Auto123 tested out the 2021 Mazda MX-5, but with an automatic transmission. Which led to some reflection on the type of buyer who would opt for such a configuration.
See also: 2021 Mazda MX-5 Long-Term Review
The Mazda MX-5 is known throughout the industry and especially among driving fans as one of the most fun-to-drive cars out there. Frankly, that's a fact and it's undeniable. All you have to do is get behind the wheel of this thing to understand.
And it's been that way for nearly 32 years.
Not surprisingly, folks often associate the fun to be had behind the wheel of this model with handling the manual transmission. Over the years, the versions we've been given to drive by Mazda invariably came with a stick shift.
But the product offering does include an automatic transmission. And what about it? Is the MX-5 as fun to drive if you have virtually nothing to do behind the wheel? It's a question that's been nagging at me for a while now, enough so in fact that it led me to check with Mazda to see if it was possible to test drive an automatic-transmission version.
Well, it was possible. And I’ll have more on the experience a bit later. But first I’ll indulge in a little analysis of the clientele that checks off the automatic transmission when building their MX-5. Some of the numbers are sure to surprise you.
First of all, you should know that the automatic transmission is available with every version of the MX-5, just like the manual transmission. And the cost is the same in both cases. So you can't point to price or equipment to explain the strength or weakness of either configuration.
Manual or automatic?
The MX-5 has been sold for over 30 years, long enough for different trends to mark its history. We'll focus on the numbers from the last two years, since October 2019, in order to paint a current picture. Because as with so many things, motorists’ habits and preferences change. It's obvious that customers weren't looking for the same thing in the 90s as today.
In the last two years, then, are buyers of the MX-5 leaning toward the automatic or manual transmission?
From October 2019 to September 2020 (so, 2020 models), 48 percent of the Mazda MX-5 units sold nationwide were equipped with the automatic transmission. A tie, practically. From October 2020 to May 2021 (2021 models), there was a slightly greater interest in the manual transmission as the proportion of automatics dropped to 41.8 percent, meaning 58.2 percent of buyers went for the manual configuration.
This slight uptick in the manual transmission option, in an automotive sphere where manual transmissions are becoming rarer and rarer, is interesting and reassuring.
In my home province, the manual transmission has always been more popular than elsewhere in Canada. However, the figures tell a surprising story: over the same two periods as above, the sales percentages of MX-5s with automatic transmissions were 65.3 and 69.4 percent, respectively.
Say what? Honestly, I expected the opposite. Another wave of calculations revealed that 51.4 and 53.9 percent (for 2020 and 2021, respectively) of all automatic-transmission MX-5s sold by Mazda Canada in the last two years were sold in Quebec, while the proportion of mechanical transmission versions was only 25.2 and 17.1 percent (for 2020 and 2021).
This is a bit puzzling, because generally Quebec motorists are perceived to have a greater liking for sportier, more dynamic driving. To wit, the data also shows that 37.8 and 32.5 percent of all MX-5s sold in Canada (2020 and 2021) were sold in Quebec. That means more Miatas are sold in Quebec than in Canada, per capita. However, it's clear we’re now preferring automatics here. As I said, things change…
How about the man-woman divide?
So is there reason to think either gender has a decided preference for one transmission or the other?
First of all, who buys an MX-5? Historically, this car was once referred to as a “lady’s car”. That's no longer the case, however, because at least since October 2019 (thus for 2020 and 2021 models), Mazda sells the car to more men than women. Currently, 76.2 percent of buyers are male.
But that doesn’t answer the question: Is there a gender split when it comes to transmission type? Yes and no.
For the 2020 and 2021 model-years, 64.3 percent of MX-5s purchased by men had a third pedal; only 22.6 percent wanted an automatic and only that. That leaves 13 percent for whom the transmission was less important than colour or trim.
And women? The numbers show an increasing preference for automatic transmissions, and in 2021 a majority have gone for that option. It could be that the smaller sample size for this year exaggerates the trend.
In any event, for the period between October 2019 and May 2021, 45.3 percent of female buyers opted for the manual transmission, and 37.7 percent for the automatic. 17 percent gave priority to other considerations and had no preference for one transmission or the other.
The upshot of all this is that while men are somewhat more interested in the manual than women, the majority of both sexes prefer three-pedal driving when it comes to the MX-5.
Except in Quebec. In the past, the manual was still preferred, but that’s no longer so. Go figure. Perhaps the sales figures of the next few years might show the pendulum swing back the other way…
Here we are at the crux of the matter. How much fun is an MX-5 with an automatic transmission? Obviously, I'm not in a position to be completely neutral - I bought a 1992 Nissan Stanza with a manual transmission a few years ago... simply to have the joy of driving a car with three pedals.
For me, the pleasure comes from this type of transmission. However, objectively, I must admit that the experience of piloting an MX-5 is still very pleasant, even if you’re letting the transmission do the work for you. Once at cruising speed, there’s no difference if you have a stick or not. And in this configuration, you always have the option of steering wheel paddles to feel some control over the machine.
On a 10-point fun scale, I would put the automatic at 7.5 - 8 with the paddles. Because to be honest, the car, its handling, its roof that takes two seconds to raise or lower (literally, it’s two seconds, or even less) and its rigid chassis are the elements we appreciate most. With the manual gearbox, the pleasure is multiplied tenfold... provided you like to play with your hands and feet.
In the end, of course, that's what it's all about: choosing what you prefer. And really, the numbers show that’s what consumers are doing.
As for those currently undecided about what camp they’re in, I have one piece of advice: drive each version to see which one appeals to you more. Offer yourself that pleasure at least.