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New Car/Review

1999 Mazda Miata

by Carey Russ

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

     Ten years ago, anyone who wanted an affordably-priced small- displacement sports roadster was pretty much out of luck. There were no new examples of the once-flourishing genre available in the U.S. The budget-minded enthusiast was limited to aging British and Italian roadsters of undeniable panache but often questionable reliability. Then came the Mazda Miata.

     The Miata combined all that was good about the classic post- World War II European roadsters with all that was good about contemporary Japanese machinery. Imagine: wind in the face without oil on the ground. A snug, waterproof top. A real, working heater. A small sports car that provided reliable wind-in-the-hair fun turned out to be a very popular item. The Miata's success can be measured by the number of European and Japanese roadsters available now or planned for the near future.

     The Miata remained externally little changed until the introduction of the 1999 model early in 1998. The second-generation Miata builds on the original's character, and its restyled body highlights a stiffer chassis, revised suspension, increased engine power, and redesigned interior. The convertible top's back window is now glass, with a built-in defroster. The Miata is no longer the only car in its class, but it is still the most affordable.

     As before, a variety of option packages and the choice of 5- speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission allow the Miata to be custom-tailored to individual desires. And there is a limited-production 10th Anniversary Edition. Special Miata models offered before have been mainly cosmetic variations. The 10th Anniversary Edition does feature unique paint and interior trim, and all of the goodies in both the Sports and Popular Equipment option packages. It also has its own unique 6-speed manual gearbox.

     How different is the 10th Anniversary Edition from the regular Miata? I was fortunate to have each for consecutive weeks in springtime weather that varied between 75-degree top-down sunshine and a bizarre surprise snowstorm. Both cars were thoroughly enjoyable, with nimble handling and all of the right sports car sounds and feelings (and none of the wrong ones!). Yes, the 10th Anniversary 6-speed gearbox made a slight difference, but not enough to worry about in everyday driving. In any form, a Miata is a car that brings a smile.

APPEARANCE: The 1999 Miata is discernably a Miata, but trimmer, leaner, and more athletic than the first-generation car. A slimmer nose sets the style. The old pop-up headlights have been replaced by oval "cat's-eye" lights behind glass, improving both the looks and night- time visibility.  The plain oval air intake is slightly larger. The 10th Anniversary Edition can be told from other 1999 Miatas by its unique Sapphire Blue Mica paint, chromed wheels, and blue convertible top.

COMFORT: The 1999 Miata's interior is designed for serious driving. Snug adjustable bucket seats provide comfort and support in all situations. Normal upholstery is grippy cloth; the 10th Anniversary model has great-looking leather with blue artificial suede inserts. The relationship between the seat, steering wheel, foot pedals, and shifter is near-perfect in both cars. That tired old sports car cliche, "the controls fall readily to hand" is true in this case. The instruments are clearly readable, and the Anniversary model's faux carbon-fiber trim is kind of cool. Unlike some "classics" of the past, the Miata has a great heater, with duct placement perfect for keeping hands warm on a cool top- down evening. Both the glovebox and center console are lockable for security, and the trunk is 42 percent larger. Visibility with the top down is unexcelled; top-up isn't any worse than most small coupes thanks to the new glass backlight. As before, the top is manually- operated. It can be put up or down in seconds - most power tops take considerably longer.

SAFETY: The '99 Miata has dual depowered air bags. The passenger- side bag can be deactivated. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, with antilock available.

ROADABILITY: In any trim, the Miata is made for twisty roads. In normal street conditions at more-or-less legal speeds, the difference between the regular suspension and the 10th Anniversary model's sports suspension is minimal. Either way, a Miata is low, relatively wide, and handles with nimble, joyous verve. The sports suspension is a bit lower and firmer, and produces slightly better turn-in with less body roll - incremental differences most important to racers or autocrossers.

PERFORMANCE: The Miata's 1.8-liter twincam four-cylinder engine gets a slight boost to 140 horsepower this year. It's still a small- displacement sports car, and slower in acceleration that many sedans. So? There's an old saying (pardon the grammar): "It's more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow." If you really want to go fast in a straight line, buy an airplane ticket. Because of its low height, the feeling of speed is magnified in the Miata, especially with the top down. Even the speed limit can feel fast. Although an automatic transmission is offered, the standard 5-speed manual is the way to go. It has short throws between gears for the sort of fast, smooth shifting that is part of the sports car experience. The 10th Anniversary's 6- speed gearbox is even better, and does improve acceleration slightly, aided by a shorter rear axle ratio.

CONCLUSIONS: The new Mazda Miata is fun in the sun or rain. It has all of the good features of yesterday's small sports cars and none of the drawbacks.


1999 Mazda Miata (10th Anniversary Edition in parentheses) 

Base Price               $ 19,770  (26,875)
Price As Tested          $ 22,395  (28,225)
Engine Type              dual overhead cam, 16-valve inline
Engine Size              1.8 liters / 112 cu. in.
Horsepower               140 @ 6500 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)           119 @ 5500 rpm
Transmission             5-speed manual (6-speed manual)
Wheelbase / Length       89.2 in. / 155.3 in.
Curb Weight              2299 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    16.4
Fuel Capacity            12.7 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded premium or regular
Tires                    185/60 HR14 Yokohama Advan A-460
                         (195/50 VR15 Michelin Pilot SX)
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / solid disc, antilock optional
Suspension, front/rear   independent double wishbone with coil
                         springs / 
                         independent double wishbone with coil
Drivetrain               front engine, rear-wheel drive


EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      25 / 29 / 26
0 to 60 mph                        7.9 sec (est 7.4 sec)
1/4 mile (E.T.)                    15.9 sec (est 15.5 sec)
Coefficient of Drag (cd)           0.36 (top up)


Carpeted floor mats                     $      80
Fog lamps                               $     250
Windblocker                             $     150
Appearance Package #1 - includes:  front air dam,
side sills, rear mudguards              $     595
Touring Package - includes:  power steering, power
windows & mirrors,  14" alloy wheels, Nardi
steering wheel                          $   1,100
(air conditioning                       $     900)
Destination charge                      $     450