Payne: Mazda's sporty MX-5 Miata is a great escape

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Two months into the COVID-19 shutdown, Michigan motorheads were taking to their sports cars for some therapeutic social-distancing. Metro Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, suburban twisties and country roads were suddenly full of spring songbirds: the sharp call of the Porsche flat-six, the gurgling growl of the Mustang V-8, the throaty bark of the Corvette.

One of my favorite getaway rides is the 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster.

That’s assuming you can still fit in it, of course. Living within a few feet of my refrigerator in lockdown for weeks with limited access to my usual sports routines had me concerned when the MX-5 arrived in my driveway in late April.

The cockpit of the 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata. Manual and automatic 6-speeds are available, but the manual is particularly enjoyable for throwing the wee sports car around.

I’m 6-foot-5 and probably that wide by now. Could I still fold into the wee Mazda’s cabin? It wasn’t easy. The Miata should come with a giant shoehorn — if it had more than 4.6 cubic feet of cargo space to put it in. I wedged in sideways between the steering wheel and seatback, then yanked the manual bar to pull the seat all the way back.

It was already back. I always underestimate just how tiny this mouse is.

I rotated my giant frame, stuffing my head into the roof, both knees in the dash, then adjusting the steering column in my lap. Watching my friend John — a fellow ex-basketball player with another inch on me — perform the same feat was like watching toothpaste being stuffed back into its tube.

How tiny is the MX-5 cabin? It doesn’t have room for cupholders. Instead, clip-on cupholders are provided that hang off the center console into the passenger seat. How tiny? There isn’t room for a glovebox under the dash so it’s located in the firewall behind the driver.

The cabin might have less shoulder room than Delta coach class. You can smell what your passenger had for breakfast. I recommend driving with intimate acquaintances, so I took Mrs. Payne for an afternoon outing.

The 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata features classic, analog gauges — with the tachometer right in the center, naturally.

First things first. I popped the cloth roof, then — in one motion — buried it in the boot. Click and it’s done, as easy as storing a blanket in a dresser drawer. The spring air was invigorating and my cranium relieved. My wife eyed my head sticking above the windshield nervously — is it now the car’s roll bar? — but her worries were fleeting as the wind swept her hair back and the pleasure of a topless sports car washed over us.

Once stuffed into the wee Mazda, it is pure joy. You don’t so much sit in a Miata as wear it. Like hand in glove, the car is an extension of me.

The Miata is Mazda’s halo vehicle, its sporty DNA infecting everything in the Japanese maker’s lineup including its three-row CX-9 SUV. For 30 years MX-5 has stayed true to its purpose: serving fun in an affordable package.

The 2020 Mazda Miata offers Apple Car Play and Android auto app compatibility on upper trim models. The feature enables navigation as good as your smartphone.

While other performance cars have grown (looking at you, Mini Cooper) the 2020 MX-5 is remarkably similar in size to the 1989 original. The fourth-generation model tips the scales at 2,339 pound, just 119 heavier than Gen One. The MX-5 has been a lot more disciplined in its diet over the years than I have.

“Mazda is dedicated to the purity of the MX-5 Miata,” says Mazda in its press materials. “The Guinness World Record holder for the best-selling two-seater sports car.” Here’s to purity.

As important, the Miata has actually gotten cheaper over time, costing about $200 less in inflation-adjusted dollars today than 1989 despite gaining 50 more horsepower, the latest safety features and a suite of modern electronics.

New for 2020, for example, MX-5 sports standard features like blind-spot assist, rear-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and 7-inch tablet touchscreen. Step up to the Club and Grand Touring models (like my $32,790 tester) and you get Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, too.

The latter is my wife’s favorite feature, and she immediately plugged in her iPhone and we set course for Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor for lunch. Satisfied that I could still fit in the MX-5, I figured a Reuben sandwich wouldn’t hurt.

With our Google guide leading the way, heated leather seats and the automatic climate-control cranked to 75 degrees, the Miata’s open cabin was surprisingly comfortable on a 60-degree spring day. My wife and I could even converse above the wind noise given our close proximity.

The 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata shows off the evolution of Mazda's design from Lotus wannabe to a style in keeping with the Mazda family.

The discomfort comes in proximity to other vehicles. On I-696, I was acutely aware of how small the Miata was compared to the rest of the auto kingdom. My mouse was surrounded by herds of SUV wildebeests and towering semi-truck elephants. On two occasions, SUVs cut across my nose, oblivious to my presence. So good is the roadster’s visibility, however, that I could see all four corners of my steed at all times.

After lunch, we headed to Huron River Road in Washtenaw County, its berms busy with boaters and hikers escaping from another COVID-induced Groundhog Day.

Despite the traffic, there was still room to play.  The Huron River is a delightfully twisted, natural Miata habitat. The roadster’s light weight means a healthy power-to-weight ratio, and I rowed the 2.0-liter four-banger hard over dips and turns. My Grand Touring model amped up the sportiness with Bilstein dampers for a firmer ride, but the MX-5 is never harsh.

True to its wee ’60s English sports car forefathers, MX-5 still comes with a manual transmission and I recommend it highly. Its shifts are precise and the car’s pedal placement perfect for easy heel-and-toe downshifts — even in my size 15s.

Weighing just 2,339 pounds, the 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata gets nice power from its 181-horse, 2.0-liter engine.

The Miata may give up storage space to its affordable Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 competitors, but its engine is more responsive. And unlike muscular, high-horsepower Corvette and Mustang convertibles that need more acreage to stretch their V-8 legs, Miata can be flung around on small rural roads with plenty of room to spare.

Perhaps the MX-5’s most underrated feature is its styling. Mazda took a big gamble in its Gen 4 upgrade by ditching its retro-Lotus styling for a more 21st-century Mazda design. It’s stunning, and the MX-5’s athletic lines and lean face are always easy on the eyes.

It might inspire me to lose a few pounds myself after this COVID thing is over.

The 2020 Mazda MX-5 continues a 30-year Miata legacy of small, sub-2,500-pound cars that are fun on the track and off.

2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, 2-passenger sports car

Price: $27,500, including $920 destination charge ($32,790 Grand Touring model as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter four-cylinder

Power: 181 horsepower, 151 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual (as tested); 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 140 mph

Weight: 2,339 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA 26 city/ 34 highway/ 29 combined (manual); 26 city/ 35 highway/ 30 combined (automatic)

Report card

Highs: Throwback purist’s sports car; modern electronics

Lows: Tight fit for 6-footers; limited storage space

Overall: 4 stars

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