My girlfriend decided to do a semester abroad in Cologne, Germany. When she told me she was doing this, I planned on visiting. When I planned on visiting, I planned on renting a car.
I drive stick every day, which turned out to be good. My only options without driving stick were some flavor of Citroen or Peugeot hatchback (according to the SIXT website).
You will be shocked to know I did not want either of these cars.
I couldn’t get anything super nice, (because I’m 21 and they’re right not to trust me), so I really had two choices. A 1 series hatch, or an ND Miata.
I know. You can’t get a 1 series hatch in the US yadayadayada… but I have driven 1 series before. I know what they’re like. I didn’t want a hatchback.
What I did want was a convertible, and the Miata checked that box. My other convertible options were an A3 convertible, and a Beetle convertible. Both of which fall under the category of, “The salesman said plenty of dudes buy it!” The same goes for the Miata, but I feel like those other cars are worse in this regard.
Surprisingly when we went to pick up the car, all of the available MX-5s were automatic. I stressed to the guy at the desk I would much prefer a stick. He explained he didn’t really understand, because apparently in Europe most people prefer automatic transmissions if they can get them. I guess it’s the same in the US but I didn’t really expect it.
Perhaps he liked me though, because after some muttering in German to his coworkers, he unreserved the only stick Miata on the lot from somebody who was going to pick it up in a few hours, and gave it to me. Guy was honestly a hero. Sounded a lot like Sebastian Vettel too.
As it turns out, this particular Miata was brand spanking new. It had 14km on it (like 8 miles). I was the first person to actually drive it.
After figuring out how to open the trunk, I realized how pathetically small it was. We only had two carry on sized bags and they barely fit. We had to put the one backpack we also had with us behind the headrests where the top folds into. The only other place to store things was a little box between the seats.
I called this box “the gun box”. The only thing it seemed like it was large enough to hold was a handgun. It was too small for a laptop or anything. We ended up keeping a bag of pretzels in it, as handguns are hard to come by in Germany.
Our first stop was the city of Trier, near the border of Luxembourg.
Trier was a major Roman city. There’s still a lot of ruins from that era laying around, including the very impressive Porta Nigra, or Black Gate. It is the original city gate constructed around 170 AD. Not bad for a bunch of Italians. Apparently it was at one point converted into a church of some kind, and then Napoleon visited Trier in 1804 and said something along the lines of, “change it back”.
The people in Trier seemed to like Americans the most out of any of the places we went. I don’t think they get a lot of international tourism. The waitress at the restaurant we ate lunch at kept busting my balls about what kind of pizza to get. She apparently learned English from watching Grey’s Anatomy. It seems to me like if you crack a few casual jokes to most German people, they think you’re like a cool American, and then the whole interaction is very pleasant.
The city of Trier has some small mountains across the river which provide a very nice view of the city.
The roads weren’t bad either. Sometimes it was hard to tell whether you were on an actual road or somebodies driveway. The Miata was plenty small enough for the petite roads, and was so far about as good as my expectations.
The clutch feel is excellent for a stock car, and as good as any new car I’ve driven. The pickup on it was predictable, and the feedback through the pedal was good. Felt better than a Focus ST.
Coming from an E46 M3, the size and weight of the pedal made it sort of feel like a little toy. Not in a bad way though. The shifter is fantastic and provides an amount of feedback that I can only compare to my 1974 BMW 2002. It was both refreshing and relieving to feel the amount of reassuring, handshake-like confidence I got from it. I always knew everything I wanted to know about the transmission when I changed gears. Nothing about it felt rubbery, dishonest or disconnected.
The throw was just about perfect. The flywheel felt a little heavy coming from an M3, but it was a really nice balance. The engine was loud enough for me to not have to stare at the tachometer to know when to change gears, too.
I think the car looks great too. Definitely the best looking Miata so far. If the car wants to break its ‘hairdressery’ image, this is a giant leap in the right direction. I think it looks aggressive and even a little exotic without looking as furious as many new cars do. Any aggression displayed in its little Miata face is definitely justified too, as the engine is a punchy unit (this is not all I will say about the engine).
Overall I think Trier was a quaint, quiet little city that I liked a fair bit. Our hotel was like an old monastery or something right on the river. Really nice and very inexpensive. Beats staying in a sweaty hostel with thirty guys named Fritz and some college girls from University of Tampa. I know this isn’t a travel website or anything, I’m just trying to give my opinion here.
