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Time Capsule Car Review: 2006 Mazda Miata

Can you buy the perfect car?

Probably not. A car, like most other things in life is a series of trade offs and compromises. I’m a car guy, so the trade offs I’m willing to make are seemingly always at the forefront of my mind. Some car guys turn up their noses at who they consider to be the unwashed masses who pile into Camrys and the Crossover of the Month (CotM for all you abbreviation fans out there). Me, I think people are generally good at weighing their options and deciding what’s best for them and their situation. With that being said, this review will be seen through my eyes, and may not apply to you.

Let’s start with my priorities:

1.    Fun to drive

This was my top consideration when choosing a car to purchase. For me, driving is a pastime, a punching bag, and a yoga mat all in one. Said another way, I spend a lot of time and a lot of emotion in my car, so I want the entertainment and the release.

2.    Easy to drive

I didn’t want a vehicle with a racing suspension, crunchy gear box, and kettle-bell weighted steering. For me, driving should be a pleasant experience, under spirited conditions, or even just cruising on the highway.

3.    Low tech

I don’t know what it is, but navigation systems and “infotainment” systems in cars really bug me. Maybe it’s the big price premium for the low resolution, preemptively obsolete screens we have permanently welded to our center console.  Maybe it’s just the fact that I work in tech and sometimes I want to be away from it all. Anyway, I wanted as bare bones a car as I could buy.

4.    Price, reliability, safety

These considerations I’m lumping together because I think they belong together. A good value in a car is well built, easy to work on, and has the driver’s safety in mind.

That rounds out my priority list, and I’m sure many of yours look very different. Hell, not having to worry about snow and ice in Southern California is a major luxury, and boy am I glad to have it. So I certainly wouldn’t fault anyone for listing weather resilience in their top 3.

Enough with the theoretical, let’s get on to the star of the show, the Mazda Miata.

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The Miata is a stubby little guy. Parking in tight situations is easily achieved with clear visibility of the front corners.

My 2006 Grand Touring Miata (err MX-5) was purchased with 60,000 miles from a private seller in San Diego. I like dealing with private sellers because they usually have a bit more of a conscience as opposed to the stereotypical used car salesman. Of course, it’s always advised to do your homework and be on guard when it comes to major transactions.

This particular model, like I said, is the Grand Touring, or top of the line model. That means it comes with caramel brown leather seats, Bose audio unit, bigger wheels (17s) and an upgraded 6 speed manual transmission, as compared to the base model’s 5-speed. The car could have been optioned with a limited slip differential and traction control, but it wasn’t. Maybe the original owner shared my values of low-tech.

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The 17 iinch upgraded wheels add some character, but I could do without the muscular fender flares.

Performance: 7/10

The 3rd generation Miata has a 2.0 liter 4-cylinder packing somewhere around 170 horsepower and 150 ft/lbs of torque in a vehicle weighing just north of 2,500 lbs. All told, this car can get from 0-60 in approximately 7 seconds. This is hardly an earth shattering number, and I often find myself getting passed by Honda CR-Vs in everyday driving. All in all, this is not a drag racer. In fact, it’s not even particularly fun to go fast in. I’ve tried wringing it out from a stop, and flooring it on the highway, and it just doesn’t do much for me. It could be the mediocre power, or maybe even the pedestrian engine note. Either way, don’t buy this car if your idea of fun is racing from stop light to stop light against your buddy’s V6 Mustang; well, that is unless you really love looking at the backside of American muscle cars.

Gas mileage is just OK. I’m averaging about 25 miles per gallon in mostly city driving. The car recommends premium fuel, and I’m inclined to listen to the owner’s manual on this one. The engine doesn’t have particularly high compression, but for some reason I just trust the Mazda engineers. Sixth gear isn’t as tall as I’d like, as I’m easily pushing 3000 rpm at 65mph. I don’t really understand this particularly gearing, but once again, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to Mazda.

Handling: 10/10

This is the Miata’s primary weapon in the fight against a boring drive, and it is brilliant. The car is beautifully balanced and you can feel all four corners at any given time as they gracefully dance around turns. The rear wheel drive, front engine configuration in this vehicle means it is endlessly fling-able.  Toss it into a sharp turn and have confidence in the fact that the car will keep up with what you want to do. Even if you do happen to give it a little too much throttle, the car will always remind you that you’ve overdone it, and give you enough time to reel it back in. I really can’t say enough about this department, it’s world class.

Livability: 7/10

My car was the top of the line model, which brought me some definite niceties. The leather seats are moderately bolstered and feel high quality. The clutch is very light and fairly forgiving, and the shifter is smooth and confidence inspiring.  This is a two seater convertible though and it almost entirely lacks storage space. There are some clever cubbies here and there, but let’s be honest, you don’t buy this car with the intention of being your friends’ designated moving buddy. In fact, that might be another positive to owning this vehicle. No one ask you for help with anything, ever. One final note is that the cup holders are basically useless. I doubt they’re even big enough for a medium drink at McDonald’s, and even if they are, they’re pretty much always in the way of your shifting. My recommendation, get really good at holding a sealed water bottle between your legs, or better yet, chug down your Mountain Dew before you get on the road. That leads me to another point about why I really do love driving this car.

That is, I’m intimately aware at all times that I’m DRIVING this car. I never go on autopilot like I do in other vehicles. The combination of the loudness of the outside creeping in (top down OR up), the necessity of rowing my own gears, and the lack of technology make me acutely focused on my driving experience. Hell, most of the time I leave the radio off because I’m busy thinking about keeping myself in the right gear. All that being said, I still wish the head unit had an aux jack so I could plug in my phone and listen to audiobooks in the rare event a drive is TOTALLY spiritless.

Looks: 6/10

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The owner added a goofy silver grill to the front over the stock black. It adds a little distinctiveness so I haven’t removed it just yet.

This car looks alright. I think my particular model with the black and brown combo is pretty handsome, but really it’s nothing to blog home about. There are about 500,000 Miatas on the road in Southern California and they all look about the same. There’s nothing particularly ugly about the car (OK maybe I take slight offense to the disingenuous power bulge on the hood…seriously, why do cars need bulges anywhere?). All in all, it’s a tidy little package, without a whole lot of “wind-swept” visuals to keep your eyeballs entertained.

Final Thoughts

Is the 2006 Mazda Miata a perfect car? Were you paying any attention to what I wrote? No! Look at all those 7s and 6s. This is most certainly not a perfect car. It is however the most engaging, stress relieving, and habit-forming car I have ever driven. How is this possible? It’s the missing link between man, machine, and Mother Nature. It keeps you (physically) close to the road and close to the sky at the same time. For that, I have nothing but love for this vehicle and I would offer confident recommendation to any other automotive enjoyment seeker out there. When the top is down and you absolutely nail that 4th to 3rd downshift as you’re slicing into corner, your smile will be so wide that you’ll forget you ever drove something with four doors.

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All dressed up for an autocross, the ancestral breeding ground of Miatas.