Historically, the maxim dictating that sports cars are worth enthusiast consideration only when equipped with a manual was true for the Mazda MX-5 Miata. This cute little convertible became the “chick car” poster child after BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche dived into the roadster fray in the mid-1990s and swiped Mazda’s wealthier customers, and though loyalists continued to recognize the Miata as a true sports car, any of them equipped with a four-speed automatic were unceremoniously shoved into the shadows, all but ignored by the car’s most ardent fans. Already on the borderline between adequately powered and underpowered, the Miata with an automatic was slower, heavier, thirstier, and less fun to drive.
With the redesigned 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata, however, everything changes. People who don’t know how to shift gears for themselves, or who choose not to because of long commutes in traffic, aren’t relegated to driving the ultimate “chick car” by choosing a Miata with an automatic transmission. This year, Mazda installs a six-speed automatic in the MX-5 Miata, complete with a manual shift gate and paddle shifters on the steering wheel. We’d heard that this new clutch-less transmission was a huge improvement over the outgoing car when equipped with an automatic, that it didn’t negatively impact the MX-5 Miata’s fun-to-drive nature, and that it might actually be preferable to the manual transmission. So we decided to spend a week with one to see for ourselves.
Mazda loaned us a Winning Blue 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata, equipped with the new six-speed automatic and Grand Touring trim. This is the top trim level for the new MX-5, not counting the low-volume 3rd Generation Limited model, and it comes equipped with all the bells and whistles. It’s got the same 2.0-liter engine as the standard Miata, but with the automatic the power rating falls from 170 horsepower to 166 horsepower and the curb weight rises by 29 pounds. City fuel economy drops from 24 mpg with the six-speed manual to 23 mpg with the six-speed automatic, but highway fuel economy remains pegged at 30 mpg. We got an impressive 28.4 mpg during a week of driving.
When we had to give the keys back to Mazda, our staff decided that choosing the MX-5 Miata with an automatic had no discernable effect on performance or handling, and that it might actually be the best choice if the car is used as a daily commuter. Admittedly, we missed the added driver involvement that comes with a manual transmission, except when slogging home from the office on southern California’s notoriously clogged 405 expressway. More surprising, some staff members felt the paddle-shifting automatic was smoother and faster than using a clutch pedal, making the Miata more fun to drive hard on a favorite mountain road.
Does the Miata’s capable automatic transmission, along with sequential manual gearboxes like Volkswagen’s Direct Shift Gearbox, portend the death of the manual transmission? Certainly it does. And while die-hard enthusiasts would never consider anything without three pedals in the driver’s footwell, average consumers can drive a 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata with an automatic transmission knowing that the choice won’t dull the fun of driving the world’s best selling roadster, whether the sun is shining or not.
Opening the door on a Mazda Miata and seeing an automatic transmission staring back at you can be a real buzz kill. Or at least I thought that until about 30 seconds into my drive of the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata equipped with a new six-speed automatic with paddle shifters. It seems that no matter the transmission set up, a Miata is always fun to drive, and by throwing in paddle shifters Mazda has kicked the fun factor up a notch.
The automatic is tight and smooth whether you are using the paddles or not, and the low-end torque launches you from a stop almost as well as a manual transmission will. Downshifts are monitored by software that doesn’t allow one to occur if the rpm’s are too high. Try to downshift at the inappropriate time and the dash display showing your current gear just flashes at you as if giving you a raspberry. In manual mode, the computer does automatically downshift to first gear if you forget and will even let you do a second-gear start. Even with an automatic transmission, this is the same taut and tight little go-cart we have all come to love and admire – but with just a little different twist on the driving experience.
Thom Blackett’s 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata Driving Impressions:
Getting the keys to a Mazda MX-5 (or Miata, or whatever the company decides to call it this week) with an automatic transmission is like picking up Pam Anderson, only to have her greet you wearing a chastity belt. The idea of fun just seems to slip away.
