By Derek Price
It's hard to believe Mazda's Miata debuted in the decade that brought us Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, glow-in-the-dark clothes, Atari and hairstyles larger than some aircraft.
A lot has changed since then -- thank goodness -- but the Miata is the same smile-producing funmobile that made it famous worldwide after its 1989 introduction.
Since then, Mazda's little roadster has undergone changes to give it more power, more luxury, an up-to-date style, a stiffer body and better handling -- not that it was bad to begin with. It was good enough to spawn a roadster renaissance that produced some incredible automobiles (consider the BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster and Honda S2000), and it's worshipped by Miata owners' clubs around the world.
If you like idolizing machines, there are good reasons to worship the Miata. First is its terrific handling, which is taut and precise without being overly harsh as it zips down twisty mountain roads. Front-rear weight distribution is perfect, and tire slippage in corners can be dialed in with minor adjustments to the throttle -- a driver's dream come true.
While the Miata is no drag racer, its balance is what makes it stand out. A 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine produces 142 smooth horsepower and a symphonic exhaust burble, much like the classic British roadsters it emulates.
Steering is driver oriented with a racecar-precise feel, and the six-speed manual gearbox is an example of perfection. Its abundant mechanical feedback and short, concise throws make it one of the best transmissions available at any price.
That's especially impressive, considering the Miata starts just over $21,000 and tops out in the $25,000 range. The Z3, S2000 and Boxster cost thousands more, and while they offer more power and refinement, the Miata is no less fun. Its closest competitor pricewise is the mid-engined Toyota MR2 Spyder, a wild looking roadster whose "look-at-me" styling is the antithesis of the Miata's classic, graceful lines.
Its styling is pretty without grabbing too much attention, at least not with adults who prefer the brand cachet and exclusivity of BMW and Porsche. Aside from the occasional smile and wave from passing drivers, kids were the only people who went crazy over its looks.
"I want your car!" one boy yelled from the window of a luxury SUV that cost more than twice the sticker price of a Special Edition Miata.
Of course, his SUV-driving mom probably wouldn't like the inherent impracticality of sports cars. It has only two seats, there's very little storage space inside, and the tiny trunk is worthless for big shopping trips. This car is most suitable as a garage companion for more practical vehicles.
As that boy drove away in the stodgy, expensive SUV, I couldn't help but feeling just like him as he imagined driving the little Miata.
It may not be a Porsche, but it's still a dream car.