Take Your Pick

By Hannah Wallace September 30, 2006

In Florida summers, we appreciate mobile air conditioning. But when the temperature drops a few degrees, it's time to drop the top. As luck would have it, two convertibles showed up in my driveway the same week. (I know, I know. It's rough, but somebody has to test new cars.)

First to arrive was a Mazda Miata Sport, the MX-5. On its heels was a Ford Mustang GT convertible with a red leather interior. Very different cars, actually, despite both being convertibles. But one might be right for you.

Both pay homage to their origins. The Miata is in its third incarnation, but still looks very much like the 1990 original. And the 2006 Mustang is a retro-styled throwback to its heyday of 1967. It's easy to imagine yourself Steve McQueen as you tool about, top down for all to see you.

They are both front-engine, rear-wheel drive cars, but the differences are many:

The Miata is a two-seater, a true sports car in the tradition of the MG or Austin-Healey. The Mustang is the original pony car, a special breed of muscle car, and is the sole survivor, having conquered challenges from Camaros, Firebirds, Challengers and Barracudas. It's a four-seater.

The Miata is rather austere. The top is lowered quickly and easily by hand after releasing a single latch mid-windshield inside the car. The Mustang has far more luxury touches, including a motorized top.

The Miata is for the single guy or girl. The Mustang can handle a small family.

The prices reflect different intended buyers. The Miata Sport starts at $22,935 and our tester topped out at $23,995, thanks to a sport suspension package that you can do without if comfort is your preference.

The Mustang GT convertible bases at $31,145. Our tester had gobs of options (some which should rightly be standard equipment) bringing its drive-away price to $36,410.

The Miata's performance can be characterized as spritely. Its exhaust note remains crisp as it winds through six gears, which seem like too many except that the gear ratios are closely spaced for acceleration reasons; even at highway speed, in the top gear, the Miata is revving above 3,000 rpm. The Mustang has the best sounding exhaust note of any car made in America. It's throaty and muscular, rumbling a get-out-of-my-way message.

The Miata sips gasoline with EPA ratings of 24/30. The Mustang enjoys gas with its 17/23 rating. With either car, you'll likely do worse, since the tendency while driving is to push the performance envelope. That Mustang V8 engine, by the way, is more than twice the size of the 2-liter in the Miata.

Everything about the Miata has been carefully designed to aid the driver. The side window sill, for instance, is exactly the right height to rest the left elbow on without wind blowing up your armpit. The accelerator and brake pedals are spaced so a heel-and-toe action can be used when downshifting gears going into a corner. It's a joy to drive this car, top up or down.

The Mustang, on the other hand, seems older than a 2006 model. And it's not just the retro styling. Despite its pricey sticker, it's basic in many ways. Even side air bags are an option at $370, and are for the front passengers only. This car does not pioneer any safety features, in fact, and needs many now found on models above $30,000.

It is, however, very easy to drive. Effort won't make the driver of a Mustang GT convertible sweat. Note that the 5-speed automatic transmission in the tester is a $995 option that I wouldn't skip. Stick-shift Mustangs are a chore to drive, with gear changes far more difficult than the snick-snick shifts of a Miata. An automatic is not necessary in the Miata; it is preferable for the Mustang.

Our tested Mustang also had a $1,295 option called a Shaker 1000 Audio System. You can guess what that is.

You feel safer in the Mustang because of its size, but the Miata has a number of safety features, including anti-lock brakes and dual front and side air bags as standard equipment. The Mustang has ABS and traction control, plus the dual front air bags.

I'd love to own and drive either of these cars, but it's the Miata that has (since my first test drive of one) won my heart. This car turns every drive into a joy ride. It's just impossible to be unhappy in a Miata; it puts a smile on the dourest face.

But the Mustang was my choice when facing heavy traffic around town. It feels safer and the automatic makes it a breeze to drive. It blasts away from stop signs. And it's comfortable on uneven roads.

So take your pick as cooler weather beckons. You won't go wrong with either.

Filed under
Show Comments