Payne: New Miata's old-fashioned fun

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

It's the simple things in life. The things you've always known. A Coca-Cola when you're thirsty. A Snickers when you're hungry. A Mazda MX-5 Miata when you crave sporty fun.

But staying simple isn't simple.

In a changing world, there are always new pleasures. New tastes. Snickers? Why not a Kind fruit & nut bar? Sun-Maid raisins? A Pepperidge Farm Sausalito cookie (oh, I'm a sucker for those). The simple pleasures have to stay hip even as they can't lose the recipe that made them must-haves in the first place. A tricky balance easily mangled. Take New Coke, the mother of all cautionary tales.

I cringe whenever a classic remakes the formula. Ford blew it with the Mustang II in 1974. Nailed it with the 2015. Now the 25-year-old MX-5 Miata — America's sporty sweetheart — has arrived at its crossroads moment. Mazda has tapped out its Lotus Elan-throwback design about the same time it's tapped out a boomer generation that still remembers what the heck a Lotus Elan looks like. The last MX-5 looked tired. Time to update the roadster for a new generation of motor heads and make it look like family (happily, Mazda's current Kodo design is widely admired, unlike the jack o' lantern face of the last generation).

But as it modernized Miata's look, Mazda smartly stayed true to the badge's lightweight roots. The Los Angeles design office could have gone all Hollywood with its makeover. More technical gee-whiz. Lustier exhaust note. Bigger front splitter. Instead, it kept it simple. The result is a Miata with the face of a Mazda and the spirit of a British sports car.

The verdict? Mazda hit the bulls-eye.

I got a hold of the 2016 MX-5 one fair day this May. When spring finally arrives in Michigan, muscle cars head to Woodward, sports cars go to Hell. Literally. To test the Miata's capabilities I took the little roller-skate straight to the curvaceous county roads that surround the 266-population burg in southern Livingston County. Blind jumps, 90-degree right-handers, swift switchbacks. Hell's roads are heaven.

Last July I drove a 2015 Miata GT over northern Michigan's similar Route 66. The new gen is immediately familiar: tight, nimble, throwable. Once again, the roadster comes in three trims — base Sport, sporty Club, luxury GT — with the manual, $32,950 Club model I drove boasting similar grunt as the outgoing, automatic, 158-horse GT. Wallet alert: The new Miata is a $1,000 more expensive, and — properly equipped — should be thought of as a 30 grand car.

Every Miata I drive is like reconnecting with my first, wee sports car flame. Yet as we age, we gearheads feel compelled to want more and more power. Like the proverbial fish story, we sit on the porch and tell tales of bigger and bigger horsepower conquests. The latest 6.2-liter, 650-horsepower Corvette Z06, for example. A snarling, tornado of a car that demands all of GM's massive Milford Proving Grounds to demonstrate its power.

The Miata doesn't need a big canvas to strut its stuff. For the MX-5, Hell's Glenbrook Road will do.

Even as the little, 155-horse firecracker loses 3 horsepower to the outgoing auto-driven engine — and 12 to the manual — the addition of direct-injection and subtraction of 150 pounds means the new car is peppier. Indeed, the boys at Car & Driver clocked it a full second quicker zero-60.

A driver's car, the '16 MX-5 has been engineered for greater pilot comfort. That means that, though the car's length has actually shrunk by 2 inches, the cockpit has grown. Driver seating has been moved inboard for better visibility which is further enhanced by a 1-inch lower front hood. And the steering wheel and pedals have been raised to increase leg and foot space. A windscreen-mounted, aluminum piece stiffens the roof reducing wind noise by 40 percent.

Every little bit counts when you're 6-foot-5-inches of elbows and size-15 loafers, I suppose, but I still need a shoe-horn to get into this little slipper.

The advantage of such close quarters is I can reach back and secure the soft top as easily as pulling a blanket over my head. Grab the shifter in the old Miata and — D'oh! Cup holders behind the shifter compromised box rowing. The new pup pushes clip-on holders out of the way to the firewall — which also opens the option (when passenger isn't present) of moving a cup holder to a passenger side clip. Clever.

I enjoy all this even as I still prefer Miata's competition, the Scion FR-S.

"The MX-5 has always been about the fun factor, not the numbers," says Miata Development Engineer Dave Coleman. Which is another way of acknowledging the stiffer Scion is quicker in just about every metric. Better grip, better top end, better raw athleticism.

But I appreciate Mazda's candor. They have purposely made the Miata softer and cuter because it is not a hardcore boy toy like the Scion, but a put-the-top-down, hit-the-open-road, bring-a-little-Heaven-to-Hell can of ZOOM! ZOOM! that attracts as many female fans as male.

It's a formula that helped recapture a passion for pure driving fun and made Miata an affordable sports-car icon. For a quarter century it has seen competitors — Porsche 944, Pontiac Fiero, Toyota MR2, Saturn Sky — come and go. And as good as the Scion and its Subaru BR-Z twin are, the Miata is likely to outlast them too. Why? Because Mazda is essential to the Mazda brand. Despite annual sales numbers between 5,000 (2014) and 17,000 (2006), Mazda continues to pour millions into every generation of Miata.

Is the wicked-fast FR-S essential to a Toyota youth brand? Will the BR-Z last as the only rear-wheel-driver in a an AWD Subaru stable?

How did a Japanese company successfully launch a British retro sports car to American buyers? By making it a brand priority. "There's a little bit of Miata in every car we make," says spokesman Tom McDonald. At Mazda Raceway outside Monterey, California, weekend racers learn to drive on Miatas. SCCA racers enter Miatas more than any other car. Heck, engineer Coleman races his Miata in 24-hour endurance races.

The MX-5 isn't a fad, it's a fixture. An affordable, efficient, fun way to enjoy life's simple pleasures. Once upon a time, motor heads bought a Miata to replace the dying English sports car in their driveway. Today, motor heads will flock to the Generation 4 Miata to replace the aging Gen 1 Miata in their garage.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: $25,735 base ($32,950 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, dual overhead-cam 4-cylinder

Power: 155 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.9 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 2,332 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 27 mpg city/34 mpg highway/29.8 mpg under Payne's lead foot

Report card

Highs: Distinctive new styling; simple-as-pie soft-top operation

Lows: Not for tall guys; you're a sports car, growl a little

Overall: ★ ★ ★ ★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★