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Competitor Showcase: The 2009 Mazda Miata

Benjamin Hunting
by Benjamin Hunting
May 23, 2009

There are some who would argue that the purest form of motoring is to be had with the top down in a vehicle that is light, nimble, and fully connected to the road - in other words, behind the wheel of a roadster. Built in the tradition of the great British two-seat convertibles of the past, the 2009 Mazda Miata has dominated the roadster market for the past 2 decades thanks to a convergence of amazing handling, great reliability and a thrifty purchase price. Starting at just $22,420, the Miata MX-5 offers drivers a 167 horsepower, 2.0 liter 4-cylinder engine that also produces 140 lb-ft of torque. This might not sound like all that much power - and it isn't - but the Miata's secret ingredient is a remarkably light chassis that weighs only 2,400 lbs in total. With so little mass to deal with, the rev-happy engine gladly accelerates the Miata to 60 miles per hour in only 6.5 seconds. A 6-speed manual transmission is the logical pairing with this engine, but a 6-speed paddle-shifted automatic and a traditional 5-speed auto are also available.

The inside of the Miata is a bit tight - taller drivers will notice the lack of room, but most people will have no really issues settling into the car's cockpit. Trunk space is also somewhat limited, especially in cars that are optioned out with the power retractable hard top. However, these complaints miss the point of the Miata, which is that when being driven at the limited it literally feels like it is glued to the pavement. On challenging, twisty roads the roadster is capable of leaving much more powerful vehicles in its dust due to its ability to simply slice through an apex without any hint of drama.

The 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata is truly one of the greatest roadsters ever to hit American shores. However, it faces an array of competitors from automakers intent on leaving their own personal stamp on the two-seat, open car concept. An interesting crop of roadsters are available on today's market - some of which are brand new designs and others that are in their last year of production - and this article takes a look at 4 cars that should be driven before making a final decision to buy a Miata.

Of all the vehicles on this list, the 2009 Honda S2000 is the one which comes the closest to mimicking the Miata formula: small engine, small car, great balance and road feel. The S2000 does boast a major difference when compared against the Miata, and that is much, much more power. The Honda's 2.2 liter 4-cylinder engine pumps out an impressive 237 ponies thanks to its high, 8,000 rpm redline. Unfortunately, the price to pay for this extra grunt is less torque low in the power band (162 lb-ft in total) and a somewhat twitchy pedal feel that some have compared to an on / off switch when it comes to power delivery. The S2000 is a much more challenging car to drive fast than the Miata as it asks for greater input from the driver and constant attention to throttle position and road conditions. A 6-speed manual is the only transmission choice, and the convertible can leap to 60 miles per hour in 6.1 seconds.

The 2009 Honda S2000 is 400 lbs heavier than the Miata, but it still manages to remain agile no matter how difficult a maneuver it is asked to perform. The roadster is somewhat more comfortable on the inside than the Miata and provides a few more boy-racer features such as a digital dash. A high belt-line ensconces occupants and gives the car a steel womb-like feel, and leather seats, a power top and a full range of power equipment are included in every S2000. These features account for some of the vehicle's higher asking price.

The 2009 Honda S2000 has a much more aggressive image than the Miata, along with the power to back it up. If the price differential isn't too much of a concern, and if living with the motorcycle-like engine doesn't seem like too much of a hassle, then the S2000 is definitely worth a test drive.

The 2009 Audi TT roadster is the topless edition of the popular TT coupe. The only front-wheel drive vehicle on this list, the TT roadster is also available in all-wheel drive. Combined with the extra weight inherent in this type of drivetrain, the TT exhibits very different dynamics on the road. The vehicle's magnetic ride control suspension ensures that the roadster remains composed at speed, but the joys of throwing a front-wheel drive vehicle into a series of twists is not nearly the same as that of a traditional rear-wheel drive car. The Audi is simply much bigger in most dimensions, and this is felt when the car is pushed hard.

How does the Audi make up for this particular shortcoming? Two words: luxury and power. There are two engines available in the 2009 Audi TT roadster, with the first being a 2.0 liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder unit that is good for 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. A 3.2 liter V6 can be ordered in the all-wheel drive version of the convertible, and it ups the performance ante with 250 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. The latter engine can rocket the TT to 60 miles per hour from a standing start in just 5.3 seconds. The 4-cylinder can only mated with a 6-speed clutchless automatic transmission, while the larger engine can be fitted either the auto or a 6-speed manual.

The 2009 Audi TT roadster's options list is much longer than the Miata, and it can be decked out with nearly as many comfort features as found in the larger A4 sedan. For many, this balances out the vehicle's tamer driving experience and makes the TT a serious contender when it comes to choosing a roadster that is also easy to live with on a daily basis.

The 2009 Nissan 350Z Roadster is the largest car on this list, as it is based on the mid-size 350Z coupe. The Roadster manages to maintain much of the coupe's original styling, with the addition of a somewhat complicated rear quarter. Despite its size and porky 4,100 lbs of weight, the 350Z is a relatively quick car, capable of topping 60 miles per hour in under 6 seconds. This is largely a result of the excellent engine that Nissan chose to install in the 350Z, a 3.5 liter V6 that generates 306 horsepower and 268 lb-ft of torque. Combined with the vehicle's standard 6-speed automatic, the engine is quite lively and willing to pull hard in every gear. A 5-speed automatic is also available.

The 350Z Roadster doesn't attack the corners with quite the same confidence as its hard top sibling, but it still provides plenty of feedback through the wheel and suspension to keep drivers interested while eating up the miles at a rapid pace. The Roadster is divided into Enthusiast, Touring and Grand Touring trim levels, with the Grand Touring providing dynamic stability control and Brembo performance brakes. Each edition of the 350Z Roadster comes with power windows, door locks, HID headlights and striking LED tail lights. DVD navigation is an option, as are larger wheels and additional suspension upgrades - recommended if the car is going to be driven hard.

The 2009 Nissan 350Z Roadster is more at home speeding down the highway than playing tag down a mountain pass, but in a pinch it will pass for a more involved sports car as long as the going doesn't get too extreme. The comfortable ride and larger size of the 350Z make it a popular choice amongst more mature buyers turned off by the toy-like dimensions of the Miata.

The 2009 Saturn Sky is the vehicle many people waited a very long time for General Motors to produce. It is stunning to look at, fun to drive and can be ordered with a hot engine under the hood. From a distance it appears as though the Sky's exterior dimensions are similar to the Miata, but up close it becomes apparent that the domestic vehicle is larger and heavier - although not cripplingly so. The Sky's size is still compact enough that it stays well away from 350Z territory and remains tossable and light when driven around a race track. An independent suspension helps to add a lot of agility to the Sky's package, as does standard stability control and a limited-slip differential.

The 2009 Saturn Sky can be ordered in both mild and wild editions. The base roadster features a 2.4 liter, 4-cylinder engine that produces 173 horsepower and 167 lb-ft of torque. The Sky Redline edition cranks the volume up to 11 with the addition of a 2.0 liter, supercharged 4-cylinder motor good for 260 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. This transforms the Sky from fun to a complete handful and makes it a great option for anyone looking for a weekend track car that can pull double duty as a daily driver. Transmission options are limited to either a 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic.

The 2009 Saturn Sky stands out in a crowd thanks to its startling original, European-flavored styling. Its extra size and weight place it squarely between the Miata and the 350Z Roadster, but without the front-wheel drive that hampers the TT it provides a more traditional platform from which to feel the wind rushing through the cockpit.


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