literally take it down or put it up with one hand at a traffic light in 4-7 seconds. It requires no strong tugging or pulling, and latches in place with a “hook” along the centerline of the windshield surround, at which point you simply pull a lever down to lock it in place. Taking it down, just pull back on a small switch on the lever, pulling the lever down, and then fold the top back until you hear it “click” into place. That’s it. Mazda hit it out of the park on this top design, it’s just so easy. This is infinitely better than a power top – there are far fewer things to fail, and it is much quicker. The windows automatically roll down halfway when lowering the top or putting it up, as well.

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The single primary latching point for the top makes for easy top up/down action.

Ingress and egress is, well, what you’d expect: it’s a low, small car that has a low seating position. I’ve found that using the steering wheel for leverage makes getting out at least not totally graceless, while getting in requires a bit of patience for someone who is 6’1”. I begin with my right leg, which I then slide under the wheel, and use my right foot as leverage against the back of the pedal box to lift my left leg into the car. At that point, I’m in. Like I said, it does take patience, and your mileage may vary on this technique. Clicking in the seatbelt is pretty easy once you get the hang of where the latch typically sits. As far as headroom, I have the seat fully reclined and fully slid back, and I have plenty of noggin space. This car is really not unusually vertically restrictive.

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Mazda’s LED headlights are both good-looking and quite effective.

Road noise isn’t nearly as bad as I feared it would be. With the top up at 75MPH, it’s really hard to tell you’re in a ragtop at all. It just sounds like a typical lightweight sports car: a bit boomy for lack of sound deadening, but not really any worse than that. Rattles and squeaks are another story. I’ve only had one squeak thus far – the driver’s headrest was rubbing against the roll hoop and would squeak loudly around corners, I fixed it by moving the recline forward just a smidge. Rattles and buzzing, though, are present. The top rattles when it’s down. The wind deflector rattles when the top is up, especially with the stereo on. The top also emits some vibrational buzzing when the stereo is on at times – the stereo really does cause quite a lot of secondary noise. It’s odd, but from everything I’ve heard, absolutely typical of every previous-gen car. Shut the doors with the windows down, and you’re definitely going to get, you guessed it: rattles. The seat belt guides rattle, for god’s sake. But this is what you’re buying, and this is how Mazda has managed to get the weight of the car down so dramatically from the previous generation.

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Sound deadening and extra rubber trim and gasketing adds weight, so out it went. Metal is heavy: plastic is not. Out with metal, in with plastic. Light plastics. Which rattle. None of the rattling is so bad as to be truly annoying (yet…), but if you were hoping Mazda had brought the MX-5 to the level of the 6 or 3 in terms of interior quiet, you are going to be disappointed. The only big road noise you will get, by the way, is from the wheel wells: they are not insulated more than is strictly necessary. Every piece of gravel you kick up will let its existence be known to your ears.

FUEL ECONOMY

It’s good. No, really. Miatas have long been notorious for their poor gas mileage, which stemmed from two issues. First, short gearing. Second, low power and – more importantly – a narrow band in which it sat meant wringing out the engine a lot more often for passes and freeway onramps or even city driving.

The new MX-5’s 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine has much more usable torque low down in the rev range and a wider power band overall, and as such downshifting rarely feels necessary for passing unless it’s on a steep incline. The car can easily cruise in sixth gear at 40MPH, and get from there up to 65 without feeling utterly gutless.

Add in the weight reductions of this new generation and MX-5 gas mileage is no longer a dirty little secret of the world’s favorite little roadster. At 70-75MPH on the freeway with the A/C off and top up, 34-36MPG is easily achievable with just a bit of diligence. I’d say 37-38MPG at 70 is not unreasonable to expect if you’re actively managing your throttle inputs. My combined mileage has consistently sat around 31MPG without even trying to conserve fuel after 900 miles. The automatic MX-5 has longer gearing, so I would suspect cracking 40MPG highway would not be out of the realm of possibility. It’s not great considering the Miata’s weight and power output, but compared to Miatas of yore (the NC got a pitiful 28MPG highway), this is a massive improvement. This is especially good news when you consider the tiny 11.9 gallon gas tank on the ND, down 0.8 gallons from the NC. At 30 MPG, that’s around 360 miles per tank – not bad at all. On an all-highway run, 350-plus miles shouldn’t be too hard to get with the top up at reasonable speeds. On a recent trip from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area, I averaged 37.5MPG, at speeds generally between 70 and 75MPH the whole way and the top up.

DRIVING EXPERIENCE

I was rather prepared for an unrefined bump-fest when I ordered my MX-5 in the Club trim (which adds Bilstein dampers and a front shock tower brace), but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how compliant the car is in everyday driving. This almost certainly has to do with the near-comical level of suspension travel for a sports car, but living in Los Angeles, I’m grateful for the forgiving nature of the ND’s bouncy bits.

