New Car/Review

The Mazda Miata MX-5, A great sports car made greater not bigger

by Larry Weitzman

Mazda Miata

It has been 10 years since Mazda showed the English how to design and build a drop top sports car. I have owned three of the English, a Sunbeam Alpine, an MG B and a rip snortin' Triumph TR-6.

My experience with the Sunbeam and the MG were continuous fixing and fixing it again. One time the whole exhaust system just fell off the MG B from the exhaust manifold to the tailpipe on the way home from work. Yes, every one knew I was coming. But the MG B was a great looking car, with its wire wheels, British racing green paint and black, thick leather interior. The TR 6 was reliable but stiff and somewhat crude. It was however, England's best attempt at an inexpensive sports car and it was fun to drive.

Enter the 1990 Miata. It had a zippy DOHC 1.8L engine, and the build quality and the mechanicals were bullet proof. It did everything the English tried to do and did it a whole lot better. Dealer's were getting thousands over list price and people lined up to eagerly part with their money. It was a grand slam. How could Mazda make the world's best selling roadster better?

It was easy. Revise, remedy and mildly restyle and don't fix what isn't broken. The all new body is more curvaceous with new lines that are more aggressive. There is a hint of one of the most beautiful sports cars ever made, the RX 7, in its shape. The highly jeweled headlights are now exposed and flow with the front fenders-gone are the pop up variety and 12 pounds. The hood has more shape and the wheel wells have some flair. There is no mistaking that this is an MX-5.

Under the hood, the DOHC 1.8L has been massaged with higher compression and better intake design to yield another 7 hp to 140 hp at 6,500 (138 in California) and 5 more pounds of torque to 119 lb ft of torque at 5,500 rpm (117 in California). This new found power makes itself felt in very quick and improved performance.

My test car was able to knock off 0-60 in 7.8 seconds including a shift to third at 56 mph (I had several runs below this time with a low of 7.44). Because this thing likes to rev, maximum acceleration starts require spinning the engine to about 4,000 rpm and a smooth, progressive clutch engagement. No dumping allowed. When done properly, the tires can be lit up big time and when it hooks up, there is a rush to redline. The stubby shifter allows you to just snick the lever into second and flick it to third. All butter smooth and with a big satisfying grin.

The transmission is positive, notchy and smooth without any balkiness. The clutch is light and the placement of the brake and gas will allow some heel and toe driving. Passing times from 50-70 averaged 4.52 seconds with one run at exactly 4.52. Going up a steep grade will only slow that time to 6.82 seconds. All passing tests were done in third gear with no shifting. This is the quickest 138 hp car I've tested and it feels quicker than the times indicate.

The engine is smooth, but I did notice some high frequency vibration above 5,000 rpm during hard acceleration on the way to its 7,000 rpm redline. Not significant.

Being a small car is part of the Miata's charm. It is only 155.3 inches long and it rides on a longish wheelbase of 89.2 inches. It is fairly wide at an even 66 inches. This is a balanced sports car. It uses a state of the art fully independent suspension with upper and lower A arms at each wheel with coil springs and stabilizer bars at each end. The ride is firm, as it's not designed to be a marshmallow or a floater. It's designed to be extremely maneuverable, precise and quick around corners. Turning circle is an incredibly compact 30.2 feet.

The more the "track" bends, the better the Miata likes it. Roads like Green Valley, Airport, Latrobe and Bass Lake can be run at the speed limit with nary a care or a scare. But even with the attractive optional 14X6" five spoke alloys, the tires are a limiting factor. 185/60X14 H rated Yokohama's will move around on you. You can get the Miata drifting with a little bit of work or get the rear end out and use a little throttle for steering which is part of the fun. Because it is so balanced (weight distribution is 50/50) it never gets close to heart palpitations, just very controllable fun as it lets you know way before anything is going to happen. It does communicate. Through a slalom course or autocrossing, the Miata would be hard to beat.

Mazda offers 15 inch wheels and 195/50 series V rated high performance tires (it's part of the leather option package and it will set you back $3,900), but they are so sticky that when drifting begins they hook back up strongly and may remove some of the fun that the English were so famous for. This car is a kick.

On Ponderosa Road, the bumps could be felt but the reasonably compliant suspension absorbed most of the punishment, but it won't let you fall asleep. It certainly felt like a limo when compared to my MG B or TR 6. In the bumpy corners, the rear end stayed put.

