Quick look: Mazda MX-5 hardtop convertible

Quick Look: Mazda MX-5 hardtop convertible

maxda mx5 hardtop convertible

Personality Willing and ready to go
Why we’d buy it Convertible with a secure roof
Why we wouldn’t If we were much over 6 feet tall, or we wanted to be weekend warriors in SCCA.
Gas mileage EPA, 21/28 (six-speed manual)
Writer Terry Parkhurst

Just like the idea of retractable hardtops, the Mazda MX-5 is not entirely new. In fact, you might think of it as the Miata; but officially, Mazda hasn’t used that name for a few years and one has to wonder why. Admittedly, a lot of people seemed to feel that the Miata was more of a “chick’s car” and so the alphanumeric moniker makes it sound more like something NASA might shoot up into space.

Still, a rose by any other name is still a rose. In the case of the MX-5, there’s also a bit more aggressive sheet metal, suggesting something akin to the old Sunbeam Alpine’s transformation into the Tiger.

The interior has easy to read instrumentation with white on black numerals, reminiscent of the old Smith gauges found on the MG and Triumph automobiles. The dash itself is a hazy combination of faux wood done up in plastic that seems as if it belongs in a much larger car. Consider it Mazda’s way of differentiating itself from the cheap roadsters that the British used to make.

The heavy-duty hard top is guaranteed to stymie the most dedicated car thief who was willing to slice a top. Early on in what was once the Miata’s lifespan, you could get a removable hard top as an option; but you had to have a place to store it, or a top cradle.

The past few years have seen more retractable hardtops come into play in the market; but the idea goes way back. American inventor Ben B. Ellerbeck reportedly made the first retractable hardtop in 1922, using a Hudson Super Six for his manually operated design. Sometime later, a Paris dentist turned engineer named Georges Paulin devised a retractable hardtop called the “Ellipse” system that was initially used on the 1933 Hotchkiss. Peugeot was using Paulin’s system in mass production by the end of 1934.

In 1957, Ford came up with a retractable hardtop for its Fairlane and dubbed it the “Skyliner.” It was made for three years. Mercedes-Benz put a retractable hardtop on it is diminutive SLK in 1997. More recently, Volkswagen put one on its Eos, Volvo used one on its C70 and Mercedes still keeps the one on the SLK. American retractable tops are also available again, on the Pontiac G6 and the Chrysler Sebring; both of these tops are designed and built by Karmann, as is the SLK top.

A power retractable hard top was made available as a separate model for the MX-5 with the 2007 model year. The top can drop itself down into the trunk in 12 seconds, making it the fastest power-operated retractable hard top available in the American market; it stows in the same well as a soft top would on other variants of the MX-5, leaving a tad more than five cubic feet of cargo space. It can go into place with just one latch to secure. It looks pretty decent, when up, fitting in well with the lines of the car.

The heart of the MX-5 is the MZR series engine, a two liter, DOHC (double-overhead camshafts, chain driven) four-cylinder engine that puts out 166 horsepower at 6,700 rpm. Peak torque is 140 lbs/ft at 5,000 rpm. There is variable intake valve timing, electronically controlled port fuel injection and coil-on plug ignition. It’s a lightweight engine, being made entirely of aluminum alloy and equipped with a lightened flywheel.

There’s a choice of three transmissions: a five-speed manual, a six-speed manual, and a six speed automatic. For our money, there’s but one choice: the six-speed manual. It’s not only the best way to ensure a complete driving experience, since you can get that little engine into its power band, but it’s also the best way to ensure ultimate fuel economy.

The suspension is a double wishbone set-up in the front and multilink in the rear. Coupled with the rack-and-pinion steering’s ratio of 15:0.1 you feel hardwired to the road.

Curb weight is just 2,445 lbs. for the soft top but rises to 2,557 lbs for the power hardtop equipped MX-5. When equipped with the automatic transmission, the power hardtop MX-5 weighs 2,602 lbs., yet another reason to stick with the manual transmission.

The retractable hardtop transmits more bulk to the driver, through the steering and in how it feels – something that is very visceral in a car this size.

The weight distribution is a bit of an unknown. With the engine up front and the differential in the rear, Mazda gives 52:48 for the MX-5 with a soft top and 51:49 for the retractable hardtop, while fudging its bet with these words: “Please note this is not an official number.”

Finally, there are a few small items, new in the 2008 model, for the MX-5 (which will be passed on into 2009): tire pressure monitoring, a driver’s seat lifter, and a six-disc CD player on Touring and Grand Touring models.

The list price of the MX-5 convertible is $26,780, but ours was $29,535 as tested, due to options of a sport tuned suspension package, Bilstein shock absorbers, a limited slip rear differential, Xenon headlights, DSC with traction control and Sirius satellite radio. Pricing overlaps with the much larger, V6-powered Chrysler Sebring hardtop convertible, but the latter can go substantially higher as you lay on the options, and gets somewhat lower gas mileage, which is to be expected given its much larger size (four spacious seats and a large trunk) and greater power. The MX-5 is more of a fun, small driver’s car; the Sebring, the car you take your family in.

The retractable hardtop version of the MX-5 might not be the best thing to take to a parking lot gymkhana, but it does make a good machine to commute to work in or for a road rally.