From Trier, we headed five and a half hours south to the town of Füssen in southern Germany, right on the border with Austria. I told my girlfriend to take a picture of the Picklemann truck because I call my dog pickle man.
This trip from Trier to Füssen was the first time I had ever been on the autobahn, something I honestly didn’t even think about when I rented the car.
A lot of people have the impression that the Autobahn is like, one big wide road that goes through Germany and you can do 200mph on it all the time. In truth, the Autobahn is a lot like the interstate highway network back in the states. Most of the autobahn I drove on was delimited. The speed limits in the restricted areas are typically around 100kph to 130 kph (about 60 to 80 mph), so pretty reasonable. Most people abide by them, too. It isn’t abundantly clear when the derestricted areas start in some cases, though.
Sometimes there are signs that look like a regular speed limit sign, except it’s just grey with lines through it. That basically means it’s open season. However, sometimes the speed limit signs just end, and you don’t realize its not restricted until Klaus rips by you in a sprinter van at 130 mph. The fastest most people go is around 130mph. The fastest I saw somebody go was two guys outside of Stuttgart in an SLR Stirling Moss. I didn’t realize how rare the car was at the time, or even what it was, so I didn’t order my girlfriend to take a picture. That was about as fast as I’ve ever seen a car go on a public road. Thing took off like a cartoon and must have hit 180mph.
When I got my chance in the Miata, I would typically floor it in 5th or 6th gear and cruise at 160kph (around a hundred miles per hour). You learn a few things about the Mazda Miata when you do this:
- The engine may be punchy, but it doesn’t seem to like being wrung out like a soaked rag. It didn’t exactly sound like it was in pain, but it didn’t seem to love it. (I will speak even more about the engine later).
- It is loud.
The convertible top allows a considerable amount of noise in, but this is just a problem with all soft top convertibles. My M3 is worse. At one point on the arrow straight highway to Füssen I had the speedometer pinned at 240kph, on and off, for about half an hour. It was loud. If I could’ve gotten a stick RF, I would have.
The Miata always felt stable and poised at these speeds however, and I never felt like the thing was going to start breaking up or anything. Having the ability to just haul ass down the highway is something I miss about Germany. It was a little alarming at first but once you get used to it, it’s fantastic. People take driving a lot more seriously on the highway in Germany.
We went to Füssen because of the Castle situation, and it did not disappoint.
Ever see that like really ‘castly’ looking castle? This is it. It was actually built around 1900 by the King of Bavaria. I think he was a King. I’m not sure what the exact translation is for his title. Anyway, according to Wikipedia he spent all his dough on it and no one knew what to do with this guy. He died under some pretty fishy circumstances. Literally weeks after this guy kicked the bucket his successor had it opened for paid tours. Guy was practically still warm when they started showing people around.
The castle isn’t a defensive fixture at all, it was far too late for that. It’s really a sort of romanticized palace. Many of the towers and whatnot are just decorative. You cannot go in them.
After spending a few days wandering around the town and the castles with the lovely people of Shenzen, we decided to drive to Berchtesgaden. You know, where Hitler’s house is? Apparently it’s a restaurant now.
The way from Füssen to Berchtesgaden was a pretty nice trip. Almost all of the roads in Germany are perfectly paved. If they aren’t, there’s roadwork going on to make it that way (for better and for worse).
That didn’t really matter though, because the Miata rode just about perfectly. Maybe it’s just from driving the M3 so much, but every bump I hit expecting to be jostled around was handled perfectly. The MX-5 has the perfect balance of sporty and comfortable, and I’ve searched a long time for a car that has that. The steering is also great, especially considering it’s an electric rack. I remember reading all of this electric steering alarmism when the car was first coming out. People running around with their hair on fire like, “IT HAS ELECTRIC STEERING! PACK IT UP!” Like the scene in Spongebob where he forgets his name. It’s bullshit. It feels just as good or better than the benchmark, cheap sports car Focus ST, and almost as good as my M3, which is saying a lot. Could it be better? Yeah. A hydraulic rack would just be better, but it’s not worth complaining about. For reference to another modern car, this chassis and steering feels better than the M235i. It feels more tactile, it feels more tied down, and I felt more confident behind the wheel as a result.
