Through Wednesday, Yahoo Autos will unveil the 2016 Ride of the Year awards, our picks for the best of the best among new cars and SUVs. We unveiled our Tech and Epic rides last week; here’s our third choice, the Fresh Ride of the Year.
The car that brings a smile to your face; the one that’s different from everything else on your block, and can turn heads even when it’s sitting still. When we tested 22 of the most important new models of 2016, searching for our Yahoo Autos Fresh Ride of the Year, these were the traits we were looking for.
There are cars where numbers tell the whole story—like the 707-horsepower Dodge Challenger Hellcat, which won our Enthusiast Car of the Year title last year. Then there are cars that can’t be quantified by mere statistics, whose specs betray just how fun they are to drive. And while several models tugged at our hearts, the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata stood out as our 2016 Fresh Ride of the Year.
The competition for this category included the new Audi TT, the venti-sized Fiat 500X and the off-road-ready Jeep Renegade. The TT makes the most of its small footprint with elegant design and high-tech features—watching the Google Earth view of your navigation route through the instrument panel never gets old—although it comes a hefty price. Both the 500X and the Renegade offer a sense of fun that’s increasingly rare among mainstream vehicles; the pop-off dual roof panels in the Renegade are as close as you get to old-school T-tops, and the usable 500X is easily the best Fiat for sale in this country.
It’s tempting to dismiss the Miata as something only hardcore autocrossers and hairdressers would love because of its 155-horsepower engine. After all, that’s about as much as a base-model Honda Civic, and 12 ponies less than last year’s roadster. Yet even when driven back to back with the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 or Cadillac ATS-V, everybody lept from the Miata as if the air vents were pumping laughing gas.
That 155 hp in the Miata teaches the difference between stock and flow; the loss of top-end power comes with more mid-range grunt, and the 2.0-liter, naturally aspirated motor lets the roadster go from 0-60 in under six seconds—quicker than a 200-horsepower Scion FR-S, and tailing close behind the Volkswagen GTI. Plus, the linear power delivery doesn’t have the 4,000 rpm torque dead spot of the Toyobaru twins, and feels more natural than the increasingly ubiquitous turbo four-bangers on the market. The lovely six-speed not only weighs 49 pounds less than the automatic trim, but is satisfying to shift with its short and precise throws, even if you’re trudging through traffic.
If there’s one figure that matters, it’s the Miata’s 2,332-lb. curb weight, which is 150 pounds less than the preceding NC roadster. It’s an engineering marvel, especially when considering that a $53,900 Alfa Romeo 4C has a carbon-fiber tub, yet still weighs nearly 200 pounds more. And unlike the Alfa, it’s lively without teetering between understeer and oversteer, and has a responsive suspension without jostling your spine.
A proper enthusiast’s machine that loves to be tossed around, it’s also exhilarating even at lawful speeds. Pushing 40 mph on sleepy Michigan country roads suddenly transforms the landscape into Road Atlanta. Sure, the drop top has the noise insulation of rice paper at highway speeds, but all your senses are engaged, from the tactile steering to the British Leyland-like exhaust rasp. In the age of 300-hp V-6 that bore you to sleep, it’s the antidote for automotive narcolepsy.
Another improvement is the styling, which no longer competes with the Volkswagen Eos or the Cozy Coupe for bubbly bodywork. Simple curved fenders have been swapped for muscular flares, and the graphite-hued interior feels more like entry-level luxury than a minimalist sports car.
While some—or just myself—wanted this to win overall Ride of the Year, editors dinged the Miata on a couple points. Practicality is the obvious casualty to the obsessive downsizing, and it not only seats just two, but also has a scant 4.59 cubic feet of trunk space, meaning larger luggage will need to ride shotgun. It averaged 30 mpg and is rated for 27 city/36 highway rating, making it an economical as a commuter, but most will want to enjoy it as a weekend toy.
Nonetheless, the Miata is a giant leap forward, proving that less can do so much more. With a starting price of $24,915, there’s nothing out there that’s as refreshing and lively to drive as the 2016 Miata. It’s the essence of fun in cars, and that’s what makes it fresh.