If I told you that a cramped, not particularly quiet, four-cylinder, 155-horsepower two-seater had been named World Car of the Year at the New York International Auto Show, you would not be considered rude for asking, “What year? 1960? And was the Nash Metropolitan really that good?”
Then you hop into the 2016 Mazda Miata Club convertible, pull the top down—by hand, because there’s no motor to do that—and take the precaution of applying sunscreen. You drop the six-speed stick into gear, and you immediately understand why the Miata has been accorded such an honor.
The auto press has always loved this sports toy since it first appeared in 1989, when Mazda apparently kidnapped Italian designers so they could produce something that Alfa Romeo would be proud to call its own. It’s a teenage crush that has lasted through four generations of Miata, and Mazda has done nothing to cool the ardor.
Under a blue-sky canvas, those 155 horses sound like a furious herd, and because Mazda has used its Skyactive technology to squeeze the power and performance out of every last one of them, this is no pony ride. The newest Miata is wider, lower, and lighter. “We’ve brought the nose all the way down and given the car a lot more confidence and attitude,” Derek Jenkins, Mazda’s design director for North America, said at its reveal. There’s real performance to back up the ‘tude, too.
It’s not a criticism to say that the Miata won’t suit a lot of people. If you are significantly north of 6 feet or you weigh significantly more than 200 lbs., this is going to be an ever tighter fit. A couple of football player-sized guys walked by my parked Miata and one started laughing. He was about 6 ft. 4 and looked like he weighed 250 pounds. “No way,” he said, somewhat disappointed. Because everyone wants to get in this car.
For average-sized humans, this is above-average fun in an automobile. In awarding the prize to Miata, the judges mentioned the concept of “unparalleled ‘Jinba ittai’” — defined as oneness between car and driver. You can feel this in the suspension leaning into turns, or the comfort you get cruising at highway speeds even if it is a bit noisy.
Perhaps one of the Miata’s most endearing traits is that the car remains accessible, financially speaking. The entry-level Sport version goes for about $25,000. The Club model that MONEY tested starts at $28,600, and came in at $33,120 with the oversized Brembo brake package plus a few gizmos such as an available infotainment system that looks like it was glued on the dashboard at the last minute. But the 7-inch touchscreen is a no-nonsense system that other manufacturers (and I’m talking to you, BMW) should take notice of.
On the other hand, there’s a passenger side removable cup holder that seems to have been engineered by Lego.
Rear view camera? Sensors? Blind spot warning mirrors? Hey, the top’s down. Just turn your head.