The highway ride was satisfactory and not the least bit choppy. Tar strips and ripples will not disturb the lucky passengers and with the top down the wind is tolerable, but somewhat noisy. The radio is surprisingly good and remains clear and clean, top down at 70 mph, which is what this Miata is all about. Engine noise is present but not a problem as 70 mph cruising will spin the engine at 3,750 rpm. A six speeder would be a nice option (it will be available shortly).

The only time the top goes up is when its raining or your friend complains about her do. There is a flip up wind blocker that helps somewhat, but it doesn't replace the top. If it's clear and 50 degrees, put the heater on, leave the top down.

For that occasional rain storm, the manual top is easy and simple to use. Just reach back and grab the center handle and pull the top up and over. Snap down the two clamps, and your snug as a proverbial bug sans rug. The back light is real glass with an electric defroster. There is some wind noise but its not too bad. Mazda does offer detachable hardtop for $1,500. In the winter it might not be a bad investment and will certainly quiet the car. Top up, the sound system performs even better.

Luggage space in the trunk is listed at 5.1 cubic feet, but it is well shaped. It had no problem ingesting two large golf bags and some other items. With the top up there is a large well behind the rear seats for bulky, lightweight items.

Fuel capacity is 12.7 gallons. With an EPA estimates of 25/29 mpg city/highway, 350 miles should not be a problem. During my test period, fuel consumption averaged 27 mpg with only 20% on the highway. It's hard not to use all the power because this Miata is so much fun, but a little restraint should yield near 30 mpg.

In true sports car fashion, binders on the Mazda are four wheel discs, ventilated in front. The pedal feel in excellent but I would spend the extra $550 for the antilock system.

On the inside, you will be rewarded with two very comfortable cloth buckets with reasonable adjustments. Our six foot three size tester was able to fit. The binnacle in front of the driver contains a large tach and speedo left and right. Three smaller gauges, fuel, oil pressure and temp are located left, center and to the right of the main instruments.

The integrated vertical center console contains the sound system with standard CD. Beneath are the heater/ventilation controls. My test vehicle came without AC. It's a $900 option. The center console has some storage and two cupholders and there are door pockets for additional storage. The is also a switch to turn off the passenger air bag below the H/V controls.

The dash is covered in a soft material and there is no hard plastic anywhere. Window lifts are by two switches in front of the center console storage.

Base price is $20,095 plus $450 for destination. Even power steering is an option ($300) so some packages are in order. My test car came with the windblocker ($150), fog lights ($250) appearance package (mud guards, air dam and side sills, $150) and touring package which includes power mirrors, steering, alloys, leather steering wheel for $1,000.

The best package is the appropriately named popular equipment package. It includes the touring package equipment plus power door locks, cruise, windblock and limited slip differential for $2,330. If you want AC and I definitely would when its over a 100 degrees outside, add $900. Figure about $24,000 for a well (properly) equipped unit. For about $1,570 you can add leather, the bigger tires and wheels, a Bose sound system and a tan vinyl top (a pretty good value).

Great Valley Mazda has a large selection including the 10th anniversary edition for road testing. Heading straight for the twisties will certainly help the summer time blues.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price
                                         $20,095 to about $28,000
Engine

1.8L, DOHC, 16 valve,                     140 hp @ 6,500 rpm (138 in Ca)
                                          inline 4 119 lb ft of torque 
                                          @ 5,500 rpm (117 in Ca)
Transmission
5 speed manual

4 speed electronically controlled 
automatic

Configuration
longitudinal front engine
rear wheel drive

Dimensions
Wheelbase                                89.2   inches
Length                                   155.3  inches
Width                                    66.0   inches
Height                                   48.4   inches
Weight                                   2299   manual
                                         2348   automatic
Fuel Capacity                            12.7   gallons
Trunk Capacity                           5.1    cubic feet
Turning Circle                           30.2   feet, curb to curb

Performance
0-60                                     7.8    seconds
50-70                                    4.52   seconds
50-70 uphill                             6.82   seconds
Top Speed                                Electronically limited to 123
                                         but only advisable for those who 
                                         can afford the commensurate 
                                         penalties.  It is much safer and 
                                         cheaper to rent a race track. 
Fuel Economy                             EPA 25/29 mpg city/highway.  My 
                                         estimate is 27-28 in El Dorado County 
                                         and 29 plus on the highway.

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