After we arrived at the bus stop to take us up to Hitler’s eagles nest, we found it it was closed. After getting over the fact that we weren’t going to get a cheeseburger in Hitler’s living room, we decided to cross the alps the Salzburg.
Thank god we went to Salzburg.
I found a road on Google Maps that looked incredible. My girlfriend thought it was going to be like a cow path or something. It was not. It was about thirty minutes worth of heaven tier alpine road. Definitely the best drive of my life. I would say it was worth the 8 dollar toll.
The way up was really great, it was the only time during the trip I really noticed the Miata having any kind of lack of power. Most of the time I was in second or third gear. I said I would address the engine, so here it is.
If 1 is “dog s***” slow, 5 is adequate power, and 10 is alarmingly quick, the Miata is somewhere between 5 and 6. The engine has a nice enough mid range, but it never climbs onto its cams or anything. At low RPM it sounds positively agricultural. It sounds like it should have a PTO under the rear bumper. It doesn’t really sound great at any rpm. It also doesn’t sound bad though. It’s just “an engine”. The only interesting noise it made was some kind of gear whine noise in the mid-range that was very faint. The adequate levels of power, and adequate noise it produces make it… adqeuate. Not anything to speak of. It’s punchy, its responsive, but it’s really nothing to talk about. This is kind of a let down, and not really an issue at the same time.
That being said, I feel blessed I had it up in the Alps. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in a 1 series, or an A3, or something. It was the perfect car for the job. The chassis is as nearly perfect as I can imagine. The brakes’ stopping power felt good, and the pedal itself felt great and provided excellent feedback. Some people complain about body roll. I didn’t notice any alarming amounts of body roll. I thought it was just fine. It’s an extremely rewarding car to drive near the limit.
We returned to Füssen that night along the regular Autobahn. It began to rain while we were in Salzburg, which translates to snow up in the Alps. I still feel really lucky I got to do that drive at all. I was smiling the entire time. If you have a chance to drive over the Alps in anything close to a Miata, do it. You will not regret it. You’ll remember the sights, the smells, the feeling of the alpine air, the gear changes… Everything. You know that feeling when your mouth starts to hurt after you’ve been laughing so much? I felt that from the constant grin on my face for nearly an hour. Anybody who likes cars for any reason has to do it. Make sure you have the top down.
On the drives during the following days back around Füssen, I had some time to really reflect on driving the Miata. I thought about how the car felt during cornering, under braking, under acceleration, everything. Was the steering actually good? Is the engine anything special? How did the car ride on this road? I had two more days with the car, and decided to wander into Austria again after dinner for a final backroad shakedown.
The Miata is the best new sports car I have driven, period. It is the only new car that has reminded me of the way an older car drives, which was very surprising. Almost every new car I have driven feels like… It feels like there’s a little person making all of the decisions between everything you try to do, and what the car actually does.
It didn’t have steering that felt like there was a massive rubber bushing in it. The gear change didn’t feel synthetic at all. It felt direct and mechanical. The engine (although not anything to write home about) was linear and predictable. Everything the driver touched to operate this car felt extremely well sorted out. It’s just the little things that got to me. I convinced myself I could never actually buy this car. The trunk was comically useless, there was almost no storage anywhere else, it could only seat one other person, and it was well… not fast.
What else did I not like? I’ll cut to the chase.
The start-stop system on this car, or “i-stop” was positively the most annoying thing during the entire trip. For some reason, it does not have memory. What do I mean? When you turn the car off, it resets. If you turn off start-stop, it will only last as long as the car is on. This may seem reasonable if nothing else has memory either, but other stuff does.
The heated seats have memory, and this doesn’t. Who’s decision was that? The lane departure warning, which is also annoying and useless, has memory (the button right next to it).
Start-Stop is also the only button in the car that requires a long press to turn on or off. If you just press it, nothing happens. You have to hold it down for a few seconds for anything to happen, and there’s nothing telling you that you have to do that. I only discovered it after getting very angry with it and just pushing the button as hard as I could, depressing that entire plastic region of the dashboard. You just know that somebody made the decision for this not to have memory, and whoever did that should be put on trial. It was also one of the roughest starts I have ever felt in a car that has ‘start-stop’. Felt and sounded like a diesel truck turning over. Shook the entire car almost alarmingly.
