In the never-ending, and ultimately pointless, debate about what constitutes a chick car, the Mazda MX-5/Miata has been in the thick of it since it debuted in 1989.
Despite delivering a huge bang for the buck and a virtually flawless sports car driving experience, it's been lumped in with the likes of the VW Beetle, Mini, and lately, the Fiat 500. The whole chick car phenomenon doesn't make any sense and won't stand up to logical scrutiny, but there it is. I once met a guy at a Porsche owners event who declared that any and all convertibles are chick cars. Like I said, it doesn't make any sense.
Anyway, Mazda has been aware of the MX5's ambivalence and, over the years, has made it more butch and masculine in appearance. These days, it actually looks tough and no-nonsense – especially if it has the "true red/brilliant black" paint scheme, as was the case with my tester. This is a sharp-looking ride and is about as feminine as a tuxedo.
It also has some scat. Power is handily delivered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder that has twin overhead camshafts and Mazda's variable valve timing feature, mated to either a five- or six-speed manual transmission, or six-speed automatic. My car had the six-speed manual, and if you want the real seat-of-the-pants driving experience, get a manual gearbox. This particular gearbox is smooth and responsive, with rifle-bolt-fast gear changes, a nice spacing and a tight shift gate. In combination with the engine's surprisingly eager torque output, you couldn't ask for a better four-cylinder/manual-gearbox combination.
Some may find the shift pattern to be a little on the crowded side, but you soon get used to it. Mazda is claiming a 0 to 100 km/h time of less than eight seconds for this generation of the MX5, and I see no reason to disagree. One note: fuel economy is surprisingly mediocre. Although the MX5 will glean 7.1 litres/100 km on the highway, its fuel tank only holds 48 litres. That's not much, and you will find yourself pump-side on a regular basis – especially if you drive with enthusiasm.
Moving right along, there are three trim levels: GX, GS and GT. My tester was a middle-of-the-range GS, and standard equipment includes four-wheel disc brakes, a limited-slip diff, 17-inch wheels and tires, and a slick hardtop (with a glass rear window) that, when deployed, does not interfere with trunk space. There's always some storage room back there, and a small set of golf clubs will fit.
This is probably the fastest power convertible top on the market and, after releasing a centre lock mechanism and pushing a dash-mounted button, is out of sight and mind in less than 15 seconds. In place, it provides a relatively quiet highway experience and is watertight. However, water collects on the roof when it's parked in the rain, and drips into the car – and on to you – when the window is lowered. It quickly disappears once under way, however.
But what is so appealing about the MX5 is how Mazda has captured the traditional two-seater sports car experience and made it better.
Think of a well-sorted Triumph TR4 or MGB with much better performance, and you've got the essence of it. Like the British roadsters of old, you feel like you're going faster than you really are, and the connection between driver and car is immediate and tangible. This is one of those cars that you wear, and if you like driving, you're in the right place. It would also make a splendid autocross candidate; you can leave it as is or pop in a performance chip, and guaranteed, you'll be competitive.
That said, there is almost no elbow room behind the wheel. If you're a large person, you're not going to fit, and even my old Triumph TR4 is less claustrophobic. The trunk space is 150 litres, which doesn't leave a lot of room for extras, and something as mundane as having a cup of coffee while under way presents a challenge.
But that's okay. If you're in the market for this car, you probably have a good idea of what you're getting into from the get-go. Practicality is definitely going to be low on your list of priorities.
Mazda has perfected the art of the two-seater and the MX5 more or less has this market all to itself. It has remained true to its roots, is still a blast to drive, is reasonably priced and, as it turns out, is dead reliable. Older models have stood the test of time remarkably well and Consumer Reports has this one on its "Good Bet" list.
2013 Mazda MX-5 GS
Base Price: $29,250; as tested: $36,045
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 167 hp/140 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.7 city/7.1 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Nissan 370Z Roadster, Mini Convertible, Fiat 500 Convertible, Volkswagen Eos, VW Beetle Convertible