Rear-wheel drive, six speeds, a drop top and 90 miles of curves along the Pacific Coast. This is what driving a car can be.
The Car: Which car company do you think has done more for the sport of driving during our lifetimes? Ferrari? Porsche? McLaren? The exotics may adorn the posters and capture the imaginations of man-children everywhere, but it's actually Mazda which has the most cars racing in America today, led by the humble Miata. In the real world where people actually have to buy real cars with real budgets, it's the only real sports car you can really afford. Want to learn to race? It's a Miata (or a Mazda-powered formula car) you'll be driving at Skip Barber, the school that came up with the idea racing could be taught. Want to watch a race at the best racetrack in the world? It's the company's sponsorship money that keeps the best track in the country — Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca — open.
And I do mean a real sportscar. Front engine, rear wheel drive, a manual transmission, a soft top and one of the lightest curb weights on the road today. That's a formula that was invented by MG, Lotus, Austin-Healey, Triumph and Jaguar during the '50s and '60s, then perfected by Mazda with the addition of reliability and mass production when it first introduced the Miata back in 1989.
This 25th anniversary of the car will be an important one. Not only is the car pictured here a special edition of 100 built to mark that milestone, but next month, the all-new 2015 Mazda Miata will be unveiled. That car will be the highest performing Miata to-date and the most technically advanced. Know what won't change? That perfect sportscar formula described above.
This sold-out 25th Anniversary Edition MX-5 features blacked-out wheels, headlight surrounds and hardtop, along with hand-selected engine internals for precise balance.
The Road: The most scenic road in America and some of the twistiest asphalt available to the public, Highway 1 through Big Sur is rightly our most famous road. The 90-mile stretch along this coast was built at great expense during the 1920s and '30s, using both federal and state funds (including New Deal money), along with prison labor. Bixby Bridge, which spans a 714-foot wide canyon over a creek of the same name was the tallest single-span bridge in the world when it was completed in 1932. Highway 1 became the state's first Scenic Highway in 1965 and has been declared an All American Road by the federal government.
With only two lanes clinging to cliffs above the Pacific Ocean, the views are predictably stunning. That attracts tourists, who come here to look over the edge. And that creates conflicts with drivers like us who are here for the turns.
Achieving a transit of Big Sur without being trapped behind slow moving RVs is a feat of early rising so great that I've only accomplished it once in my 12 or so drives through here. What I did aboard an Aprilia RSV4 that day is not a tale for public record.
And RVs are merely one of the dangers. Busy staring out at the crashing waves or trying to spot whales, drivers frequently cross the double yellows in blind corners. Many even find the sheer frequency and tight radius of the corners too much to handle and lose control of their cars, even at very moderate speeds. The route is also popular with cyclists and drunk old men who don't know how to ride their Harleys.
As an enthusiast, it's always going to be dangerous sharing any road with drivers who don't understand driving is a skill that can — and must — be learned. Here in Big Sur, that disparity can be lethal.
The Drive: Working as Jalopnik's road test editor for five years, I learned two things: 1) I'd rather spend my time outside than in most cars and 2) all the advances in performance that have made virtually every modern car unbelievably fast have also made virtually every modern car unbelievably boring to drive. I'm looking at you here, Porsche.
Wide tires have given even family station wagons the ability to pull an entire G on a skidpan. But, at the expense of controllable slides. Cars now snap oversteer the second they lose grip. Which they don't, because they all have stability control to prevent that from happening. Modern engines make an absolutely insane amount of horsepower, but make it so you have to be going 130mph before it feels like you're actually using them. And you know what hasn't changed in all that time? Speed limits. Most of Highway 1 is 45 or 55mph, less than half the speed you'd have to take it to have fun in something like a 911.
Making only 167bhp from its little 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine, the Miata is an awful lot slower (at least on paper) than most modern performance cars. But, that's also why it's so much fun to drive. In a Miata, you get to use full throttle, you get familiar with what the rev limiter feels like and, wearing comparatively narrow 205/45-17 tires, you'll get to see what oversteer feels like too. It's the only car on-sale today that'll get tail happy at legal speeds.
It's still too fast for tourist traffic, but in this car, you can at least focus on braking points and apexes and heel-and-toeing in the corners — all within some approximation of the speed limit — then relax in traffic on the straights, taking in the views.
I'm probably painting an unflattering picture of the car by starting with its limited straightline speed, which is unfair. The real story here is the fundamental rightness of its dynamics. Everything from the short, sharp throw of its 6-speed shift lever to the feel you get through the brake pedal to the way the cockpit is a just-right home for your body, holding you in place through fast turns — every way in which you interact with and control it — is the real deal. As good as you'll find anywhere, at any price point. It's a car you have to drive, and drive well to get it to go fast, but one that will work with you to make that happen.
The fundamental rightness of this experience is so important, that I couldn't keep it for myself. Halfway through the drive, I pulled over and put my girlfriend in the driver's seat. Dating me, she's becoming a budding gearhead, but she lacks a certain understanding of what separates boring cars from good ones. She lacks a reference point from which she can appreciate how much fun driving can be, how a car can be made to dance with inputs from her hands and feet and what it feels to achieve a true man/machine connection. But, after her spin in the MX-5 on Highway 1, she now knows what driving can and should be.
Do It Yourself: Sitting in Monterey the next day, we got chatting with a father and son about the bright red sportscar parked out front. Yes, it was ours and yeah, driving it up the coast was incredible. The kid had just passed his test, but dad hadn't coughed up for a car yet. You know what you can get on Craigslist for a couple grand? An old Miata in decent condition. I can't think of a better car for learning real driving skills in. Hell, it's what I learned to race in. And I can't think of a better father/son activity than taking care of an old car. A '90s Miata will be an awful lot smaller of a headache than the '60s British cars my dad and I used to try and keep working. They seemed to agree and I hope we just created one more lifelong car enthusiast in the process. One more guy who won't be driving off the road just because it's got a sharp turn in it.
If you want to drive through Big Sur, try and do it on a weekday as soon as the sun's up. You won't be able to see much of the view in the fog, but you will be able to navigate the turns just fine. The best way to guarantee that you're on the road at sun-up is to camp right in the middle of the fun part. The Miata will make it down the dirt road to Prewitt Ridge just fine and probably actually be a lot of fun along the way.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.