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Best Bets get average or better mpg, have average or better reliability, good crash-test ratings, and our experts' recommendations.
By Richard Truett
June 17, 1993
The Mazda MX-5 Miata is the one car that you hope never changes. There's been talk at Mazda of offering a bigger engine, installing a turbocharger and producing a coupe version. But let's hope none of it comes to pass, because almost everything
about the Miata is just right. Its performance is perfectly matched to its suspension and brakes. Its snug interior is stylish and comfortable, yet it is designed with simplicity and common sense in mind. And now that supply has caught up with demand,
even its price is somewhat flexible. The Miata I tested is a special version of the car - one of only 1,500 that will have black paint, a red leather interior, special wheels, a sports-tuned suspension system and a few minor cosmetic changes.
Unfortunately, the Limited Edition Miata's $22,000 price will likely send your banker into uncontrollable fits of wheezing. Admit it, that's a heck of a lot of money for a very small car. But if there's about $16,000 in your budget for a new car,
you can own a nicely-equipped, regular-production Miata and still have just as much fun. PERFORMANCE On paper, the Miata's fuel-injected 1.6 liter, 16-valve four-cylinder doesn't look too impressive. After all, 116 horsepower is about average for
many small sporty cars. But here's an instance where horsepower ratings don't tell the whole story. Because the Miata is light (it weighs just 2,220 pounds) and its weight is perfectly balanced (50 percent over the front wheels, 50 percent over the
rear), the car is quick, agile and exhilarating to drive. The exhaust has a deep growl, but it is not loud or annoying. As you work your way through the gears, the sporty exhaust sound leaves little doubt that you're driving a real sports car. After
all, you wouldn't expect a two-seat convertible to be as quiet as a family sedan. When the Miata first hit the streets in the summer of 1989 as a 1990 model, auto writers praised it for havingone of thebest-shifting manual transmissions ever put in a
sports car. It's still one of the best. The five-speed manual gearbox has a tiny stub of a shifter that takes very little effort to move. First and second gear are just inches apart. A quick flick of the wrist puts the shifter within easy reach of
third, fourth and fifth gears. The clutch is smooth and easy to operate. Many sports cars require the driver to concentrate on shifting, or at least think about it. In the Miata, shifting at the perfect moment becomes second nature almost immediately.
The sound of the engine tells you when to shift for maximum performance. You never need to take your eyes off the road to look at the tachometer or the shifter. In the test car, fuel mileage was excellent. In combined city/highway driving without
using the air conditioner, the Miata delivered 32 miles per gallon of unleaded fuel. HANDLING Driving the tiny Miata takes a serious attitude adjustment.
At first you might feel a little vulnerable when the chrome grille of a Cadillac or some other leviathan appears in your rear-view mirror. The Miata is just about 13 feet from stem to stern, but its small size means the advantage is all yours. Perhaps
no other car is as adept as the Miata at squirting in and out of tight places. With the top down and unlimited visibility, something as small as a patch of sunlight between two bumpers in fast-moving traffic is an open invitation to change lanes. The
power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is fast-acting and crisp. It was so good that a co-worker was able to make a very tight U-turn without having to cross into the far lane of on-coming traffic. The four-wheel independent suspension in the test
car was extra firm. It kept the body straight and poised to handle all sorts of road-going gymnastics. But crossing railroad tracks or driving over bad pavement was a punishing, spine-bruising exercise. The suspension system
in the standard-issue Miata is a bit softer, but the car's handling is still excellent. The Miata is outfitted with a set of four-wheel power-assisted disc brakes that are strong and fade-free. One minor gripe: anti-lock brakes are optional, but
should be standard on all Miatas. My driving habits changed after I drove the Miata for a while. I liked the diminutive car so much that my senses were turned up a notch or two, and I drove the Miata very defensively and protectively.
Instinctively, you will know how far and how hard you can push the Miata. And in doing so, you will probably wonder how this much fun can be legal. FIT AND FINISH The MX-5 Miata Limited Edition's added price is mostly the result of cosmetic
add-ons and numerous creature comfort items. For instance, our test car came with front and rear spoilers, special BBS brand wheels, a high-performance AM/FM cassette/CD player, power windows and red leather upholstery. The bucket seats were firm and
very nicely designed. But heavy or tall people probably are not going to find the Miata's interior a comfortable place. With the seats all the way back, there's just enough room for a person of 5 feet 10 inches to be comfortable. Although the car sits
low, getting in and out is not much of a bother, even if you wear a skirt, as my co-worker did. The Miata is easier and more enjoyable to drive with the top down. When the top is raised, you feel a bit claustrophobic and because the top has only a zip
out rear window, there is a blind spot on both sides. Storage room is a very valuable commodity. Most of the available space in the trunk is taken up by the tiny spare tire. There is some room behind the seats for papers, a purse or other small
objects. The Miata comes standard with a driver's side air bag. If you don't like to shift, you can buy the car with an automatic, but the Miata will lose some of its spunky performance. Just one minor improvement could be made: My elbows
sometimes bumped the electric window switches that were mounted on the console near the shifter. The switches would be better off on the door panels. Of all the cars that have come out in the last 25 years, few have been as admired around the world
over as much as the Miata. When a sports car is done right it, doesn't need to be redesigned and changed every few years. Porsche has sold the 911 for more than two decades. British Leyland sold a trio of sports cars - the MGB, the MG Midget and the
Triumph Spitfire - for more than 15 years with just minor changes. Let's hope the Miata lasts that long and stays just the way it is. Truett's tip: Even though the Limited Edition boasts a price tag many would consider obscene for
a small car, the Miata still is one of the most enjoyable automobiles you can own.