The car also has a blindspot monitor, which is very sensitive and very annoying. Maybe I just drive like a moron, but it seemed like whenever I put my blinker on to change lanes, if a car was anywhere near the side of the Miata, it would start beeping. I could feel my blood pressure rising every time I considered changing lanes. Ever hear your phone’s alarm during the day after you’ve woken up? After a while hearing those beeps felt like that.
This car’s rear view mirror also seemed pretty jacked up. There was a power button on it for some reason, I’m guessing it was for some sort of dimming, but I did not notice a difference when I hit the button. It also did not adjust so that I could actually see out of the rear window. I probably didn’t notice any dimming because I couldn’t see out of it. I’m not a tall person. I’m like 5’10”. Maybe I’m just stupid, but I could not get the mirror to an adjustment where I could see behind me without slumping down in my seat a few inches. To me this must be some sort of mistake on my part, because there’s no way they didn’t figure that out. Seemed like a really obvious thing to get right.
The coolant temp gauge on the dashboard was also not very easy to read, and the infotainment system looked like the home screen I had on my PSP when I was in middle school.
The car beeps whenever you put it into reverse. Why? It has a reverse lockout. Reverse feels like its in another state. I know I’m changing into reverse. Why does it beep? I feel like Trump complaining about this.
“I asked my people, why does it beep? Why does it beep when its in reverse? They said we don’t know! You hear it. When you change gears, it goes… Beep! I said, know the car is in reverse. I put it there, you know, in reverse, and… Beep! Unbelievable. We gotta get smart, people! You see what they’re doing! We have to get smart.”
To me, it seems like they got everything about the driving experience so right, the regulations who make cars annoying were rubbing their palms ready to try and ruin it.
I’m finished complaining.
By the end of the trip, I knew where I stood with the car. I liked it a lot, it was everything I expected it to be. I wasn’t in love with it, it was just a nice car to have for this little trip I went on, and nothing else. It was too impractical to buy, because it was just a useless little car to do anything besides drive in.
Then I had to return it.
After 1300 miles, driving this car back to the airport, I had a pit in my stomach. It just happened. I did not want to give it back. It was a useless car! I still think it’s useless! You cannot put ANYTHING or ANYBODY in it. In every day life, you basically can’t take anyone anywhere, you can’t carry anything, and you’ll barely ever drive it. It would have to be a third or fourth car. Your friends will probably make fun of you for buying it too, at least, my friends would. They made fun of me for even renting it! Then I was thinking, well if its a third or fourth car, why not a used M3 or something? For Miata money you can have a much nicer used car. If you’re barely ever gonna drive it the maintenance wont cost anything anyway. I kept running all of these scenarios though my head about all of the logical reasons why I could never have one. It’s a car that’s literally only useful for driving.
Then I realized, that’s why I just didn’t want to get rid of it.
It’s only useful for driving.
It reminded me of a part of James May, The Reassembler, actually. This part.
It’s a simple thing. It’s a car… that you drive. That’s the only reason for it’s existence. That’s all it does.
It kept me thinking that the people at Mazda who make the Miata must also understand this. That really it’s a stupid thing. They completely understand how it’s impractical, it’s uncompromising, and it really isn’t good at anything in day-to-day life. They get past all of that. Somebody explained all of that to them, explained to them why they shouldn’t make it, and they said, “Anything else?”
I don’t know. It makes me happy as a car guy. It’s a giant middle finger to the automobile being treated as an appliance. Supercars are an even bigger middle finger, but anybody can buy a Miata.
I’m sure most of the people reading this have watched Top Gear or The Grand Tour. You know how sometimes they get a car on a roadtrip and they tell you it becomes like one of their friends? I always thought that was just made up, because I couldn’t relate. Now I know they are completely truthful when they said that. Every time I parked the car somewhere, I was thinking to myself. “Will the Miata be safe here? How is the Miata?”.
Changing gears DID feel like shaking hands with an old friend. It carried me down the autobahn quite happily at 150mph. It waited patiently in parking lots to take me on my next adventure. It welcomed every corner with enthusiasm, and every mountain road with poise and determination. It was like an excited puppy.
“Come on! Get in! Lets go drive! Where are we going?”
Taking it back to the rental place, I just felt like I was tying it to a post and leaving it. I felt like it was still wagging its tail behind me as I was walking away.
I just hope I gave it a good break-in, and I hope it has a lot of great miles ahead of it.