My Miata: A sunny day, a bright red MX-5 with a retractable hardtop. Heaven! (Jim Motavalli photo)
Can a "green" car also be fun? Definitely so. Consider the word "hybrid" does not add any magic properties. Cars that get 30-mpg are created equal, hybrid or not.
Here's my top five list of green (or greenish) cars that are also affordable and fun to drive. Being a convertible helps:
Honorable mention should go to the Saturn Sky/Pontiac Solstice twins, but both their divisions are dying.
I was lucky enough to spend some time recently with my number one pick, the Mazda MX-5 Miata, and have my first encounter with its retractable hardtop.
It must have looked pretty crazy: A couple of jokers in a freezing church parking lot, grinning wildly as the top went up and down on a bright red Mazda MX-5 retractable. But how else to demonstrate the properties of the folding metal hardtop that ups the fun quotient of the Miata, which debuted in 1989 and, in 2000, became the bestselling two-seat convertible (ie, sports car) in history? More than half a million had been sold worldwide by that point, swamping the Miata's spiritual role model, the Lotus Elan. And why not? The Miata is an Elan that actually worked.
I love Edmunds.com's description of the void that Mazda filled with the Miata. "MG had sold its last decrepit MGB in 1980," it said. "No tears were shed when Triumph gave up and pulled out in ‘81. The last Fiat 124 Spider was sold to some fearless (or ignorant or deluded) soul in ‘85 as a ‘Pininfarina Azzurra.' Really, the only four-cylinder, front-engine classic two-seat roadster for sale in the U.S. at that time was the Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce, which was essentially just the 1966 Duetto with ugly bumpers. Any manufacturer with perception and bravery could have fed the world's appetite for an affordable true sports car. But it was Mazda that did it."
The Miata's hardtop folds in 12 seconds. With many retractable hardtops, it's all good until you put that top down--and it takes up half the trunk. The Miata is space-challenged to begin with--even CDs have to be stashed under a hatch between the seats. But the miracle of modern Mazda science means that the Miata top can disappear without compromising any luggage space. Losing the trunk is an occupational hazard with many retractable hardtops, and there have been a blizzard of them lately, including the Ferrari California, the Volkswagen Eos, Mercedes SL, Cadillac XLR, Chrysler Sebring, Volvo C70 and more.
I've driven nearly all of those competitors (including the Ferrari, believe it or not) and can say that the Miata makes the best use of the retractable technology so far. Doffing the top is fast and effortless, and -- overcoming a major styling challenge -- the car looks totally comfortable with it in place (though rear vision suffers big time).
The New York Times predicted back in 2006 that retractable hardtops could take the place of standard fabric roofs (like the one on my 1963 Dodge Dart). I see the appeal: With top up, they're as snug as a sedan, Provided the electric motors don't give out, the hardtop should be longer lived than the ragtop, too.
The operating philosophy of the Miata, is "jinba ittai," meaning roughly "horse and rider as one." In an ancient artistic ritual, it refers to an archer hitting a target at full gallop -- and he or she better look good doing it. As someone with longtime Miata lust, I believe that Mazda has been hitting that target for 20 years. The third generation model, first shown in 2005, benefits from a really cool, 170-horsepower four-cylinder 16-valve engine that is ideally placed for excellent weight distribution. Although some complain that stock Miatas are "underpowered," tweaking them with bigger engines or tack-on accessories destroys the "jinba ittai."
My 2010 test car, showing off last year's partial restyling, made great growly noises and was incredibly fun to throw into corners. It's without a doubt the best Miata ever. Does that make it green? Not quite, but 21 mpg in town and 28 on the highway is better than many hybrids I could mention, and the EPA gives it a seven out of 10 (with 10 being the best) global warming score. It will use $1,751 worth of $2.50 a gallon gas in an average 15,000-mile year.
The Miata is probably about as green as the average Corolla or Civic, though making it available as a PZEV, or partial-zero emission vehicle (as those others are), would be a good step. Another would be losing the requirement for premium fuel. The Miata gets a 67 in the Yahoo Green Rating.
A word about price: The retractable hardtop adds slightly less than $2,000 to the cost of the car. My totally loaded tester was $31,150, which is the first time I can recall a Miata going over $30,000.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.