Old friend is fun incarnate
Hard to believe the Mazda Miata is only five years old. It seems like it`s been around forever.
The Miata reminds us of the classic British roadsters many of us owned, or at least yearned to own, years ago. So even though it`s still relatively contemporary, it might as well be much older - that`s how timeless and appreciated the styling and mission of the Miata are.
Its many virtues are accessible to everyone, young and old alike. It`s not particularly practical, but it is visceral. It`s not terribly fast, but it is sporty and athletic. And any troubles you may have with it are whisked away as soon as the convertible top is lowered and the wind ruffles your hair.
In its short history, the Miata has become the world`s best-selling convertible and sports car with more than 300,000 units sold worldwide. It has spawned the largest single-marquee owner`s club in the world. Being fans of the Miata ourselves, we understand perfectly why.
Our fun-to-drive test model came with air conditioning, anti-lock brakes and the well-appointed Popular Equipment Package - power-assisted steering, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, and power mirrors, windows and antenna -bringing the base price of $17,500 up to $23,915.
Approaching the Miata is like shaking hands with an old friend. The shape is fresh and modern, yet classic and instantly recognizable. The 2-passenger cabin is enveloped by the curvaceous skin, and the sheet metal is pulled taut over the compact chassis. There are no superfluous lines or shapes to detract from the Miata`s tidy appearance.
The 14-in. aluminum alloy wheels on our test vehicle protruded slightly from the wheel wells, lending the car an aggressive and stable appearance.
When viewed from the front, the elliptical air intake and narrow, almost squinty lights make the Miata look as though It`s grinning like a fool. The headlamps are of the pop-up variety, which allow the hood to drop almost uninterrupted from the windshield to the nose. The so-called power bulge in the center of the hood - presumably for engine clearance - adds a sporty flair and a lot more visual interest to the front end.
The rear of the Miata is as sprightly as the front. The oval stoplamps frame the bulbous rear and a single, chromed exhaust tip juts jauntily out from the bottom. The small trunk houses a temporary spare tire but has room for two people to store enough soft luggage for a long weekend trip.
There`s no denying that much of the Miata`s magic lies in its ability to go topless and, thankfully, the operation of the removable top couldn`t be easier. When you`re in the driver`s seat, all that is required is a (somewhat awkward) reach behind to unzip the plastic rear window and then a release of the two latches on either side of the windshield frame. From there, grasping the handle at the front of the top and giving it a firm flick back instantly lowers the top - a fairly simple and painless operation. An optional tonneau cover can be fitted atop the folded convertible, but to do so requires getting out of the vehicle.
The miata`s interior is where a true Anglophile can really get nostalgic. The instrument panel has a classic British roadster look thanks to the large, round gauges trimmed with a narrow band of chrome. The miata`s vents also are round.
Cabin space is tight, and the driver and passenger are situated extremely close to each other. Because you can`t help but get to know your companion better in such intimate quarters, this makes the Miata a great first-date car.
As one would expect in such a small car, there is little storage space. The tiny bit of shelf space behind the seats is virtually useless because of the stress bar that obstructs it.
Our only complaint with the interior has to do with the vestiges of modern technology. Switches for the electronic mirror and power windows were tiny and difficult to use because of their size and location. The power window controls, for example, were minuscule and situated too far back from the driver`s right hand on the center console to be readily accessible. Old-fashioned hand cranks would be more useful; the interior is so narrow, it`s no problem for even the shortest person to reach across from the driver`s seat to open or close the passenger-side window.
Interior illumination was also lacking. The only light we could find was illogically placed on the center console.
Three major option packages are offered on the Miata in 1995: the aforementioned Popular Equipment Package, the R Package and the luxurious Leather Package. The R Package is an extremely attractive one featuring sport suspension, rear deck spoiler, front air dam and rear skirt, and limited-slip differential. Dual airbags are standard, as is an AM/FM/cassette system, which is an easy-operating and good-sounding unit. A CD changer is available as a stand-alone option.
In terms of price, the Miata represented a fantastic value when it was introduced five years ago. For $12,000 to $13,000, you could buy a fabulously fun-to-drive car. The Miata maintains its fun appeal but is somewhat less of a great value today thanks to the shift in the Japanese yen compared with the U.S. dollar.
Although a sports car first, the Miata isn`t blindingly fast. The performance of the zippy 1.8-liter, 128-hp 4-cylinder never disappoints, largely because of the miata`s low weight. The Miata won`t keep up with the Ford Mustang GT or Chevrolet Camaro Z28, but it never feels sluggish and the engine willingly winds up to its lofty redline. The smooth-shifting, standard 5-speed manual transmission mates perfectly to this engine. A 4-speed automatic transmission is offered, but we suggest you pass on it.
Despite the miata`s diminutive proportions and short wheelbase, the ride is much less jarring than expected. Unfortunately, our test drive took the Miata over some of the worst roads Michigan has to offer - which is saying a lot. On such potholed and broken surfaces, the Miata bounced and shook its passengers. No rattles or other unsavory noises were heard, but the limited wheel travel and firm suspension certainly unsettled the little convertible and, frankly, left passengers longing for a larger car.
The Miata cruises comfortably at highway speeds. It isn`t unsettled by tire ruts and doesn`t wander between lanes or feel otherwise frenzied the way the last Alfa Romeo Spider we drove did.
For the best driving effect, though, find the most serpentine road on the map and point the Miata directly down it, for that is where this car makes its home. The little convertible can hold its own on any stretch of brisk, winding two-lane blacktop. The power steering is light but communicative, always letting the driver know what the front wheels are doing. The stubby shifter is a joy to move, and we found ourselves changing gears merely for fun.
Despite the high smiles-per-mile ratio of the Mazda Miata, it is not a practical choice as a primary vehicle for those who live in 4-season climates. Even with the optional hardtop in place, the small cabin would not be a pleasant place to spend four or five cold, snowy months. Likewise, the miata`s low weight and rear-drive layout would likely conspire to make winter driving an exercise in precision and car control.
By any measure, though, the Miata is fun incarnate. It makes a wonderful companion on all but the bumpiest of roads. And most important, when the top comes off, the weight of the world goes with it.
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