You only get so many perfect days in your life; you only get so many perfect cars. What's perfect for one may not be perfect for another, but if you're a well-adjusted human, nothing compares with sunny weather or a Mazda Miata.
And now there's a new Miata, and it's pretty perfect—light, agile, precise, a tactile joy to operate and a playful dream going down the road. A proper Miata, in other words. Which means now that half-hearted kludges like the Solstice, total misses like the Del Sol, and lovely over-complications like the S2000 have fallen by the way, its only real competition is itself. Used versions of its three previous generations strewn across the Craigslist landscape like the tatterdemalion $2000-$7000 distractions that they are. What course should a wise man follow?
It's as happy a problem as you're lucky to have. Used Miata ownership is, as these things are measured, trouble-free. Reliability doesn't enter into it. Even a supposed basket case delivers fun; our cosmetically roached but perfectly workable "Million Mile" Miata was 340,000 miles along last I checked, will probably reach its goal with regular oil and timing belt changes, and be sneering at the roaches when the Sun gutters and turns red. All generations are equally trouble-free, equally fun in their fashion.
There's no wrong type of perfect, but one's going to be the most right for you. We drove editor-at-large Peter Egan's near-perfect NA, a 60,000-mile British Racing Green '91; my own NB, a daily-driven, 140,000-mile Metallic Mica '99; and a preproduction Club edition of the 2016 ND with just a handful of miles in a lovely metallic red. We're familiar enough with the NC from its press-fleet representatives, and editor Zach Bowman filled us in with knowledge of his own 2006.
And yes, before you ask, we had a perfect sunny day.
Mr. Egan's NA is as perfect an example as the non-insane are likely to consider. The famous one-finger door latches click right open, your hands fall automatically onto the thin-rimmed wheel, the pedals are exactly where pedals are supposed to be, and the corners of your mouth slot neatly into place right below your ears. The 1.6-liter engine, in use through the '93 model year, purrs you up to speed in the Miata-standard manner of eagerness but no particular hurry, and there you are, participating in the classic ritual of going fast by not slowing down.
The famous flexible-flier chassis is quite a change if you're used to the stiffness of today's cars; where they bull firmly down the road, a Miata seems to flow. A drive in an early NA like Egan's is an unhurried, willowy sensation, not loose as some seem to think, but a stream-of consciousness experience. There is body-roll in corners, if you push it, and the precision of the steering will let you, but there's no need for that kind of drama in order to get maximum pleasure from an NA.
Add sunshine, and you can have a perfect day of challenging driving and never break a rural-route speed limit. These cars are so good at 80 percent that if carving corners with momentum conservation, pop-up headlights, is your thing, this is your car.
The NA and NB are very, very close, mechanically. The NBs are all 1.8-liter cars, and the dollop of extra grunt is obvious if not exactly overwhelming. The interior is a bit more refined and a bit more snug, with a pint or so more storage available. And that's it.
The driving experience is also near-identical, although Mazda's gradual refinements—and a little weight creep—mean that an NB will feel a little more solid. To be as unscientific as possible, it trades a shade of delicateness for a half-octave more stability. The steering also feels slightly heavier, according to some people who include me. But they all drive beautifully, with almost all the NA's liquid smoothness a jot more tossability.
We felt utterly comfortable hanging the tail of my NB out, whereas on Egan's NA—a tighter, lower-mileage car, mind you—it felt like borderline abuse. This might be the bargain of the model line, now that NA prices are bubbling up.
And the NC? It's the least Miata Miata, but still a Miata. The chassis is borrowed from the RX-8, losing some of the flow. The 2-liter engine took horsepower to over 160 and dropped 0-60 times under seven seconds, losing some of the essence of the earlier models. Weight notched up, then notched up again with the power hardtop that gave Miata purists fits but lets you best enjoy less than perfect weather with only a 90-pound penalty. It's also got the Mazda grin, slab sides, and weird wheel arches. It's the closest these cars come to ugly. It still drives and handles beautifully, its only flaw being a somewhat underdamped stock suspension that can tip the normal body roll into uncomfortable territory. It's a blast to drive—it's an RX-8 chassis in a lighter car with no roof! But it's not the same feel, making the NC a case of better-car, worse-Miata. We'd still own one in a heartbeat, mind you. It's just a different flavor of perfect.
