Just Shut Up and Drive the Mazda Miata Grand Touring

2017 Mazda Miata GT parked on a lawn

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

It’s been 27 years. Over 1 million sold worldwide. They’re a fixture at racetracks and autocross courses across the country every single weekend. They’ve had V8s, turbocharged rotaries, and electric motors shoehorned under their hoods. They’ve consistently been among the most affordable, versatile, and easily modifiable sports cars on the planet. They’ve been the darling of Jeremy Clarkson, Motorweek, and, well, the entire internet.

And yet, there’s still work to do. Because as brilliant as the Mazda Miata is, it still needs defending — if you belong to the church of Miata, that is. And in 2017, it’s astonishing every gearhead in the world doesn’t belong yet. If you’re a convert, it’s shocking the little roadster doesn’t garner total adoration. And with each new superlative piled on or auto writer waxing poetic about it, it only seems to make its detractors double down.

Chevy could make the Corvette look like a Cobalt SS, and that would be OK as long as it still had a big pushrod V8 up front. Ford could unveil a kerosine-powered two-cylinder hybrid Mustang, but as long as the romper stomper 5.0 is available, no big deal. But a cheap, compact four-cylinder roadster that can be had for well under $30,000 just seems to raise the ire of the “No Replacement for Displacement” crowd. Those old bastards can be vicious — and loud.

2017 Mazda Miata GT parked at the beach

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

There are a few journalists (notably Chris Harris) who don’t buy into the “answer is always Miata” school of thought. And that’s fine. No car is going to appeal to everyone, and a healthy dose of skepticism keeps things from getting too adulatory.

But what frustrates the faithful is the braying from the men’s rights wing of the auto world — the type of guys who loudly explain they couldn’t step inside a Miata because it’s a “girl’s car,” and women couldn’t possibly appreciate cars for the same reasons men do. These men shout at a stoplight that you’re driving a “hairdresser’s car” because apparently your identity and sexuality is inherently tied to what you drive.

At what point do Miata fans, to quote the disgraced 36th president, look at the haters and say, “F*ck ’em. We don’t need ’em.”? To be fair, it’s historically murky as to whether Richard M. Nixon was a fan of the Miata, but the sentiment is valid nonetheless. Are these stupid dismissals the last gasps of a stubborn and collectively wounded male ego? Are they delusional people who believe no car with fewer than eight cylinders could ever live up to the memory of that GTO they drove 50 years ago? Were they this dismissive of the Porsche Speedster, Austin Healey Sprite, Alfa Romeo Spider, or any of the great corner-carving roadsters back then, too?

2017 Mazda Miata GT parked on a lawn

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

And yet, Miata fans still try to convert the skeptics. Because again, for the millionth time, the Miata is the spiritual successor to those classic ragtops. I’ve had more transcendent driving experiences behind the wheel of a Miata than I have in cars three times the price and with three times the power. And since 1990, the Miata has been the closest thing we’ve had to a sports car for the masses. It’s infinitely rewarding yet incredibly approachable. It’s not fast, but it’s brilliant to drive at its limits.

There’s no learning curve here: You get in, you drive it, and you will have fun. Guaranteed. And when you have fun, you’re in a good mood. When you’re in a good mood, you’re nice to people. When people are nice to each other, conflict disappears. When conflict disappears, what’s next, world peace? Hey, the Miata people might be onto something here.

For anyone interested, there are examples to be found for any budget. But if you’re thinking about a new one, go for it. Because the 2017 Miata could best sports car value in the world. And if you’re still grumbling about the Miata not being enough this or having enough that: Shut up, and just drive one.

Exterior

2017 Mazda Miata GT at the beach

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The fourth-generation (ND) Miata has been with us since 2015, and I’ve been grappling with this since the moment it was unveiled. Is this the best-looking Miata of all time, or is it still the original NA? The NA is an automotive icon, but does its legacy cloud any objective comparison? Its pop-up headlights and smiley grille make it one of the most recognizable cars on the road. It is elegant in its simplicity. But do its modernized-for-the-’90s Lotus Elan looks hold up against the new car?

