In 1989 Mazda set the automotive world on its ear when it unveiled the Miata, a tiny two-seat throwback that brought back the look of the little British roadster.Miata did what the British cars had difficulty doing well or often: it ran. Miata brought fun back to motoring. Hop in, slip the top down and rumble away from the light, with an emphasis on rumble because the exhaust was tuned to sound just like those Brit roadsters. It was small, inside and out, but it was a toy that made folks sit up and take notice of a car company known for rotary engines that went hum-m-m and consumers who looked at its cars and went ho-hum. Miata became the rage. Others tried to copy it, and they failed miserably. The rule in the auto industry is that if you aren't first with a product, you better be the best when you build your clone. The competition is finding that out in trying to imitate the Chrysler mini-van, for example. No one came close to Miata, but, alas, Mazda has fallen on some tough times. Miata got people into the showrooms but lately there hasn't been a lot for them to see there. Some good cars, to be sure-suc has the Millenia and 929 sedans-but high-price luxury Japanese sedans, at a time when Toyota's Lexus division and Nissan's Infiniti, have even better offerings. Still, though Mazda has been neglected over the years and Miata doesn't command the attention it once did, we had the opportunity to test drive the newest offering, the 1995 1/2 M special edition, and found that the machine quickly gets the juices flowing and revives the spirit of top-down adventure. It's small, it's a tad cramped, but it's fun. Snap the two fasteners holding the vinyl top in place and let the arm swing up and over your head so the top lands in its resting place, and off you go. We found in the recent heat wave, however, that top-down motoring has a few drawbacks,such as the need to keep the top down, but the air conditioning on full blast in order to keep the lower extremities cool while the dome is baking. (But if you want ideal driving conditions, you never opt for a convertible. Best time to drive one is just after the sun has set or early to mid-fall when instead of top down/air on, you switch to top down/heat on.) Perhaps the biggest drawback to the Miata is the fact it is so small-only an 89-inch wheelbase and 155-inch length. Today's consumer is very safety conscious and though the Miata is a kick on the back roads and out-of-the-mainstream trails, you can easily become intimidated on the expressway or interstate when the 18-wheelers start stalking. Dual air bags are standard, which helps relieve some freeway anxiety. ABS is standard in the M edition (a $900 option in other Miatas), which helps, too. Still, when push comes to shove, the Miata would be the one pushed or shoved on the roadway. The Miata is powered by a 1.8-liter, 128-horsepower, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine. As has been true since the days of the original Miata, today's car featues exhaust rumble sound effects that make you feel as if you are accelerating much quicker than you are. There's enough oomph to keep you interested, but the 1.8 is built to bluff you into thinking the horses are stallions instead of ponies. The fuel economy rating is the clue as to how muscular the 1.8-liter is-23 miles per gallon city/29 m.p.g. highway. Ride and handling are pleasant. Despite the short wheelbase, road harshness is minimal. You can still play in the corners-downshift/upshift-but you might want to back off the pedal a bit in a sharply winding turn to ensure optimum road grip. Though the M-edition comes with the larger, more sure-footed 15-inch tires, Miata is meant to cruise rather than carouse. The 5-speed manual is a fairly smooth, short-throw unit. If you opt to drive aggressiv ely, you'll downshift/upshift a lot to get as much power as you can out of the 1.8-liter 4. A 4-speed automatic is optional at $850. The manually operated top is easy to slip down/put up, but the rear window is plastic and tends to show fold marks after just a few trips to its compartment. Glass would solve that problem. One annoyance, the top provides a bit of a blind spot-oddly enough more so on the driver's side when backing out of a parking spot with the top up than in moving back into the right lane after swinging out to pass. As we noted, the vehicle's small dimensions may have kept some folks out of the showroom. But price also has to be considered a factor. The M edition starts at $23,530, a hefty chunk of change despite all the goodies, such as air conditioning, ABS and power steering/mirrors/windows/antenna plus compact disc player, thrown in this limited-edition model at no charge. Lots of money, but then Miata is unique. >> 1995 1/2 Mazda Miata M Wheelbase: 89.2 inches Length: 155.4 inches Engine: 1.8-liter, 128-h.p., 16-valve, 4-cylinder Transmission: 5-speed manual EPA mileage: 23 m.p.g. city/29 m.p.g. highway Base price: $23,530. Price as tested: $23,530. Add $440 for freight. M package throws in at no extra charge air conditioning, ABS, 15-inch wheels, limited slip differential, leather interior including wrapped steering wheel, floor mats, carpeting, power windows, power steering, power mirrors, power antenna, cruise control, compact disc player, tan vinyl top and M-edition badging. Pluses: Fun. A cute little top-down toy. Dual air bags and ABS come with the car. Sales a bit soft, and you should expect discounting. Minuses: Little. Semis behind you look like Mt. Everest in flight. Would be nice if it had a glass rear window because the plastic quickly shows fold marks. >>
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