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Mazda Miata (2001)

SEE ALSO: Mazda Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

Mazda reinvented the affordable two-seater sports roadster when it introduced the Miata just over a decade ago. By that time, the European sports cars that had started the category had either gone out of production or turned into aging, overweight, underpowered has-beens that took poorly to contemporary safety and emissions requirements.

With everything that was good about small sports cars - the top-down driving experience, enough power for safety and fun, and nimble handling - the Miata was an instant success. And it had none of the drawbacks of the older European sports cars. Imagine, a sports car with a top that could be put up or down in seconds, and didn't leak or fog up in the rain. No oil leaks on the garage floor. Reliable electrics. A real heater, and, later, standard air conditioning. No, it wasn't vintage British, or Italian.... The Miata had no direct competitor when it was introduced, and, although it inspired a resurgence of sports roadsters, has had few since that time, as most other roadsters are considerably more expensive. But, unlike the British, Mazda is not complacent. The Miata continues to thrive because it continues to evolve.

The original engine was soon upgraded, with more displacement and horsepower. The second generation Miata debuted in 1999, with leaner styling and a more rigid chassis. For 2001, the styling has been freshened a touch, and chassis rigidity has been significantly improved. A moderate horsepower increase has been promised from a new cylinder head with variable valve timing. Two trim levels are offered, base and fully-equipped LS.

Recent time with a sport suspension-equipped base Miata showed why it is the best-selling roadster ever. If the modest power increase has been offset by a 50-lb weight increase, the improved rigidity is well worthwhile. Miatas have never been about acceleration and straight-line speed, but, rather, about nimble handling and brisk performance. And the new version is even better in that regard than its predecessors. It's a joy to drive, and, because of its good comfort and useable trunk, it's not just a weekend toy. It's a full-time smile machine.

APPEARANCE: You've got to look this horse in the mouth to see any difference. The previously oval air intake has been reshaped to more resemble the five-sided grilles of other Mazdas. The headlights have been redesigned, and now are a bit larger and feature projector-beam lights. The taillights have been freshened as well. The basic shape is the same as it has been since 1999, a leaner evolutionary development of the original Miata shape. There is no doubt that it is a sports car in the post-World War II classic mold.

COMFORT: Despite its small size and sports car character, the Miata is a functional and comfortable car. The new high-backed bucket seats are comfortably supportive in all kinds if driving, and white-faced instruments have a classic look. Other minor interior enhancements add convenience. The top is manually-operated, but quick and easy to use. A heated glass backlight means visibility in all weather, and a reasonable trunk capacity (for a sports car!) means that a two-person fun weekend is no problem as long as both can pack light. It'll hold more than your toothbrush, but leave the kitchen sink at home.

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

ROADABILITY: The most apparent difference between the 2000 and 2001 Miata can be felt by driving. Unibody convertibles are less rigid than similarly-constructed closed cars because of the necessary large hole in the top of their chassis/body structure. In extreme cases (usually convertible conversions of fixed-roof cars) you can see the windshield frame wiggle when the car goes over a rough road, and because of that chassis flex, steering and handling can be less than precise. The original Miata was reasonably rigid for its day, but did have noticeable cowl shake. While the second- generation Miata had a much more rigid structure than the original, and consequently less cowl shake and chassis flex on rough surfaces or in extreme maneuvers, improvements made for 2001 have virtually eliminated flex and shake. Credit reinforcements around the cockpit and, on base-model Miatas equipped with the suspension package and the upscale LS, a front shock tower brace. The result is noticeably crisper turn-in in cornering and a relatively supple, comfortable ride. I'd highly recommend the suspension package, as its strut brace, lower-profile tires, firmer calibration, limited-slip differential, and larger brake discs improve handling with no detrimental effect on comfort.

PERFORMANCE: In a back-to-back comparison of a 2000 and 2001 Miata at the press introduction last summer, I didn't notice much difference in acceleration despite Mazda's claim of 15 extra horsepower for the 2001 model. It turned out that the power increase was less than expected, and it's pretty much counterbalanced by a 50-lb weight increase. So? The extra rigidity is more welcome than any slight extra power, and the 2001 Miata still has plenty of power for enthusiastic driving. Variable valve timing, new this year, gives a broader spread of power. The standard five-speed manual gearbox is a joy to use, with crisp, precise shift linkage that is among the best in the business. The six- speed gearbox that previously was available only with special editions can now be specified in the LS model, and is even better than the five-speed. But with the engine's power characteristics, it's a necessity only to hardcore enthusiasts and autocrossers - there's nothing wrong with the five-speed. A good pedal layout allows easy heel-and-toe driving, or left-foot braking.

CONCLUSIONS: With increased rigidity and improved handling, the 2001 Mazda Miata continues to be the benchmark for small sports cars.

2001 Mazda Miata

Base Price              $ 21,180
Price As Tested         $ 22,685
Engine Type             dual overhead cam, 16-valve inline 
Engine Size             1.8 liters / 112 cu. in.
Horsepower              155 @ 7000 rpm 
Torque (lb-ft)          125 @ 5500 rpm 
Transmission            5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length      89.2 in. / 155.7 in.
Curb Weight             2387 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   15.4 
Fuel Capacity           12.7 gal.
Fuel Requirement        unleaded premium (91 octane) for 
                          best performance
Tires                   P205/45 WR16 Bridgestone Turanza
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / solid disc
Suspension, front/rear  independent double wishbone with 
                          coil springs and stabilizer bars
                          front and rear
Drivetrain              front engine /  rear-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      23 / 28 / 25
0 to 60 mph            7.8  sec

SP1 suspension package: includes: 16-inch alloy wheels
 with locks, 205/45 R16 tires, Bilstein shock absorbers,
 sport-tuned suspension, strut tower brace,  Torsen
 limited-slip differential       $ 1,025
Delivery charge                  $   480