There’s no telling how well the resulting evening with Ms. Anderson would go, though it would surely be filled with stimulating conversation and endless inner frustration. The MX-5, on the other hand, proves to be nearly as playful without a clutch pedal as it is with one. Engine power is always at the ready with just a slight punch of the accelerator, and the paddle shifters allow the driver to ring out the little four-banger for all its worth. Handling is tremendous, making quick slices through traffic a simple affair. With its tiny body, the MX-5 is a blast to toss into tight spaces on southern California’s 405 freeway. And when the occasional driver gets peeved at your dicey moves, use the paddle shifters to drop a few gears and leave that stressed commuter in your dust.
Quite frankly, I’ve never been a Miata/MX-5 fan because of the car’s cute looks and egregious impracticality. However, that perspective softens each time I get behind the wheel, especially when this little ride can provide fun with an automatic transmission.
Christian Wardlaw’s 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata Driving Impressions:
I caught Miata fever driving a 1994 model equipped with an automatic transmission, and became an owner after sampling several with a manual. Since that time, I’ve owned four Miatas, all with a dedicated clutch pedal. It’s not that Miatas equipped with automatic transmissions are dull to drive – anything this tossable with a convertible top is gonna be fun to some degree – but true enthusiasts like to choose their own gears and be involved with the driving.
But now, with the debut of a new six-speed automatic on the redesigned 2006 Mazda MX-5, I may need to reconsider the benefits of keeping my left leg planted on the dead pedal. The excellent Audi/Volkswagen Direct Shift Gearbox has already impressed me as a reasonable substitute for a true manual, and as far as one of my favorite sports cars is concerned, the MX-5 Miata’s automatic makes shifting my own gears seem anachronistic.
Equipped with paddle shifters and a manual shift gate for the gear selector, the clutchless MX-5 proved fun to drive on a twisting mountain road and easy to drive in the crush of rush-hour traffic. Once I acclimated to the positioning of the downshift tabs and upshift paddles, it was easy to blast down Latigo Canyon Road in Malibu in second and third gears, ultimately timing shifts better and changing gears more smoothly than with the standard manual transmission. So what if I couldn’t heel-and-toe this one – I’m not much good at it, anyway. And in traffic during the 405 freeway commute, it was nice to just creep along without continually engaging the clutch.
Though this car felt slower than the six-speed manual we tested earlier this year, the engine still revs freely, the car accelerates better than any Miata before it except the Mazdaspeed version, and it got 28.4 mpg during a week of driving. If you’re like me, spending plenty of time in traffic and starting to feel the aches and pains of middle age setting in, you really ought to try this new six-speed automatic in the MX-5.
James Fabin’s 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata Driving Impressions:
Have you ever really driven a car? I’m talking about getting behind the wheel and truly driving a car with none of those unnecessary gadgets and electronic nannies to detract from the experience. I’m talking about a true back-to-basics car – the kind that you point where you want to go, punch the throttle and the thrill of driving brings a smile to your face. Mazda’s latest version of its popular Miata is one car that is all about driving.
Getting comfortable behind the 2006 Mazda MX-5’s wheel takes no effort – even with the top up I was able to easily slide in and make the adjustments needed to get my rather portly self comfortable. As expected in a roadster, visibility with the top up is limited, but drop that top and visibility is amazing. The interior layout is very straight forward, buttons are easy to locate and read, and the steering wheel-mounted controls keep you focused on driving.
Taking off and heading for the highway, the first thought that came to mind was “highly responsive” – press the gas pedal and this car responds with instant acceleration. At lower speeds the car quickly pours on the acceleration thanks to its light weight, but on the highway it is more miserly when you punch the throttle. I’m not saying it’s slow, but personally I would like to see more ponies under the hood to allow for faster passing of all the unexciting cars.
On the highway or on side streets, the ride is firm but not disrupting. The car also allows for clear communication between the road and the driver through the oversized steering wheel. Take the Miata along a twisty road and you will quickly build the confidence to really push this car – and it doesn’t mind being pushed at all. Handling is outstanding – and this is coming from a guy who has been driving a BMW Z4 3.0 for the last year and a half. The Miata’s handling is so good that you can’t help but look for twisty roads and fly down them while grinning from ear to ear.