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While you can tell the Bilstein struts and shocks are relatively firmly damped, the long travel of the springs means you won’t find yourself bottoming out or jolted when confronted with simple road surface changes. This makes the MX-5 very city-driveable, at least in my opinion. You also get very solid ground clearance for a car of this class, meaning driveways and parking lots aren’t a terror-filled experience. Granted, I don’t have the aero kit from the BBS/Brembo package, so I’m not sure how much easier it is to scrape with those extra trim pieces. Body roll in corners isn’t terribly apparent as the driver, though as videos have made clear, the ND does roll quite a bit under intense cornering conditions, ostensibly to let novice drivers know the car is approaching its limits.

I don’t mind the roll – I think it gives the car a more playful, reactive feel – it exaggerates the experience so that you feel like you’re going faster than you are, which is to say, it’s fun. It’s not ideal for tracking and autocross, I guess, but for the road I definitely don’t see it as a problem. Oh, and of course: it is stupid fun on a tight road. Like, how “did I ever live without this?” fun. You will smile when you whip the MX-5 around a tight hairpin, and very whippable it is.

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The steering inputs are light, as many reviewers have said, but it makes the new car so easy to throw around corners with gentle, precise inputs – you don’t have to man-handle it. The level of feedback that makes it to the wheel isn’t as much as what you’d get on a hydraulically-assisted rack, I suppose, but it doesn’t feel unusually numb or anything. It’s different, certainly, but I’ve quickly grown to like how easy it makes the MX-5 to drive under ordinary conditions. It also isolates you from unpleasant vibrations on rough roads a bit better, I would assume.

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The brakes are very responsive and stopping power builds very predictably as you get on the pedal. I love the brakes on this car – it’s very easy to feel out when you’re approaching the limits of the tires in terms of braking force, as wheel slip/skid comes through in the chassis crystal clear. This lets you learn what’s going to get you in trouble, and it’s far from having to stand on the pedal to get there – the MX-5’s pedal is progressive, but it doesn’t get wimpy as you get closer to the floor. It is dead-to-rights linear. You can get the ABS to kick in on this car without trying hard, I’ll say that much.

ENGINE

The engine is… there. This is the most potent MX-5 powerplant yet (aside from the very limited-run Mazdaspeed MX-5), though it never feels very aggressive in terms of power delivery or overall character. The engine is a means to an end: it accelerates the car when necessary so that you may propel yourself into the next corner, which is where the real fun happens. It’s generally linear, it does move the car along pretty quickly when you really let it get on its tippy-toes at the top of the rev range, and it doesn’t feel or sound unhappy being worked hard. 0-60 tests have the 2016 MX-5 coming in under 6 seconds, which is quick, but anyone doing launches in an MX-5 is completely missing the point. In addition, don’t let the drop in horsepower from the NC fool you, the ND has a wider power band overall that makes power more accessible and usable than the previous cars, and still shaves several tenths of a second off the outgoing NC’s 0-60 and ¼ mile times. The ND even easily beats the old turbocharged Mazdaspeed Miata on these metrics (as did the NC), for what it’s worth.

This means you can actually cruise in the ND MX-5 in sixth gear at 40MPH without having your hand on the shifter at all times should you need, say, an extra 5MPH. You won’t be getting up to 60 especially quickly in sixth from 40, but it doesn’t feel wrong to do it. From what I’ve heard, downshifting was generally just a part of life in a Miata until now. The ND definitely will work your clutch foot a bit less if you found that to be the case in previous generation. It also means less cabin noise when the top is up, since you can probably hold a higher gear around town than in the previous cars.

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The exhaust note is definitely more interesting than any older Miata’s that I’ve heard, but it’s not going to wow you if you’re looking for something with “performance” vocals. It has a nice little growl on startup, but the idle is very quiet. Frankly, it’s all but anonymous at anything below 5000RPM or so. Once you really get it up near redline, it does have some soulful sounds to give (even if they aren’t particularly loud). It’s playful and sporty, and I’d personally like a bit of that in the midrange, too. If I decide to keep this car after the lease is up, an aftermarket exhaust system is something I might seriously consider, though I wouldn’t want anything loud or rumbly – 155 horsepower should not sound like 300.

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As for the transmission: the shifter is amazing. Just perfect. First gear can be a bit notchy when the car is cold, but how often are you shifting into first? Either way, every other gear is absolutely amazing and I haven’t missed a single shift in this car since I took possession of it. It is a gleefully great experience rowing through the gears, and there is an absolute minimum of effort required. The linkage feels like it glides into gear. The clutch is light and very easy (good for traffic!) and the engagement point is just above the middle of the pedal travel. That said, the lighter flywheel does mean that uber-smooth shifts take a bit of practice, and you have to develop your timing and footwork to get 1-2 and 2-3 just right. I still don’t have it exactly, but I haven’t regularly driven a stick in over 5 years. Downshifting is very, very easy in this car, and while I haven’t gotten brave enough to really practice my heel-toeing, off-throttle blip-shifting has been enjoyable and helped me learn how to modulate the throttle when I decide to start using the brake alongside it.

