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New Car/Review

1999 Mazda Miata

by John Heilig

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

ENGINE:                  1.8-liter four
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE:       140 hp @ 6,500 rpm/119 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION:            Five-speed manual
FUEL ECONOMY:            23 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, 22.8 mpg test
WHEELBASE:               89.2 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 155.3 x 66.0 x 48.4 in.
WEIGHT:                  2,299 lbs.
FUEL TANK:               12.7 gal.
LUGGAGE CAPACITY:        8 cu. ft. (est.)
TIRES:                   P185/60R14
INSTRUMENTS:             Speedometer, tachometer, fuel level,
                         water temperature, digital clock
EQUIPMENT:               Power windows, power mirrors, power locks, 
                         dual air bags, side air bags, stereo AM/FM 
                         with in-dash CD
STICKER:                 $23,000 (est.)

A lot was made when Mazda redesigned the Miata for 1999. While to the uninitiated, the changes are relatively minor, to people who know Miatas, the changes are significant.

Put an old Miata and a new one next to each other and the styling differences become apparent. Where the old car had pop-up headlights, the new car has "normal" headlights that are a result of improvements in headlight technology since the first one was introduced five years ago.

On the inside looking out, the Miata has a much more dramatic hood line, with a bulge over the engine and two bulges over the front fenders, contrasting with the original's fairly flat front hood line. The new hood line makes it look a little like an RX-7 (if you scrunch your eyes a bit and don't drive that way).

But the charm of the Miata is not necessarily in its exterior design. The charm is in how the car drives. Those of us who owned British sports cars in the 1950s and 1960s remember a certain flair these cars had. They were rarely overpowered (at least not the ones I could afford), they were never too fast, but they offered a level of driving excitement that didn't exist in any other manufacturer's products.

The Miata is the modern incarnation of a British sports car.

Miata travels comfortably at 60-70 mph. You don't have to travel any faster to enjoy the car. This is not an Interstate car; it's a car you want to drive on the back roads. It's a car that looks for the long way home from work. This is because the Miata handles impeccably.

If you want to go a lot faster, the handling probably wouldn't be good enough. But in its element, the Miata hates straight roads and seeks twisty ones. It corners flat at sensible speeds and the well-contoured bucket seats help keep you in the seats.

Miata is also one that makes you feel safe. It has air bags, of course, in front. And there are warning labels on the sun visors advising you to place any small children in the back seat (?). It also has a solid seat belt system. And the small chassis has a feeling of solidity that is comfortable.

For most of the week I had the Miata I drove it with the top down, simply because I love the wind in the hair feeling and I enjoy the ability to see everything that's going on around me. With the top up, however, there's a blind spot to the right and left rear. If you don't trust your mirrors and want to check what's behind you, you may have trouble finding it.

I have a friend who owns an original Miata and she took the new one out for a spin. She said the new car feels a lot tighter and seems to have more power. She also appreciated the glass rear window in the new car as opposed to the plastic rear window in her car. Plastic windows scratch (they did in the Brit cars, too), while glass windows don't. Glass windows also have built-in defroster wires for those cold winter mornings.

For entertainment we had an AM/FM stereo system with an in-dash cassette and CD player. The HVAC system acted as the reverse of what we did in my MG in the winter. On hot days we drove with the top down and the air conditioner running full blast for some coolness. In the MG, we drove "topless" in the winter with the heater going full blast.

The top is easy to operate. You unclasp to clips at the corners of the windshield and you can move the top into its recess in the back with one hand. Pulling it back, however, requires getting out of the car unless you're younger and more flexible than I am. I have a friend who threw his shoulder out trying to lift his Miata's top from inside the car with one hand.

Miata has a decent trunk for a small car. It's larger, for example, than my MG's was, thanks in part to the invention of the mini spare tire. It will hold enough luggage for a weekend trip for two people.

The short stubby gear lever has a short throw to "snick-snick" from gear to gear. Like most sports cars you look for opportunities to shift because it's fun to shift. Again, this is a fun car to drive. It's not a practical car.

Mazda designed the Miata to bring back memories of the small sports cars of the 1950s and 1960s and they did an excellent job. The redesign can only serve to enhance its reputation. out, the Miata has a much more.