New Car/Review

Mazda

1999 MAZDA MIATA MX-5

by Annabelle Frankl - ex-European Correspondent

Mazda MX-5 Miata (1:17) 28.8, 56k or 200k

An obvious advantage to living in LA, as compared with London, is the weather. The sun shines, the birds cheep, and even if the temperature drops a little in the evening, itís blue skies all the way, virtually every day of the week. Extremely convertible-friendly, in other words. Having a convertible in the UK is sort of like buying lottery tickets; the majority of the time, you wonder why the hell you bothered, but then when your number comes up, even if itís only a $10 win, you realise it was worth all the wait. Because there simply is nothing more enjoyable than having the roof down on a beautiful day and feeling the wind in your hair, no matter how old you, or the car, is, or whether itís a Ferrari or an old VW Beetle.

Or a Miata. Now, you would have to have been in a coma for the past few years not to notice how popular these little cars have become. They are in fact the best-selling 2-seat roadsters in the world; Mazda has sold a huge 450,000 Miatas since their introduction in 1989, and half of those sales have been in North America alone. And I would guess that a very large proportion of those sales have been in California, judging by the amount of them I see on the roads here daily.

Mazda has restyled the 1999 Miata and it is definitely better looking than its predecessor. It has a more aggressive presence, with muscular body styling and better lines. My Miata was an extremely stylish metallic, midnight blue, with tan roof and interior - very striking indeed, and the metallic paint-job was far more impressive than the dull, and common, matte reds or whites that you see at every corner.

I jumped in and went for a serious spin within about 2 minutes of the Miataís arrival and was very pleasantly surprised by what I found. The car was extremely responsive, with a great, short-shift gearbox, which was smooth and very driver-friendly - it just felt great in the hand. The clutch was light and the steering was amazingly touch-sensitive. Mazda have made the chassis of the í99 Miata more rigid and this, plus changes in the geometry of the steering, make for a great ride. The car was extremely Ďchuck-around-ableí, for lack of a better word, and you really could throw it into turns with no fear. Its grip on the road was more secure than superglue and try as I might, sliding was a virtual impossibility. Sunset Blvd again provided me with a nice combination of hills and turns and I could really attack every cornering opportunity with zeal, knowing that the Miata would prove itself worthy of the challenge. Mazda have increased the front and rear track widths on the new Miata, by 10mm at the front and 20mm at the rear, and this no doubt adds some stability during cornering, as does the race-proven, four-wheel double-wishbone suspension design, featuring a lower roll centre for the front suspension, which results in quicker response when cornering. The only problem with traveling at speed on Sunset is the traffic lights which crop up around several corners and are invariably red when you donít want them to be. However, the Miataís four-channel ABS provided the driver with punchy, breaking ability, with no loss of grip or control, even at speed.

The 1999 Miata is powered by a 140 horsepower (138 hp in CA) DOHC 1.8 litre, 4-cylinder engine, and I never once felt there wasnít more under the bonnet than was required. Driving on the freeway, lane changing was a joy, as I could nip in and out of gaps with complete control and maneuverability, the Miata matching my need for a sudden bit of extra pace without any appearance of effort. The new engine comes equipped with a new cylinder head featuring larger, straighter intake and exhaust ports for improved flow, and a new Variable Intake Control System (VICS) further improves engine breathing and part-throttle drivability.

The only adapting needed for driving this car, especially having driven an SUV the week before, was the lack of forward visibility. You really are close to the ground in this car, and when everyone else is driving a truck on raised suspension, your best option may be to look under the car in front! However, with the roof down, there is a great sensation of openness in this car. You can really check out every spot of the road before making a maneuver, which helps to counteract the actions of those who are bit bigger than you and perhaps donít look in their mirrors as much as they should. The roof on the Miata is not automatic, but didnít prove too fiddley. In fact, in the time it took my flatmate to withdraw cash from an ATM, the roof was down and I was just popping on the last of the cover fasteners. The cover has a very snug fit, and getting the ridge at the back to clip into itís groove was the only regular, stumbling block I encountered, but the new, glass rear window (with defroster) means that there is no longer the need to zip or unzip the rear window, making the whole process a lot faster. Putting the roof up is a totally painless procedure but one I avoided as much as possible anyway!

