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The 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata Made Me Feel Like a College Kid Again

I was going to write this like a typical review, but I deleted the draft. You all can Google everything about the 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata, and nothing has realistically changed about it since the “ND2” facelift of this fourth-generation roadster came about two years ago. So we’re going to skip over the stuff you can find on your own and get down to the bits you can’t, namely how I felt spending a week with the only attainable two-seat roadster on the new-car market today.

Attainability is an interesting thing. The word means something different to everyone based on their income and budget and expenses. The 1995 Mazda Miata I bought as an 18-year-old college kid was attainable, but only just. I paid $5,300 for my car in 2008. It had 72,880 miles – somehow, I still remember that – and the plastic rear window on the convertible soft top was ready to fall apart. Which it did, about a week after I got the car home.

1995 Mazda Miata Blue Ridge Parkway

I could hardly afford to fix the Miata I had, but after a few missteps at repair shops ($300+ for rear brakes… seriously) I brought the car to my college car club’s “wrench day” and learned how to do things myself. We got it sorted out, and from then on, all I had to do was pop two latches at the windshield, unzip the back window, and throw the black vinyl top back to make any day approximately a thousand times better.

With roughly 130 horsepower on tap, less if the wheezy air-conditioning was running, my ’95 was slow in a straight line. I learned to enjoy the lack of power. It just meant I could wind out the first three gears of the five-speed manual alllll the way to redline and barely break any speed limits on my college town’s back roads.

1995 Mazda Miata autocross

Corners were, of course, no problem. Even on the crappy Riken Raptor all-seasons that came with my purchase, the Miata was too happy to roll over on its soft stock suspension, take a set through the corner, and power out of it (as best it could) with the limited-slip differential putting power to both rear wheels. I’d get out of class and call a friend, pick them up and go for a drive just because. We’d take turns behind the wheel, alternating between driver and DJ, and blow through half a tank of gas just because.

I enjoyed the exhaust note, but believed as much then as I do now that music adds to the driving experience, moreso if it’s enjoyed with the roof down and the volume cranked. At the time, I had a blue iPod Nano that came free with my college laptop purchase. I loaded up some “driving” playlists and played them through a cassette adapter on the Miata’s factory stereo. Sound quality was awful. I later installed a radio with a USB port, better door speakers, better headrest speakers, and an Infinity BassLink 10″ subwoofer in the trunk. Sound quality was then a louder form of awful and I had no spare tire, as it took up valuable subwoofer space.

When Mazda dropped off this 2021 Miata, then, I was tremendously excited. I’d reviewed two ND Miatas already, but they were both Miata RFs, the power “retractable fastback” which is far more targa top than convertible. Mazda once had a true power-folding hard top in the third-generation NC Miata. My dad owns one, and it’s superior to the Miata RF, because it’s a true convertible. Sorry, Mazda.

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So then, this third Miata showed up as a real drop-top. And much as I’ve aged – I’m as old as the Miata nameplate – so has the car. The notion of a single-layer vinyl roof and plastic rear window would be laughable today, so in its place you’ll find a light gray cloth top, glass window, and rear defroster. There’s a real sound system that still has headrest speakers and otherwise sounds pretty good at “crank that” highway speeds. You can run the air conditioning and not be outpaced by a Bird scooter.

The 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata that I drove was a Grand Touring model, the top trim level. Mazda claims the Grand Touring has more of a “nice” vibe where the Club trim is more enthusiast-oriented. You can get Recaro seats and BBS wheels on the Club, but the Grand Touring still has a limited-slip diff, Bilstein dampers, and a front strut tower brace, assuming you choose the proper six-speed manual as in my test car.

2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata gray top

There are other roadsters on the market, though you’ll have to look at luxury brands like BMW (Z4) and Porsche (Boxster) to find them. “Attainable” they are not – at least, not to many. Mainstream brands have ditched their roadsters, with budgets tight and the entirety of American consumerism dictating crossovers are the hot thing to have. And yet, Mazda has managed to keep the Miata alive. You can find a 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata Sport around $26,000 and my loaded Grand Touring was a bit over $33,000.

Before hitting the road, I opened my top desk drawer and pulled out a certain blue iPod Nano that I had unearthed a while back. Somehow, I still had it and the old 30-pin USB cord, and it worked. And even though the Miata now has wireless Apple CarPlay – new for 2021 – I skipped it and plugged the iPod into a USB port. It worked. I navigated to a playlist created in 2008, labeled “Miata,” and set off.

2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata iPod USB

I spent the week with the top down and the tunes up. Where the Miatas RF were fun cars to drive, the soft-top Miata is one that made me actively seek reasons to run an errand or otherwise cram my too-tall self behind the wheel. We don’t have many great “driving roads” in Northern Virginia, but in a Miata, every on-ramp is an opportunity to go full-throttle and every off-ramp is a chance to heel-toe some downshifts and toss the car into the curve.

Mazda’s 2.0 liter four cylinder isn’t much bigger in displacement than the 1.8 liter from my early Miata, but it makes about fifty more horsepower despite overall curb weight sitting somewhere around early-Miata-days at 2,300 pounds. The “Skyactiv-G” engine is revvy, encouraging you to hold on to the gears until the power peak of 7,000 rpm. Where my old Miata was slow in a straight line, this one feels like it can hold its own. But that’s not the point.

2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata engine

Despite most roads near my place being straight and flat, there are some twisty and hilly bits if you know where to look. With the likes of The Darkness, Journey, Barenaked Ladies, Rhianna, and Mika blaring from the speakers, I spent a substantial amount of fuel romping around those same curvy roads over and over one Saturday. Gasgasgas-shift-gasgasgas-shift, then heel-toe and go back down a gear for that next corner. Do it over and over and then do it some more. It was an immediate college throwback. And in all the places my car was soft and tired, the 2021 Miata was sharp and poised but not to a fault. The limits are still low, the power is still accessible, the chassis is still flingable.

I’d like to think I’m in a better spot at 31 than I was at 18. I know the Miata sure is. My NA Miata was a riot to drive, but didn’t excel at the notion of adulting. It was obscenely noisy on the highway, turning nearly 4,000 rpm at 75 miles per hour. I’d show up to work with sweat in my everything despite keeping the top up and the A/C cranked. I’m glad the only crash I experienced was a slow-speed rear-ending from a Jeep Liberty.

The ND Miata, by contrast, still possesses the same woo-carefree-let’s-party college kid spirit, but with the maturity and security blanket of a job and a retirement account. It’s got modern amenities, modern safety, and can be used as an only car without punishing its driver quite so much as the NA did. On the surface, it may appear too modern and too buttoned-up.

In practice, it’s the best one they’ve made so far.

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