I’m not too keen on tragedies in literature and media. The quintessential classic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, all about love, loss, and fate resulting in an dour ending is a text that I’m sure most American schoolchildren have studied relentlessly right around the time in childhood when idealistic dreams began withering on the vine, and as wonderful a piece of literature it may be, I will always resent it for the deep study of tragedy it planted in my young self.
There is enough tragedy in real life, I don’t need to dwell on more tragedy in my entertainment.
What does this have to do with Miatas? Well, not only did my 2016 ND Miata meet a tragic end, I’m pretty sure that the entire model will reach a tragic end as well. But let’s rewind a bit and start from the beginning.
The new hotness
After a disastrous 2015 season with my Street Touring Roadster (STR) prepared NC Mazda Miata, I was ready to move on to a new autocross class, preferably one where I couldn’t hang myself with terrible setup choices. That meant that Street class, an evolution of the old Stock class, was where I wanted to land with my new competition car.
Conveniently, Mazda had just released a brand new roadster, which meant that I could still have a dual purpose daily and competition car. The 2016 ND chassis Miata had just started arriving at dealerships in late 2015, and I rang up my local dealership to see if I could test drive the single example they had on their lot.
I was too late, as it was sold the day it arrived. Well, let me know when you get the next one in, I told the salesperson on the phone, as I’d really like to test drive one.
A couple of days pass, and my phone rings while I’m at work. It’s the dealership. I quickly excuse myself from work and head to a quiet, isolated hallway in the building, where I continue the conversation. A Soul Red Miata had just arrived at noon, and was I interested in taking a look at it? Hell yes, I was interested in taking a look at it!
After finishing work, I made a beeline to the Mazda dealership. There it was, sitting out front: a deep metallic Soul Red Miata, in the desirable Club trim with the limited slip differential and outfitted with the desirable but pricey Brembo Brake package and body kit.
I took it for a drive and immediately fell in love. The engine was super peppy, and the car felt unbelievably lithe. The seats were awesome, and the steering wheel fit perfectly in my hands. I had to buy it.
Surprisingly, despite the fact that Ford and Mazda had split up years ago, I was still eligible for Mazda S-Plan pricing as a Ford employee, and I ended up getting a small discount off the car.
With the ND Miata in the fleet, I sold the NC Miata to my friend Shane in the Washington DR Region. If I didn’t end up with the 2nd ND Miata in the Detroit Metro area, I’m sure that it was one of the first dozen at least.
The first autocross outing
With just a few hundred miles on the odometer, I went back home to visit my folks and run the Miata with my old car club, the Champaign County Sports Car Club.
You may remember that I made a reputation for myself in the club for constantly spinning out and hitting cones in my NA Miata back when I was first learning how to drive a RWD car. What you may not know is that when I had my NC Miata, I had a habit of hitting cones that would then knock the side sill panels clean off the car, resulting in several replacement pieces and the substitution of some plastic clips with metal bolts. (So if you noticed that the STR car suddenly had silver side sills, that’s why!)
I was back to old form with my new ND Miata, hitting cones all over the place, spinning out a whole bunch, and knocking my side sill panel clean off the car. I’m willing to bet very good money that I was the very first autocrosser in the US to lose a side sill off his ND, ha!
I show clips from the video above to teach students at the Detroit Region SCCA Solo School what not to do.
So, what gives? I could provide the flimsy racer’s excuse that I went from a stiffly spring, flat cornering STR car to a softly sprung, roly poly C Street (CS) car, and that I didn’t adjust my driving style, but that’s hogwash. The truth was that all the mistakes that I’d make in the STR car, masked by the massive grip of 255mm wide tires on 9″ wide wheels, were unmasked when I found myself in a stock car with limited grip on its terrible 205mm wide tires on 7″ wide wheels.
Aside: if you’re watching the video above and not sure what’s going on, the key thing to understand is that performance driving isn’t about happy hands or happy feet or aggressive inputs, it’s all about weight transfer and tires. Much how learning how to juggle means learning how to throw, not just catch, or how learning how to dance means learning about frame and movement of your core, not just footwork, learning to drive fast means learning how and when to shift a car’s weight, not just aggressive driving. With such a softly sprung car, I’m simply too sudden with my inputs to smoothly shift weight to the axle that needed grip the most.
That said, in my defense, the blooper reel only shows all the epic failures I had that weekend. When you have six runs per day, you can take chances on at least five of them!
The tragic flaw: the transmission
I wasn’t the only one to pick up an early build ND. Plenty of my autocross friends picked up examples of their own, and we started the usual sharing of insights, setup notes, and issues right away.
It didn’t take long before we realized that broken transmissions were an endemic problem.
While there were definitely stories of street driven only cars breaking transmissions, it was far and away most common in the competition cars. The autocross cars were breaking in second, with the road race cars breaking in higher gears. The current consensus is that what breaks these transmissions is sudden torque loading, as one might do when rushing up the gears in a max acceleration run, or during rapid on-and-off throttle inputs in a single gear (the failures experienced by autocrossers and road racers).