The 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata is small, snug and everything is within arms reach. The Miata is surprisingly comfortable for such a small car, and I enjoy the feeling of being tucked into the seat. It provides the same feeling you get when driving an exotic like a Lotus, Ferrari or even a track car. The seating really connects you with the chassis and gives additional feedback as to what the car is doing. The ride is smooth and with the top down, there is very little buffeting. The new one latch top is a breeze to operate and can be lowered and raised from the driver’s seat. There are no complaints about the Miata’s comfort from me.
Thom Blackett’s opinion of the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata’s Comfort:
My boss has driven Miatas for the past several years. Recently, he’s been complaining of an increasing number of aches and pains that don’t seem to be improving. Hmmm. Think a decade or so of squeezing into a car the size of a small go-cart has anything to do with it? This is one tiny and tight ride with nary a smidge of extra elbow or knee room; dropping low enough to get in and finding leverage to get out are equally troublesome. The seats are supportive yet just as stiff as the suspension, so the MX-5 is not recommended for the trip home after back surgery. Between the seats is a center console that’s rather inhospitable to resting elbows, which is unfortunate since it provides one of the few places to stretch out.
On the plus side, the sporty leather-wrapped steering wheel has a pleasant feel and is the perfect size, while the integrated headrests offer plenty of neck and head support.
Christian Wardlaw’s opinion of the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata’s Comfort:
As in the True Red MX-5 Sport that we test drove earlier this year, comfort was elusive in the Winning Blue Grand Touring model we spent a week in this time around. Equipped with leather rather than cloth, the different upholstery did nothing to change the cramped seating position – and, in fact, will only add discomfort on hot, sunny days. This MX-5’s driver’s seat still sat too low, especially in contrast with what seems to be a taller cowl and dashboard, making me wish for a seat height adjuster. I also wanted a telescopic steering wheel, and softer places to rest my elbows. But the most egregious comfort issue, the one that would keep me from trading in my Titanium Gray Mazdaspeed for a new MX-5, is the ridiculous hard plastic cupholder molded into the driver’s door panel. It cuts into the side of my knee at all times, but especially in right hand turns, and in my opinion, it’s a deal breaker.
James Fabin’s opinion of the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata’s Comfort:
When it comes to comfort in a roadster, you have to expect a firm ride. The 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata is firm and responsive as expected, but not uncomfortable. The ride does approach uncomfortable on uneven pavement – the sport suspension and the car’s light weight combine to produce some chop. Inside, the seats have a good amount of side bolstering, but the unpadded cupholder molded into the door panel protrudes uncomfortably into your leg. The driver’s seating position also feels a little strange due to the extremely close proximity of the gas and brake pedals. Drivers with small feet probably won’t notice this, but those of us with larger feet may find themselves pressing both the brake and gas with just one foot.
Mazda has been building this car for long enough that it has the build quality down to a science. Everything is tight, solid and squeak-free. Fit and finish inside and out is great. The only downside to our test car has to be the abundance of black, multi-textured plastics used throughout the interior. The last time I drove the Miata this didn’t bother me, but I guess with time I’m getting more critical. The nice quality leather seats in this test car were definitely appreciated more than the cloth seats in the last car.
Thom Blackett’s opinion of the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata’s Quality:
Build quality is one of Mazda’s better attributes, and our MX-5 tester was no exception. Gaps were uniform and all of the interior bits and pieces were securely fastened. Those parts, while seemingly durable, were hard plastic and gave the MX-5 a budget-conscious character. More soft-touch or rubberized surface panels would be preferred, especially for the center console where knees and elbows rub. Putting some padding on the driver’s door ain’t a bad idea either, considering how much discomfort that hard plastic beverage holder can cause.
