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.