By Christopher A. Sawyer
While the ineffable Al Vinikour was cruising through the snow in an all-wheel drive Mercedes, yours truly was doing the same in a Mazda Miata. The thought of tackling heavy, wet snow (the kind that turns to slick semi-ice when compacted by car tires) in a sports car better suited to warm, sunny days wasn’t terrifying, but it was a cause for concern.
Living as I do on an unpaved road that is one of the last streets in town to get plowed, it was a better than even bet that I would have to wander out in the muck and muss. The early morning weather and traffic reports were not encouraging. More was on the way, with a total of six inches expected before it was over. Cars and trucks were sliding off the roads and into each other as they discovered just how slick this slushy mix could be when compacted under so many tires.
Thankfully, the Miata was fitted with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires, one of my personal favorites. When I had my 2003 Mini Cooper, the Goodyear run-flats it came with were good enough for most occasions. However, they could not cope with deep snow, especially when fitted to a car that would drag its undercarriage on the deeper sections. Many were the days when I could not climb the gentle hill to the main road. However, fitting a set of steel wheels with Blizzaks (thank you Tire Rack) were enough to give the Mini winter grip it never had from the factory. It could still bog down on the deep, steep section, but it was no longer certain that you couldn’t make it up the incline. Plus, if I charged the low spots, I still had enough stick to stop at the stop sign located at the top of the rise. So, by planning my escape, I could get out of the subdivision most snowy days.
The MX-5 is even lower and closer to the ground that the Mini, and its tires are wider. Yet, by sticking to the paths carved by the cars and SUVs that had made the trek earlier — and staying away from the ones that drove off the road, including two pickups with snowplows — I was able to make my way to the main road, scraping the exhaust system on the snow as I went.
I must confess, however, that I nearly didn’t get to the road at all. Clearing the driveway left a thin, icy film on its surface. With a wide pad near the house, I made a three-point turn in reverse so that I could come straight out of the driveway and onto the road. Except that, as I went from reverse to forward, I gave the Mazda a touch too much throttle, and nearly spun it in place. With a quick jump off the throttle, a touch of opposite lock, and an embarrassed, “I hope the neighbors didn’t see that,” I was soon on my way.
The other thing that I discovered is that the Miata doesn’t like guys who are six-feet tall and wearing heavy winter clothing behind the wheel. There’s not enough room for a down jacket and the human wearing it in the little roadster’s interior. You’re better off warming the car up while you scrape off the snow and ice in your winter wear, then going inside to change to a lighter coat for the ride to your destination. At least you will have room enough to move freely in the tight cockpit, even if you will be cold on the return trip.
This brings us to the letters “PRHT” after the cars name. This is not a sound made in polite company that is flowed by a sorrowful “I’m sorry” or “Excuse me” as you let the toxic cloud disperse. Rather these initials stand for “Power Retractable Hard Top”. For those worried that this immediately makes the MX-5 an instant “hairdresser’s car”, rest assured this is not the case. Yes, the Miata can have “girly” overtones, but it is the least expensive, true-to-formula, elemental sports car on the market. If women like it, so be it. They liked MGBs, Triumph Spitfires, Fiat 124 Spiders, etc. too. That didn’t make those cars any less fun. Nor does the addition of a retractable hardtop. If anything, it eliminates the need for a separate hardtop that you put on in late Fall and take off in early Spring, missing any and all days in-between that might be conducive to top-down motoring. It also makes the MX-5 more of an all-season car.
Just don’t expect to ignore the weather forecast or drive the Mazda like a normal car when conditions turn wet, snowy or sloppy. It’s still a quick-reacting, lightweight car that can swap ends if prodded. It does exactly what you tell it to do, and if a mistake is made, you are the one who made it. That said, with the right tires and attitude, you can drive the hardtop Miata in most weather without undue worry. If it has a problem in these conditions, it is that other drivers are not looking for a low, small car to be sharing the roads with them. You have to drive defensively, sometimes very defensively, to make certain that you get home in one piece.
There’s little else to say about the MX-5 that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. It’s fun, light on its feet, communicative, fuel efficient, quick, direct, and more. The steering is light but direct, the gear lever has a bolt-action and short throw most rifles would envy, the pedals are perfectly spaced for heel-and-toe work, the ride is firm but not overly harsh, and the exhaust system fills the interior with sound and not noise. About the only drawbacks are the lightweight plastics used throughout the interior that feel a bit brittle, console-mounted power window switches that can easily be activated by your forearm, a regularly shaped but small trunk (think duffel bags, not hard-sided luggage, when traveling), the gaping grille opening, and a lack of headroom for tall drivers. Minor stuff when you consider just how much enjoyment this car can give — and how many more days each year you can drive it with the PRHT option.
2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club PRHT
Destination charge: $795
Price as tested: $29,260
Engine: 2.0-liter inline four with aluminum block and heads, dual over head cams with intake variable valve timing, four valves per cylinder.
Horsepower: 167 @ 7000
Torque (lb-ft): 140 @ 5000
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
EPA mileage rating: 21 city/28 highway/24 combined.
Steering, Suspension and Brakes
Steering: Hydraulic power rack and pinion.
Suspension F/R: Double wishbones with forged aluminum control arms, monotube Bilstein dampers/Fully independent multi-link suspension with tubular control arms and aluminum knuckles, monotube Bilstein dampers.
Brakes F/R: 11.4-in ventilated discs with single-piston calipers/11.0-in solid discs with single-piston calipers. 4-channel ABS, electronic brake force distribution.
Dimensions (in inches)
Fuel capacity (gallons): 12.7
Cargo capacity (cu. ft.): 20.0 (seats up), 43.2 (behind second row), 83.2 (behind first row)
Powertrain: 5 years/60,000 miles
Vehicle: 3 years/36,000 miles
Roadside Assistance: 24-hour roadside assistance for 3 years/36,000.