I’m still on the fence about this. The NB was pretty but not as striking, and the NC came as close to losing the plot as the Miata has ever been. So for sake of argument, they’re off the table here. But the ND not only echoes the original car (and by extension, the Lotus), but other iconic sports cars, as well. There’s a hint of Jaguar E-Type in its taillights, a lot of Fiat Dino Spider in its aggressively flowing front fender lines, and (don’t laugh) echoes of the Shelby Cobra 289 in its flared haunches and open grille. If the NA was a triumph of minimalism, the ND is a tour de force of combining classic elements to make them feel modern and urgent.

And through it all, the Miata exemplifies Mazda’s Kodo design language. Few mass-market automakers spend so much energy pushing their design language. But it’s a move that has given Mazda one of the most stylish lineups in the business. And in a pleasant twist, its halo car isn’t some six-figure dream machine; it’s a roadster that costs as much as a well-equipped CX-3 crossover.

Exterior pros and cons

2017 Mazda Miata GT parked on a beach

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Is it the best-looking Miata ever? Why not?

+ It feels like an homage to some of the greatest roadsters of all time, without looking retro and derivative. It also somehow conveys Mazda’s contemporary design language. I’m not sure how the Miata design team managed to do all that, but I’m thoroughly impressed.

+ It serves as the epitome of Mazda’s Kodo design language without being prohibitively expensive — or really that expensive at all. The Miata starts at $26,395. Our range-topping Grand Touring rang in at $31,270.

– Some die-hard Miata fans don’t love the ND’s “angry face.”

– If you live in a state that mandates front license plates, it will detract from the Miata’s looks. Especially if they’re white, the car looks like an angry rabbit. And once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.

Powertrain

engine of the 2017 Mazda Miata GT

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The Miata is powered by a small, dual overhead cam, naturally aspirated inline four, just like it has been since 1990. In modern form, it’s a 2.0-liter mill, which is good for 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, sent to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual transmission. An automatic is available, but if you’re going to row your own in any car, it might as well be a Miata.

Yes, those 155 horses are more than 20 fewer than you’d find in four cylinder Camry, but every single one of them is put to use here. Thanks to a fantastic gearbox and chassis, as well as a 2,300-pound curb weight (nearly 200 pounds lighter than the NC), this engine feels perfectly matched to the car. And it’s more than enough to get the revvy little roadster  — which was designed to have 50-50 weight distribution with two passengers — from zero to 60 in under 6 seconds. And with a 27 city/34 highway rating from the EPA, you can take the scenic route without spending all your extra money at the pump.

Powertrain pros and cons

under the hood of the 2017 Mazda Miata GT

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ It’s the most fun you’ll have with 155 horsepower in any modern car.

+ Engine, transmission, and chassis make for one heck of a team.

+ The engine loves to rev right up to its 6,800 RPM redline, and the six-speed manual transmission is one of the best in the industry.

– A six-speed automatic transmission is offered with paddle shifters. But we couldn’t recommend it over the manual car.

– We’re perfectly happy with the Miata’s 2.0-liter four. But if Mazda ever does decide to bolt on a turbocharger (a la the 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata) we won’t complain either.

Interior

seats and dashboard of the 2017 Mazda Miata GT

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The Miata’s interior is a refreshing blend of nice materials, simple shapes, and analog controls. My tester was the range-topping Grand Touring model, which had all the bells and whistles. Even so, there’s very little to clutter or take away from a pure driving experience. Leather-trimmed heated seats are comfortable and well-bolstered, and the red contrast baseball stitching on the leather steering wheel, shift knob, and parking brake feel both timeless and upscale.

Like the rest of the Mazda lineup, a tasteful amount of piano black trim makes an appearance here, as does aluminum-look trim. But our favorite interior feature could be the color-keyed door tops, which essentially bring the beautiful, flowing fenders into the cabin, blurring the line between interior and exterior. It might get cramped in there, especially with the top up, but with the body-colored bits and subtle brightwork, the Miata never feels claustrophobic.

Interior pros and cons

side view of seats in the 2017 Mazda Miata GT

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ The interior proves a modern sports car can still be simple inside.

+ We love seeing those long fenders flow right into the cabin.

+ The body color door top, contrast stitching, and metallic trim make the Miata a nice place to be, even if space is limited.

– That said, make sure you like your passenger.

– Removable cup holders impede on precious armrest space. This makes the sole front-mounted one ahead of the shifter a hot property.

– The glove box mounted between the seats and center console storage leave something to be desired, especially with the such a small trunk.

