If you love the 1997 Mazda Miata - this week's test car - you better get one now, because the '98 model that rolls into showrooms in the fall is going to look different from the 1990-97 models. Mazda officials are worried that their small roadster - which they claim triggered the current sports car craze - is in danger of being overshadowed by the BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster, Mercedes-Slk and Plymouth Prowler. So Mazda's designers went back to the drawing board and came up with a new face and some other styling changes for the Miata. In my view, this is like putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. No matter what Mazda does to the Miata, there are going to be multitudes of purists who are going to be angry. With the possible exception of the 1970 Datsun 240 Z, no other Japanese automobile has found such an enthusiastic following. If fuzzy spy photos and Internet images are correct, the Miata's classic looks will be gone. The pop-up headlights are out, and the front of the car will sport a protruding beak with headlights built into the shape of the car. Mazda spokesman Fred Aikens in California confirmed that major changes are on the way, but he didn't offer any specifics. The styling change is designed to attract fresh attention to the car and breathe new life into what has become the crown jewel of Mazda's troubled U.S. operations. I spent a week with the top-of-the-line 1997 model, the luxuriously appointed M Edition. At nearly $26,000, the Miata M is an expensive small sports car, but it still costs less than the four-cylinder BMW Z3, and I think the Miata is the better of the two. Regardless of what becomes of the Miata for 1998 and beyond, the first generation models will go down in automotive history as one of the best sports cars of all time. PERFORMANCE, HANDLING The 1997 Miata is powered by a 133-horsepower, double overhead cam, in-line four-cylinder engine that is mated to a five-speed manual transmission. A four-speed automatic is optional for about $1,000, but not many Miatas are sold with the automatic. Most people who buy sports cars, stick with the stick, because it makes the car more fun to drive. And fun -as always - is the word that best defines the Miata. This car is a 2,300-pound bundle of joy. I know of few cars for the same money that are as enjoyable to drive. The 1.8-liter engine makes a throaty roar and provides spritely, balanced performance. Acceleration is strong and smooth at all speeds. Although the Miata is not a fast sports car - it'll hit 60 mph in about 8.7 seconds - it feels reasonably quick because it is light, agile and easy to drive. I found the transmission a breeze to shift. The clutch is smooth and easy to operate, and the shifter clicks into each gear with a minimum amount of effort. Because the clutch and shifter work so well, the Miata is no problem to drive in heavy traffic. The Miata has double wi shbone, independent front and rear suspension, gas-charged shocks and front and rear stabilizer bars. Because the weight is distributed equally between the front and rear, the Miata handles brilliantly. The two-seater carves up the curves with verve. With the top down and the engine purring, you feel connected to the road as you slice through holes in traffic and zip around corners. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is tight; just a slight movement of the wheel is all it takes to change directions. The Miata can turn a circle in 30 feet, making the car extremely maneuverable in tight spaces. Our test car came with four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, which is standard on the M Edition. These excellent brakes are the best I have ever tested on a Miata. They bite hard and stop the car quickly and smoothly. FIT AND FINISH High quality is one of the major reasons Mazda has sold nearly 400,000 Miatas since 1990. Almost half of all Miatas have b en sold in the United States. While the Miata may be the spiritual successor of the MGs and Triumphs of the '50s and '60s, this modern sports car didn't inherit the oil leaks, cranky engines and unpredictable electrical systems that plagued those old roadsters. The Miata has proven to be as reliable, dependable and well-made as just about any other Japanese automobile. Throughout its life, the Miata has earned Consumer Reports highest ratings in nearly every category -an unprecedented feat for a sports car. Our test car - with its special green paint, tan leather interior, chrome mag wheels and tan top - was a sharp-looking machine. The M Edition, which contains just about every item Mazda offers, proved comfortable and civilized in a weeklong, 500-mile test. The only major item not standard on this model is the body-colored hardtop. Our test car featured power mirrors and windows, air conditioning, cruise control and a superb AM/FM radio with a CD player. The tan leather seats have speakers built into the headrests so that the radio can be heard while the car is traveling quickly with the top down. Nice touch. The manual top is easy to raise and lower. When the top and windows are up, the Miata is sealed tightly. You don't hear any wind noise. During several pounding rainstorms, not one drop of water leaked inside the car. There is one item that could stand improvement: the air conditioner. On broiling-hot 97 degree days, the air conditioner struggled to cool the car. The vents are too small, and the fan made a lot of noise on full speed. Another thing that will take a bit of getting used to is the lack of space. The Miata can carry about four bags of groceries in the passenger seat and on the floor and some small parcels in the trunk. And that's about it. For most of us, driving is something of a chore. Getting nailed on Interstate 4 everyday on your commute to and from work is not much fun. But if you occasionally love just to get out on the open road and drive, I'm convinced that you can't have more fun on four wheels for less money than you will with a Miata. Find a twisty road on a cool evening, put the top down and crank up the radio, and the Miata will make you feel good. It's times like that when you rediscover the joy of driving, and you feel it's great to be alive. Specifications: 1997 Mazda Miata M Edition LENGTH Overall 155.4 FRONT COMPARTMENT Headroom 37.1 Legroom 42.7 WARRANTY Three-year, 50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper coverage, five-year unlimited mileage rust protection. MECHANICAL Drivetrain layout: Front-mounted engine and transmission, rear-wheel drive. Brakes: Power-assisted four-wheel disc with ABS. Engine: 133-horsepower, 1.8-liter,double overhead cam four-cylinder with 16 valves. T ransmission: Five-speed manual. OTHER MODELS Miata: $19,125. Truett's tip: The Miata M Edition is a sharp-looking, comfortable and fun-to-drive luxury version of the world's best-selling sports car. It's expensive, but a limited production will make it rare.
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