INTERIOR, STEREO/INFOTAINMENT

The good news is that, by my butt’s reckoning, the MX-5’s rubber-band “hammock” seats are extremely comfortable. They’re supportive and not over-bolstered, and I’m really liking them overall. That seems to be the general opinion about them among reviewers, too, though not everyone is in love. The number-one complaint is the lacking lumbar support, which I can understand, though I’ve only found this to be an issue when I position myself in the seat awkwardly. For those with problems, an insert could help, and I believe there are already aftermarket electric inflation bags you can install behind the seat (thanks, Japan).

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The quality of the interior is pretty much on part with what you’d find in an entry-level Mazda 3 or Mazda 6. It’s not outstanding by any means, but it’s good enough. The twist-to-shut HVAC vents feel flimsy and cheap, though, and the sun visors are almost hilariously bargain-bin in quality. A lot of the “cheapness,” though, is likely done in the name of weight-saving. Mazda tried to pull every gram they could out of the MX-5, and when you can replace a thick fabric or plush vinyl sun visor with a simple piece of molded plastic, the trade-off in quality isn’t really a concern. Same likely goes for the vents, the HVAC controls, and pretty much everything else inside the cabin. This isn’t a car that feels like it was built to last 100 years, nor does it pretend to be, and Mazda still does a pretty good job of making a relatively modest interior at least look modern and functional.

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The steering wheel is definitely very nice in terms of size and shape, though the leather doesn’t feel of the best quality, and I’d say the same of the leather shift knob and accompanying boot. It’s better than the leather on my girlfriend’s GT-trim Mazda 3 S, but I still think I’m going to have to keep an eye on it in terms of conditioning.

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The gauge cluster is laudable for its simplicity. The tach is nice and big, and inside the tachometer is a small LCD that shows your current gear and also provides upshift suggestions (i.e., if you’re in fourth doing 40MPH, it will show 4-6, meaning it thinks you should shift to sixth), though oddly not downshift ones. I guess it’s useful enough, that I’d much prefer to repurpose this to a secondary digital speedometer instead. I can generally manage the whole “what gear am I in” thing myself. The speedometer, off to the right of the tach and smaller, has very readable markings and reads easily at pretty much any speed. To the left, you’ve got a small rectangular LCD in a circular housing with your water temp, outside temp, trip computer, and fuel gauge. Annoyingly, the digital fuel gauge has rather poor glanceability – you really need to take a look at it to see where the LCD “needle” is sitting as your eyes aren’t naturally drawn to it by contrast. I’m OK with the idea of a digital fuel gauge, but this implementation seems a bit wanting. It’s a minor gripe.

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Mazda’s infotainment system has a few things going for it. First: it’s not visually overwhelming in the least. Mazda clearly abhors the text-overload that has made many modern vehicle infotainment systems a nightmare to visually parse, but by doing the opposite (relying heavily on iconography and many different panes), this does mean you need to learn where things are. The system will not hold your hand and guide you if you forget where something is, which can occasionally be frustrating as you try to adapt to it. The simple act of tuning the radio to a specific station is probably going to drive some older owners absolutely mad, because it is a multi-step process. Everything happens on the screen – which is only touch-active when you are at a stop or under 5MPH – and the best way to interact with it is by using the command dial behind the shifter. The positioning is definitely awkward and not optimal while actually driving sometimes, but it works.

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The Club model doesn’t have navigation, so I’m not going to remark on that. Bluetooth pairing with phones is as simple as you could hope, and I’ve not had any issues with it yet. Bluetooth audio streaming also works reliably well. The screen itself is bright and visible in pretty much all conditions, and it doesn’t block road visibility at all for me. It does look a bit awkward, but I’m not sure where else you’d put a display like that in a car this small, so the packaging really doesn’t both me. Radio reception has been good when I use it (the aerial, by the way, can be easily unscrewed by hand – so maybe don’t leave it on if you street park), and I haven’t had a chance to use the CD player and doubt I ever will. If you do want to use it, Mazda is going to make you work for it: the CD player sits behind the cupholders between the driver and passenger seats. Yep.

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The Bose audio system (Club and above trims) with built-in headrest speakers (which do work well) is very respectable, though it won’t be getting any praise for Hi-Fi quality. It gets the job done and even produces a respectable amount of bass for a system in a car this size. Keeping things audible even at freeway speeds with the top down isn’t nearly as hard as you’d think, those headrest speakers are ingenious. One thing I don’t like is that the hands-free system routes calls only to the driver headrest speakers, and you really have to crank it to hear the other person at times.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall, I’m very much liking my MX-5 so far. I hope to do more posts about it in the coming months as I become more familiar with the car and its various quirks and eccentricities. So far, though, I really think Mazda’s outdone itself with this vehicle, and I am a very satisfied customer.

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