So with all this goodness, we wondered as we drove through warm sunshine, why buy the new one?
Just walking up to the new car from the old one gives you a reason for each side of your brain. First of all, it's obviously shorter than the original Miata, and even with its bigger wheels and larger brakes, it seems just as diminutive, if a bit taller. That's a good thing. But even better than its size are the looks. The first Miata was a Lotus-alike, the next a mini-Jag, and the third was, well, kind of nothing. This one is its own creature, and a very striking one indeed. The car is creased tautly over its wheel arches in the fashion of classic sports cars, at least as much as current design dictates will allow. Up front it still grins, but where the old grille verged on a simper, this treatment is more predatory, as are the lines over its haunches. It's still a small sports car, mind you, and it's hard to imagine a Miata ever coming off as dangerous. But at long last it's not cute, and that's kind of a relief.
Inside, however, it's friendly. The seats are good to great, despite some weird neoprene material choices in the inserts. The faux-carbon accents in our car would be better, and quite nice, in plain piano black, but otherwise the dash treatment is very nice indeed, with good simple climate control dials sending controlled climate through—Yes!—familiar eyeball vents. (And one oddball standard vent to the left of the instruments that was a bit jarring, but not too jarring). Gauges are legible and clear, though Mazda's orange-LCD info center is already dated. Cubbys are plentiful, including nifty secret-stash areas behind both seats.
The traditionally nifty fabric top can still be operated with one hand and is secured by a single central latch—and incorporates one of those neat little touches that make scrappy underdog Mazda engineers extra-huggable. To make raising the top easier, a clever spring-loaded latch is employed; pressing down on the center of the collapsed top pops it up far enough that a single, natural forward motion, like throwing a football or signaling "Let's go," is all that's needed to close the roof.
And of course the steering wheel and shifter and pedals are the important parts, and they're exactly where they should be, and what they do is exactly what you want them to. This car, despite similar weight, does not have the whippy, peppy feel of the NA. But it's closer than anyone had a right to expect. The best word to describe its combination of taut neutrality and unflappable compliance is probably supple; it has the flow of an older Miata, aided by a six-speed gearbox as lovely as any car that ever bore the MX-5 badge, aided in turn by 155 surprisingly muscular horsepower. All together?
It gave us something close to a perfect day behind the wheel. This car is joyfully, frighteningly fast in the real world. It has replaced itself as the road-car performance and enjoyment benchmark. It is, in a word, brilliant. Driving the ND, Digital Managing Editor Alex Kierstein had absolutely no problem keeping up with me, driving my very well-fettled NB, down roads I grew up driving and have known for thirty-mumble years. Local knowledge is worth at least 50 horsepower, and while I was not going easy on him, he was having an easy time of it. And when we switched cars, before letting me chase him for a while, we threw open the hood and saw… the engine. Sitting there in a new car, uncovered, visibly ticking over. In a new car. Just think about that.
These are all great reasons to buy the new Miata. But there's something deeper here.
There has to be one last perfect day for everyone. Each of us will get one day when the sun will shine just so, through just the right clouds, in a way it never will again, not for us. It may have rained earlier; it may be getting ready to rain later. But for most of the day, it will be warm in the light and cool in the shadows and if you are lucky you will know the day while you are yet alive in it, and you will have nothing, later, to regret.
This Miata may well represent that last perfect day for the traditional sports car. Small, light, not-overpowered, stick-shifted, naturally aspirated, fabric-topped; every single thing we love about the Miata is an aspect of the automotive world whose time is limited. This may be the last chance the enthusiast has to walk into a dealership, drive out with this sort of car, and point it at the sunset.
So yes, we think you should buy the new Miata. But more than that, we think you should buy any Miata. Please, for your sake. In this life, we will only get so much that's perfect.
Stay tuned later this week for an instrumented test of the American-market 2016 Mazda Miata, and more driving impressions. - Ed.