SEE ALSO: Mazda Buyer's Guide
Mazda's Miata has carved out quite a niche for itself in the years since its introduction in 1989. While other more sophisticated and expensive sports cars have disappeared, the Miata continues to thrive. In fact, looking at some new competitive offerings, it may be inspiring the revival of the moderately-priced two-seat sports roadster.
For most of its lifetime, the Miata has been the only representative of that once-flourishing genre. For a generation of enthusiasts that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, a small, reasonably-priced two-seat convertible was practically the purist description of sports car. The British and Italians sold many such cars here. Those old European sports cars were fun to drive, quick, and handled well. But many had unenviable reputations for quality and reliability, and poor dealer and parts networks. Commitment, ingenuity, and mechanical knowledge were often necessary for successful ownership.
What are the keys to the Miata's success? It gives its driver all of the fun, and all of the sensory inputs, of the old sports cars with none of the problems. Pleasure without undue commitment. Wind in the hair, smile on the face, and no oil spots on the driveway.
Another way that Mazda keeps the Miata fresh is by issuing special "M-Edition" models. These are fully-equipped with just about every comfort and performance option in the Miata book. A summer week spent with the deep metallic blue, leather-appointed 1996 version was great fun. On with the stringback driving gloves and sunscreen and out to the open road!
APPEARANCE: The Miata is a small, rounded roadster with styling cues from both the present Mazda line and past sports cars. It is functional with little styling for the sake of styling. Bumpers are integrated into the body. The front features a low, unadorned oval air intake and parking lights in the bumper fascia and pop-up headlights. Slight fender flares unostentatiously add to sports character. A subtle ducktail crease at the rear of the trunk lid is a contemporary Mazda styling cue, shared with most other Mazda cars. The 1996 M-Edition car be told by the deep blue "Starlight Mica" paint, special badging, and 15-inch spoked alloy wheels and low-profile tires.
COMFORT: The Miata in general, and the M-Edition in particular, is a long way from the "good old days" of leaky tops, non-functional heaters, and side curtains. The M-Miata has the full luxury complement: high-backed, leather-covered sports seats with speakers in the headrests, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, and power steering, windows, mirrors, antenna, and door locks. There is plenty of special badging. Also included in the package are a good AM/FM/CD/cassette sound system, remote keyless entry, and an air conditioner. Hot or cold air is provided quickly and reliably. The top is not power-operated, but can be put up or down very quickly and by only one person. It is not a marvel of British engineering. Noise levels with the top up are quite low; top-down is a full sensory experience. The trunk is large enough for a weekend trip for two if care is taken in packing.
SAFETY: The Miata has all of the modern safety equipment, including dual air bags, side-impact door beams, and controlled- impact monocoque chassis construction.
ROADABILITY: The Miata is a true sports car, and rides and handles appropriately. Particularly with the M-Edition's larger wheels and low-profile tires, the ride quality is very firm. The P195/50 R15 Bridgestone Potenza tires stick tenaciously, helped by the fully-independent double wishbone suspension and limited-slip differential. The car's low stance increases the sensation of speed, and, with the top down, all of the sights, sounds, and aromas of the city or countryside are immediately available. The Miata very successfully recreates all of the good sensations of the old sports cars.
PERFORMANCE: With a 1.8-liter dual overhead cam engine, the Miata is quick enough for fun without intimidation. It is very driver- friendly and balanced. With a horsepower increase to 133 this year, it is a little quicker than previously. Although a 4-speed automatic transmission is available, the standard 5-speed manual is much more in keeping with the Miata's genuine sports car character. Shifting through the gears on a good twisting road while listening to the engine's 4-cylinder snarl brings back fond memories to those old enough to remember the sports cars of yore and brings understanding to those who weren't around then.
CONCLUSIONS: The Mazda Miata successfully recreates the sounds and sensations of the sports roadsters of the past with none of their problems.
SPECIFICATIONS 1996 Mazda MX-5 Miata M Edition Base Price $ 24,760 Price As Tested $ 25,210 Engine Type dual overhead cam, 16-valve inline 4-cylinder Engine Size 1.8 liters / 110 cu. in. Horsepower 133 @ 6500 Torque (lb-ft) 114 @ 5500 Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 89.2 in. / 155.4 in. Curb Weight 2293 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 17.2 Fuel Capacity 12.7 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular Tires P195/50 R15 Bridgestone Potenza Brakes, front/rear antilock vented disc / disc Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone, with coil springs / independent double wishbone with coil springs Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 23/29/25 0 to 60 mph 8.7 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 16.6 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.38, top up