Christian Wardlaw’s opinion of the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata’s Quality:
Our blue MX-5 Miata’s build quality was improved over the previous vehicle we drove. The top folded properly on the first try, nothing inside the car popped off under pressure, and I found no egregious assembly problems like I did with our red car earlier this year. However, during my mountain road driving run, something kept clunking behind me, from either the well into which the top collapses or from the trunk itself. But, after a check for loose items, I found nothing amiss.
Aside from this mystery noise, this Winning Blue test sample struck me as a quality piece of work. The interior is definitely a step ahead of roadsters from General Motors, and the exterior panel gaps are tight and precise. The paint was so lustrous it glowed, and the doors slammed shut with a positive thunk.
James Fabin’s opinion of the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata’s Quality:
Mazda knows quality, even when it gets a little carried away with the amount of hard plastics. Even though the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata’s interior is dominated by hard plastic surfaces, our test car was squeak- and rattle-free. The only area where I found a dip in the quality department was in the convertible top. When closed, the interior of the top isn’t fully lined, exposing the round metal crossbar supports. The top also requires a good amount of force when closing it to insure it latches correctly, though unlatching and putting the top down is a simple, quick, single-handed motion. This is an area Mazda can improve on, but it would most likely increase the cost of the vehicle and doesn’t impact the overall driving experience.
The new exterior design of the Miata is more muscular and projects a more serious sports car image. The bulging fenders and larger size will appeal more to men but the familiar looks will still attract female buyers. It’s hard to update a classic everyone has come to love without offending those hardcore enthusiasts, but I think Mazda designers accomplished this task with the new Miata. Inside, the layout is nearly perfect, but the basic black interior is in need of more silver trim pieces for greater contrast.
Thom Blackett’s opinion of the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata’s Design:
There’s only so much that can be done with an interior comparable to that of a child’s electric car from Wal-Mart. The gauge cluster is mostly well designed, but the speedometer registers 0 mph at due south, and with the steering wheel and seat adjusted for my personal comfort, it was hard to determine my speed when I traveling at less than 20 mph or so. Of course, 160 mph is clearly visible regardless, though I’m not entirely sure why (160 mph? Only when being pushed by a Corvette Z06). And then there are the secondary radio buttons – whose idea was it to put steering wheel controls on a go-cart? If the driver of a MX-5 can’t reach the controls on the instrument panel, they’re either too young to drive or forgot to bring their prosthetic limbs along for the ride. As a final detail, designers added a piano black panel to the dash that has a nice cheap shine to it when the top is dropped on a sunny day.
Christian Wardlaw’s opinion of the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata’s Design:
The redesigned 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata does not make me want to rush over to my local dealer to trade my current Miata in for the latest and greatest edition of the world’s best-selling roadster. The cupholder design that I mentioned in the Comfort section of this story is one reason. The other is styling.
Though clearly characterized by traditional Miata styling cues, from the shape of the headlights and air inlet to the bubbled hood and oval taillights, the MX-5’s design leaves me cold. The hoodline is too high, there’s too much empty space between the wheels and the wheel wells, the flared front fenders are contrived, and I dislike clear-lens taillights. The wheels are gorgeous. The car’s proportions are just right. The details appear to be a compromise crafted by a committee with cataracts.
Inside, the design is much improved over the old Miata. Fewer surfaces are soft to the touch, but the look is cleaner, more upscale, with improved ergonomics. I think I like the black-over-tan color scheme better than the all-black of our test vehicle, but otherwise I’ve got few complaints.
James Fabin’s opinion of the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata’s Design:
Mazda took little risk with the world’s best-selling two-passenger convertible when it updated the Miata for 2006. The new MX-5 is easily recognized as a Miata – but something is a little different about it. That little something is a shot of masculinity from its brother, the Mazda RX-8. The front and rear fenders arch out slightly, giving the Miata a stronger stance, but its classic European projector-beam headlights and oval grille give it a more subdued appearance. I would like to see a bit more of the masculine DNA from the RX-8 make its way to the Miata. As for the interior, I think the buttons are all well placed and easy to use, each providing the correct feedback when pressed. The gauges are also placed logically and are easy to read, even in bright sunlight.
