Bear Mountain may only be about 40 miles north of New York City, but it feels like a world away. I was there on a beautiful spring day for a press drive, and weather dictated my first order of business: Drive the new Mazda Miata. It was 68 degrees without a cloud in the sky, and I had miles of twisty, unbroken state park roads at my disposal, alternately lined with lakes, breathtaking vistas, and lush forests. There were 70 cars at the International Motor Press Association event, but on a day like this, it felt like the Mazda was the only car built for the occasion.
At Autos Cheat Sheet, we’ve been huge fans of the fourth-generation roadster since Mazda pulled the covers off its clean sheet design in late 2014. Our Collin Woodard fell in love with it on a quick drive last summer, and editor Justin Lloyd-Miller and I stared goggle-eyed at the upcoming RF hardtop for so long at its unveiling that several people from Mazda checked on us to make sure we hadn’t gone catatonic. But I still hadn’t driven one myself, so I made a bee-line for the car as soon as I could, eager to spend a few minutes behind the wheel going up and down the mountain.
“Everybody says the reviews don’t do it any justice,” the tech told me as she opened the door for me.”But it’s World Car of the Year,” I said, “people love it!” As I settled into the driver’s seat, she shut the door, smiled, and said, “Yeah. But it’s even better.”
She wasn’t wrong. It was so good I almost didn’t come back.
The Miata has a grace that virtually every other car on the market lacks. It may start at under $25K, but it doesn’t leave you wanting for anything; it has everything you need, and nothing you don’t. The interior is sparse yet purposeful, with everything well within reach of the driver. Seats are plenty supportive, and the leather feels nicer than cars that sell for $15K more. The instrument cluster is refreshingly analog, with the digital temperature and gas gauges doing a good job blending in with its mechanical counterparts. A big tachometer sits front-and-center, just like it should on any great driver’s car, and the body color door caps are a great retro touch that add a pop of color in the black cabin without feeling too contrived.
It’s a small car; smaller than the outgoing third-generation model, and about 148 pounds lighter, too. Unlike most modern convertibles, you aren’t left sitting well below the door either; in fact, I had to check to make sure my 6-foot-2 frame wasn’t sticking out above the windshield and headrest — I wasn’t, but I didn’t miss by much either. All the better to stick your arm out the window on the highway and let the wind tussle your hair.
The Miata has near-50/50 weight distribution, but that factors in the weight of the driver, making you truly feel like you’re an essential component in the car. You’d think most sporty cars would make you feel that way, but sadly, many of them don’t. The engine barks to life with a press of the starter button, and it sounds better than you’d expect a 2.0-liter four-cylinder to. The clutch isn’t heavy enough to tire you out, and the six-speed manual gearbox is an absolute gem; crisp and purposeful with short throws, it’s everything you’d want this side of a vintage Ferrari gated shifter.
And while we’re comparing the little Miata to the greats, I need to mention that view out the windshield. Honestly, it could make gridlock look good. Framed by those Soul Red pontoon fenders, that long, low hood goes longer than you’d think it could, giving you the best forward view this side of a Chevy Corvette or Jaguar F-Type. This is what I saw as I climbed Bear Mountain, running through the gears, and getting as much as I could out of the car’s 155 horses and 148 pound-feet of torque. I could’ve grabbed seat time in those brutes instead, but they would’ve been out of their element — they’re just too powerful for this kind of drive. The Miata was built for this, and I was getting the full experience.
Going back down, I was able to toss the Miata through the twisties, and was thrilled by its go-kart handling, and grippy, responsive brakes. I may not have been going terribly fast, but it sure felt good. Coming to a fork in the road, I could’ve broken right to hit the parkway, gone left onto another pass, or stayed straight on the state route I was already on. I went straight, banking right onto a narrow road with concrete barriers on either site, downshifting to hear the four-banger’s confident little bark echo off the surfaces. Then, suddenly, I was on the highway with the next exit 14 miles away. Whoops.
Time seems to slow down when you’re late for something and lost in a car that isn’t yours. My heart sank with each passing sign for Poughkeepsie, Albany, and Montreal. I reached my exit, and went left looking for the onramp to take me back south. No such luck. You’re not really supposed to have a car out more than 20 minutes or so at an event like this, and I’d been gone for about 40. By now, I had worst case scenario thoughts in my head. Was there a search party? Were the cops called? Would my IMPA membership be revoked? Heavy thoughts for a Miata driver on a day like this.
I pulled off onto a gravel road, and opened the Nav system, and found my only two gripes with the car: The 7-inch infotainment screen is nearly impossible to read in the sun, and the lack of knobs for the system (it’s controlled by buttons on the steering wheel) take a second to get used to. I entered the address of the event, and the first route it came up with was a winding 31-mile route through farmlands — perfect. I turned the car around and headed back, ready to apologize profusely, and hoping I hadn’t ruffled too many feathers.
With the end in sight, I began to relax. I knew where I was going, the car was in one piece, and I was bombing through rolling farm country in one of the best driver’s cars in the world. If you’re going to get lost in any car, it might as well be a Miata, and if you’re going to be lost anywhere, why not in the Hudson Valley? In just over an hour with the car, it already felt intuitive. Every shift, every corner, every motion felt directly connected. It was an easy car to fall for, and it wouldn’t be an easy car to give up.
When I finally pulled up at the event, I was greeted with a smile from the tech. “So, you liked it, huh?” Everything was fine. No search party, no cops, and I was still in good standing with IMPA. “Yeah,” I said as I sheepishly handed over the keys. “You were right, it’s way better than everybody says.”
So I have to concur with our official earlier assessment: The Miata does live up to the hype. It does and then some. And while I tried to give it a fair shake, I’m just not a good enough writer to do that view down the long hood, or cornering through a mountain pass, or the “snick-snick” sound of the short-throw shifter any more justice than the auto scribes that drove the car before me. The Miata is a car to be driven, to be experienced by everybody. That’s the long and short of it.