Indeed, I was perfectly able to drive the car, with the roof down, well into the evening, even given the nippier temperatures in this part of the world at this time of year. Mazda have added a windblocker behind the seats, which cuts out virtually all of the reverse airflow coming over the windshield and rushing forward into the cockpit between the seats. Also, their heating system gives instant heat, aided by the windblocker, meaning you donít have to freeze for the first few miles, or get the car warmed up before getting in. The AM/FM/CD, which is standard in all the í99 Miatas, proved itself up to the task of providing good sound, even with roof down at speed. The whole interior of the Miata I tested was beautifully laid out, with striking dials and mouldings which just add to the sexy/sporty feel of the car. A good touch was the trunk and petrol switches hidden in the central, lockable compartment.

However, driving with the roof up is a whole other matter. Donít even bother trying to check over your shoulder to see who is in your blind spot because youíll just be faced with a view of the inside of the roof. Complete waste of time, but a rather worrying one at that. Indeed, the visibility is considerably reduced with the roof up, and when you are so close to the ground anyway, itís nice to be able to see as much as possible. As a result, I did seem to find myself checking every mirror and out of both windows an inordinate amount with the roof up, just to be sure that I could in fact change lanes without landing in someoneís lap. Indeed, I had to drive down the 405 freeway one day, in a torrential rainstorm, in heavy traffic, and it was not a pleasant experience, I can assure you. Lack of visibility combined with a lot of spray and an inability to get the windscreen totally de-misted made for a hair-raising drive.

The overall design of the Miata is great: it looks stylish, sexy, a bit aggressive and a lot of fun, but if it ends up a crumpled heap because the driver couldnít see the opposition coming, whereís the point. Perhaps Mazda could look into introducing a Ďsee-throughí portion into the roof, so as to give greater, all-round visibility. Worth considering, I think.

The í99 Mazda has 42% more trunk room than itís predecessor, and can proudly hold a set of golf clubs - best to meet your opponent at the course, then - so itís more than adequate for grocery shopping and so on. But what happens with slightly larger items? I bought a framed picture but couldnít get it home! I know most people deliver, but this is definitely not a practical car for anything larger than a Big Brown Bag. And donít even think of meeting a friend at the airport unless they only have hand-luggage, or their bags will be following behind in a taxi. I know this car isnít supposed to be viewed as Ďpracticalí, but unlike a Ferrari driver or a Porsche driver, who are likely to have another, more Ďpracticalí, and roomy, car in the other garage, I feel sure that the Miata driver has put all of his or her money into this great, little car. But little is the operative word on this point.

However, eventhough it is little, it does have some good safety features. ABS is available on 2 of the packages (see below) and there are dual, depowered air bags. There is also a key-operated de-activation switch for the passenger-side airbag on the centre console, making the Miata the first in itís class to offer this feature.

There are, in fact, 5 different packages available for the Miata, with something for everyone, from the Touring Package with its power steering, 14Ē alloy wheels, 3-spoke NARDI leather wrapped steering wheel and power mirrors and windows, to the Popular Equipment Package, which includes all of the above plus Torson limited slip differential (stick-shift only), cruise control, power antenna, tweeter speakers, power door locks and windblocker. The Miata I tested was equipped with the Leather package, which includes all of the Popular Equipment elements, plus 15" aluminium alloy wheels, tan leather seats and interior, tan soft top and BOSE audio system. The Sports Package comes with the 15" wheels, the NARDI steering wheel, the Torson limited slip-diff, plus Sport suspension w/ Bilstein shock absorbers, front air dam and rear deck lid spoiler and strut bar. So take your pick basically!

If you want a car thatís different and unusual, then the Miata is not for you. Iím sure that Mazda are overjoyed by the amount of them that are to be found on the road right now, but if you want to be individual, then look elsewhere. However, if you donít mind that you will see your car on every other corner, then hop in, because this car does look great, it drives beautifully, and itís a whole lot of fun. With the roof down. And as long as it doesnít rain!

FACTS AND FIGURES

Engine		18.L DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder
Horsepower	140 @ 6500rpm, (138 in CA)
Torque		119 @ 5500rpm, (117 in CA)
Redline		7000 to 8000rpm
Drive		Rear wheel
Transmission	5MT or 4E
Braking system	Power assist w/dual diagonal hydraulic circuits.
		ABS optional
Fuel Economy	25 / 29 MT, 23 / 28 AT
Safety		Dual Airbags std, w/ passenger side deactivation switch

Model Tested:                   $ 23,745
Base Price                      $ 19,770
Touring Equipment Package - MT  +  2,330
                            AT  +  1,940
Leather Package - MT            +  3,975
                  AT            +  3,585
Sports                          +  1,900
ABS                             +    550
AC                              +    900
Detachable Hardtop              +  1,900

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