For 2006 Mazda simplified the MX-5 Miata’s manual convertible top. In the past, the top required two latches to open or close. Today the Miata uses only a single latch, allowing you to quickly and easily open the top with just one hand. The top also collapses to form a clean, finished appearance, so no tonneau is needed. Closing the top can be done with one hand, but requires a strange, over-the-shoulder reach that only the most flexible person would be comfortable performing.
The only design quirk I found, outside of the door-mounted cupholders, is with the opening for the rear trunk. Unlike most cars where the trunk opens like a clam-shell, the Miata opens up like a washing machine. Once the lid is open, you must lower your items down into the trunk rather than lift them over the bumper and slide them into the trunk. This design can make items like a suit bag difficult to place, but not impossible.
If you drive the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata you will buy it. It’s that much fun, a great car for those that are single or for those married folks that just want a fun car to escape the doldrums of the SUV or minivan. The Miata is also a car that has a great reputation for reliability and resale making it a smart choice.
Thom Blackett’s Advice about the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata:
Personal preference is everything, but in this driver’s mind a two-passenger roadster should only be available with a manual transmission. That’s part of the allure, a little drop-top waiting patiently for those sun-filled afternoon skies and a chance to rip along the coast or through the canyons as its master skillfully rows through the gears.
Others, however, want all of the above minus that pesky clutch, and for those who choose to dilute the experience with an automatic transmission, the MX-5 is a great choice. There’s still plenty of verve here, and the tranny’s paddle shifters and manual mode serve to lessen the divide between sports car and poseur sports car.
Christian Wardlaw’s Advice about the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata:
The 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata offers tremendous fun for the money. It’s quick, agile, thrifty, and doesn’t cost nearly as much as luxury-brand competitors. And the new six-speed automatic doesn’t suck the life out of the engine like the old one did. However, I find this new MX-5 to be more uncomfortable than the old Miata, and the styling just doesn’t get my pulse pounding. Good thing Mazda recently hired Franz von Holzhausen, the man who penned the Pontiac Solstice, to create its future vehicle designs. If the next MX-5 captures the visual excitement and flair of the Solstice, maybe Miata junkies like me will make another trip to the local Mazda dealer for their next fix.
James Fabin’s Advice about the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata:
This is the hardest part of any review – measuring all the likes and dislikes of a vehicle, looking at its price and target audience, and coming up with words of wisdom to help you decide if this is the car for you. I’m hard to please, and usually I have to filter out a lot of dislikes and try to determine if my few likes outweigh them. The strange thing is, my list of likes for the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata is pretty long. Favorites include its near perfect 50/50 balance, its stick-to-the-road handling, its ear-to-ear grin factor, and its proven record for quality – just to name a few. My list of dislikes – the door-mounted cupholders, the brake pedal being too close to the gas pedal, and its need for more masculine DNA from the RX-8 – are all things which won’t be an issue for many drivers. I have no reservations in recommending the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata. For those looking for a fun-to-drive roadster, the Mazda MX-5 Miata is an outstanding choice and a great value.
Price of Test Vehicle: $26,095 (including the $560 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder
Engine Horsepower: 170 at 6,700 rpm
Engine Torque: 140 lb.-ft. at 5,000 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift feature
Curb weight, lbs.: 2,527
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 23/30 mpg
Observed Fuel Economy: 28.4 mpg
Length: 157.3 inches
Width: 67.7 inches
Wheelbase: 91.7 inches
Height: 49 inches
Leg room: 43.1 inches
Head room: 37.4 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: Two
Max. Cargo Volume: 5.3 cu.-ft.
Competitors: BMW Z4 2.5i, Honda S2000, Jeep Wrangler, MINI Cooper Convertible, Nissan 350Z Convertible, Pontiac Solstice, Saturn Sky, Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible
Photos by Ron Perry and Courtesy of Mazda