Tech and safety

driver controls of the 2017 Mazda Miata GT

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Despite being delightfully analog, you aren’t left wanting for much in the Miata. My top-of-the-line Grand Touring model had amenities, such as heated seats, rain-sensing windshield wipers, auto-dimming side and rearview mirrors, nine speaker Bose stereo, navigation, and blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert.

Mazda’s Mazda Connect infotainment system still utilizes a clumsy free-standing screen (a touchscreen here), but inputs are controlled by a BMW-like knob on the dash. Despite not being one of my favorite controllers, the system is quick and easy to use, which is refreshing even compared to more expensive models with similar layouts.

Tech and safety pros and cons

steering wheel of the 2017 Mazda Miata GT

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ It offers some of the latest tech without changing the analog feel of the car.

+ The digital temperature and fuel gauge blend in nicely with the jewel-like analog instruments. And the Tach is front and center, just where it should be on sports cars.

+ The Bose stereo with headrest-mounted speakers sounds great, even though it gets easily overpowered by engine revs (a problem we don’t mind having).

– A lack of a backup camera is fine with the top down, but with the top up, it would be helpful.

– The console-mounted volume knob and Mazda Connect control wheel work fine, but entering an address into a nav system with it reminds me how cumbersome these systems are.

– The touchscreen looks like a tacked-on afterthought and gets easily washed out in the sun.

The drive

2017 Mazda Miata GT parked on a beach

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

In 2016, I drove a 2017 Miata up the California coast from Los Angeles to Monterey to attend Monterey Car Week. Breaking the trip up over two days, I took as scenic a route as possible, alternating between the coast and snaking up through the mountains, at times 40 miles inland. That’s when I became a true Miata convert. After driving friends’ beat-up NAs and NBs a handful of times and getting hopelessly lost in an early production ND, I finally got it. The Miata — especially the new one — is perfect. Pull the overhead lever, slap the top down in one swift motion, then go drive. Too cold? Wear a scarf, and put the heated seats on. You can thank me later.

In Monterey, a small California city brimming with billions of dollars worth of classics that week, my Soul Red Miata got as much or more attention around town as the umpteenth air-cooled Porsche 911 or BMW 3.0 CS. Often, it was the owners of those cars — guys that love to drive — who got it. They know about that revvy little engine and that on a good drive on a great road, you’ll actually use all six forward gears. And they know it loves carving corners, and if you really push it you can get the tail out a little without getting into trouble. They know it’s a pure driver’s car. And that’s what every gearhead wants. You can drop a massive engine into anything and make it a straight-line hammer. The Miata is a scalpel. Which would you rather drive on a great road?

I drove another Miata in Crystal White Pearl while covering the Rolex 24 at Daytona. While the thought was in the back of my mind that it might not go over as well on Space Coast, the reception on the track was overwhelmingly positive. Go figure. At a race where driving, handling, and endurance are more important than flat-out speed, the Miata is a hit.

Wrap up and review

rear view of the 2017 Mazda Miata GT parked on a beach

2017 Mazda Miata GT | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

If I have one enduring memory of my time with the Miata, it’s this: predawn on race day, driving down to the beach to take these photos, then driving up to Daytona International Speedway before the action starts. In my Walter Mitty-esque imagination, it felt like the opening sequence to “Le Mans,” where Steve McQueen drove through the sleepy town on his way to the course. Florida’s Daytona Beach doesn’t have much going on at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. And once I made it to the track, I kept it in second and rolled right onto the infield lot at Daytona past the trailers and pits and racers.

Of course, I’m not Steve McQueen. And unlike his Michael Delaney, I wasn’t racing. Plus, the Miata isn’t a vintage Porsche 911. There were plenty of 911s there. But with most of them in the Porsche Club of America corral, they were fenced off from the general public, broadcasting to the world that they’re special, exclusive machines. That would never happen with a Miata. It’s the approachable, affordable sports car — one that deserves to sell many more than the 9,400 units shifted in 2016.

The Miata proves you don’t need a six-figure budget (and a five-figure maintenance budget) to own one of the world’s best driver’s cars. You don’t need to settle for a flappy-paddle automatic because Ferrari and Lambo don’t make manuals anymore. The Miata proves it’s still possible to build a reliable, comfortable, affordable, well-balanced, visceral, and modern sports car in these rapidly changing times. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, fine.

But if you want to experience one of the best cars in the world without breaking the bank, you should look at the Miata. Who knows, it might even make you a happier person.

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