This may be due to how the ND was designed. While the NC was marketed as following a “gram strategy,” it really didn’t — the paper rags would parrot the line that Mazda shaved ounces off the rear view mirror while missing the fact that it had a completely unnecessary 30 pound dual exit muffler for a 4-cylinder motor. But the ND definitely did everything possible to cut down on weight.
Which would explain the choice around the transmission. I don’t know enough to say what parts of the transmission were offered on the altar of Colin Chapman’s “simplify, then add lightness” religion, but I do know it’s weird, with sixth gear being 1:1 and the rear gear being an absurd 2.866.
There were plenty of stories of workarounds and Plan Bs. For example, one competitor allegedly bought a spare transmission, buckled it in the passenger seat, and took it to Spring Nationals in Lincoln, just in case a transmission swap was required at the event. Luckily for us racers, Mazda Motorsports was extremely helpful in expediting warranty transmission replacements.
How many revisions of the ND transmission do you think would be necessary to get to one that doesn’t break? We’re currently up to number five. So far, I have personally yet to see a V5 transmission break, but I don’t know if that’s because the cars that have V5 transmissions (ND1s that had their transmissions replaced under warranty and ND2s with the increase in power that come stock with the V5) may not have enough miles for the problem to surface or if the problem is actually resolved.
If you want an ND with a bulletproof transmission, there now exists a swap that allows you to bolt the 6-speed from an NC Miata into an ND Miata. You’d have to also swap out the rear gear for something that isn’t so tall.
Or you can buy the ND’s more reliable cousin, the Fiat 124 Spider, or as I like to call it, the Fiata. Fiatas come with the NC Miata’s 6-speed transmission and a reasonable rear gear already installed — you’ll just have to make do with Fiat’s 1.4L MultiAir turbo motor instead of Mazda’s SkyActiv 2.0L.
You know you’re in the mirror universe when you can say, with a straight face, that a Fiat may be the more reliable alternative.
By the 18k mile mark, the shift action in my own Miata was getting really notchy. It was only a matter of time before I would need a transmission replacement myself. I briefly considered letting all my friends codrive and do fun runs in the car at a local Solo event so I could time the transmission breakage for the end of the season, but unfortunately, I lost the car before winter came.
Tragic end for the Miata
As it turned out, 2016 was the year that I did an epic cross-country road trip with the ’66 Mustang, so I didn’t spend as much time as I had planned in National Solo competition. Not only that, I had purchased yet another competition car, and had been using that car instead most of the time.
I was still happy to have the ND Miata around. It was a perfect daily driver with great fuel mileage and cheap insurance, and a bright spot to look forward to before and after work.
There is a relatively treacherous intersection outside the Ford engineering campus that is also a fun little sweeper corner. Most cars slow down for the turn, but in the Miata, you could cruise right around it at the speed limit.
I was heading home to cook myself some lunch, and the sweeper was on the route back home. As usual, I kept my speed constant as the road swept to the left. On the opposing traffic side was a car making a left turn against traffic into the entrance road for the Ford campus. Thinking he could turn in front of me before I was in the intersection, he gunned it and misjudged my closing speed. We had a full front impact collision, blowing out the airbags in both cars.
Thankfully, everyone was okay. The same couldn’t be said the for half dozen pizzas in the back seat of the other car that were supposed to be for a team lunch. Oops.
The cops came out and filed an accident report. Two tow trucks came and dragged the wrecks away. I walked the rest of the way back home, cooked myself some lunch, hopped in one of my other cars, and went back to work.
Another Miata in the future?
I could have simply replaced the wrecked Miata with another one, but I told myself that I’d buy an ND2 in the future, by which time I was sure that the transmission issues would be completely rectified. I now find myself in a position where I’m looking to buy another autocross car for Street class, and an ND2 Miata for CS would be the obvious answer, yet I can bring myself to pull the trigger and buy one.
Perhaps it’s because I’m still not yet convinced that any ND Miata will be able to go any serious distance without transmission issues.
I do wonder what will happen to the Miata as a car if that ends up being the case. Much like how we joke about how one of the regular maintenance items for any RX-8 is “replace the engine every 80k miles,” which has resulted in the prices of an otherwise amazing car to crater into the ground, I wonder if the transmission woes will doom the ND Miatas to a similar fate.
If that happens, it will be truly tragic. It’s the best looking, best handling, most powerful, and safest Miata ever built. It would be a shame if the ND Miata ends up being the end of the line for one of the most important sports cars in automotive history. I think it’s already happening; prices on used Miatas aren’t very strong, and new Miatas are barely moving off dealership lots. Can you justify building a new Miata when the current one is completely shunned by the market?
Still, I think about an ND2 from time to time. A local competitor and friend just bought himself a used ND2 Miata in Soul Red, a Club package car just like my old ND1 but without the Brembo Brakes and body kit. He had it up north the past few weekends at our Oscoda events, and I was all over his car.
It was a blast, he told me. He had driven a fully prepped CS ND2 Miata with a large front sway bar and super sticky tires, and that car was a lot less fun than his completely stock Miata with the stock small front sway bar and no-grip tires. I’m going sideways pretty much everywhere, he told me. It’s a hoot.
Just like my first foray with my ND.