Mazda will sell a removable MX-5 Miata hardtop only to racers

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Ruminations in winter | 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata long-term update

Winter is an odd time for our 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club long-term tester. In the summer, the track beckons. Fall and spring bring top-down adventures at sunset. But our Miata is a little out of its enthusiast element when the weather is harsh and our moods grow as gray as a January day in Michigan.

Sure, there’s the occasional snowstorm, and equipped with winter tires the Miata can be a fun toy. But what about when it’s just cold and dreary? We had a lot of time to reflect on our MX-5 these past few months, and we still managed to find enjoyment in the little things – even though admittedly this is not the time of year when the Miata shines.

For starters, we taught associate video producer Amr Sayour how to drive a stick shift with the Miata. With its agreeable clutch and short throws, the six-speed manual was the perfect learning instrument for Sayour. His teacher, Adam Morath, actually had to show him how to stall.

Arguably, learning to drive a manual isn’t a little thing, but it was these run-of-the-mill events that showcased the Miata could be more than tolerable in winter. Associate Editor Joel Stocksdale used it for a 500-mile roundtrip to pick up a new pet and found it was a little tight for dog and driver. Though Stocksdale still enjoyed the sports-car feel, he came to the conclusion that “Miata is always the answer, but not always the best one.”

We also quickly realized the MX-5 isn’t a great commuter car, nor did we expect it to be. It’s low to the ground. It’s loud. The small cabin has a greenhouse effect, and the windows fog easily.

“If you have a Miata, it will creak and rattle in the winter. A lot. Nothing out of the ordinary here – this is a convertible with a lot of flexy parts – but something the casual shopper might not be aware of,” Editor-in-Chief Mike Austin noted. Still, he found ways to have fun. “On the upside, winter tires = low-speed power oversteer.”

We had a lot of time to reflect on our MX-5 these past few months, and we still managed to find enjoyment in the little things.

Speaking of those snowshoes, Stocksdale said they made our Mazda a “perfectly acceptable winter ride.” Keeping the traction control on, he navigated his neighborhood roads in packed snow with little trouble. Like Austin advised, be aware of the ground clearance; Stocksdale got hung up in deep snow while attempting to scale his driveway.

To better synthesize the Miata in winter, I signed it out regularly over a couple of weeks in February and March, and I almost always enjoyed it. The bad weather imposed limitations on what I could do, but that made me appreciate how fun this car could be in the summer. That aura made me try to wring something more out of the Miata in winter. Working through the gears is addicting. The smooth-shifting manual is better than any smartphone, book, or video game for resetting your day and immersing yourself in the moment. It’s the anti-Netflix. Small, focused sports cars with their tight dynamics and manual transmissions have a transcendent feel.

Getting behind the wheel of the Miata was almost always cathartic. Big circular gauges are right in front of you, and your line of sight extends over the long creased hood. Drop it in gear. First, then second; rev the engine. Take a corner a little too aggressively. It’s a great feeling. It evoked some of my memorable drives in cars like the Honda S2000 CR, a 1969 Alfa Romeo Spider, and other Miatas. It’s that engaging, analog feel that makes driving sports cars like this worth it, regardless of the conditions.

Other random thoughts: The Miata is fun when you have a cold (apologies to everyone who signed it out after me). It’s a distraction that forced me to focus on the car, the act of driving, and not my jammed sinuses. Finally healthy, I dropped the top on a semi-warm day with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees. It was crisp. Notes of burning wood, likely from someone’s fireplace, hung in the air. Blasting the heat, I soaked in the moment and was reminded of the warmer spring days that lie ahead when the Miata will again be the most sought-after car in the Autoblog fleet.

Sure, a big crossover like a CX-5 with a higher view of the road, more space, and seat heaters makes for a more comfortable daily driver in winter in the northern United States. But how interactive is that in the summer? In our introduction last July, we laid out the chief reason for adding this Mazda to our long-term fleet: “Because it’s a Miata, and we like fun.” Even in winter that proved to be true.

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Mazda patents show rotary engine for range-extended EV

Two years ago, Mazda introduced a fascinating range-extended electric car called the Mazda2 RE Range-Extender. It took an electric Mazda2, and dropped in an itty-bitty 330cc rotary engine. It wasn’t the rotary-powered sports car we had hoped for, but it seemed like a unique way to keep the quirky engine alive and kicking. But not long after the car’s reveal, it seemed to disappear. Now the basic idea has resurfaced with a few modern updates in a couple of US patents.

The first patent is pretty straightforward and describes a range-extended EV similar to the BMW i3. At the front is an electric motor driving the front wheels. At the back is an internal combustion engine that powers an electric generator. In the middle is a lithium-ion battery for storing and delivering electricity. It’s the same set-up as that Mazda2.

The second patent is for an engine start-and-stop system, but specifically for rotary engines. The system is designed to shut off a rotary engine when not needed, much as modern piston engines do. It also stops the rotor in a position that closes the intake port to ensure no fuel or exhaust emissions slip out through the intake tract. This is necessary since there are no valves in a rotary, and air and exhaust come through ports that are “opened” and “closed” by the rotor itself. The patent also describes the possibility of firing a spark plug after the fuel has been cut to eliminate any leftover fuel emissions. This system would theoretically improve a rotary engine’s fuel economy and emissions significantly, which would be a boon as those are two of the rotary’s major weaknesses.

Mazda range-extended EV patent drawing
The rotary-engine patent also includes the same range-extended powertrain drawing as the first patent. It’s there as a description of a possible application. And in such an application, where the rotary wouldn’t have to run all the time, the system could take advantage of the rotary’s inherent strengths. Weight can be kept low thanks to the engine’s small dimensions, which should help in keeping the car sprightly and efficient. Rotaries are renowned for smoothness, too, so it shouldn’t need too much refining and sound deadening, the latter of which adds more weight. The small size would also help with packaging, leaving more space for people, cargo, or possibly batteries.

And since it has been patented, the company may be looking to bring the system to market. Unfortunately, it’s no guarantee, since the company also patented a new turbocharged rotary engine that seemed suitable for a sports car, but nothing more has surfaced, and the company squashed hopes of a production RX-Vision. Even so, we certainly hope this powertrain reaches production. It’s an interesting iteration of the range-extended EV idea, and production of it would keep our hope for another rotary sports car alive.

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