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Expert Reviews 1 of 2
By Jim Flammang
May 24, 2001
Vehicle Overview The Miatas startling popularity after its debut as an early 1990 model essentially inspired the roadster revolution that followed later in the decade. Considered a basic sports car not unlike the British roadsters that inspired the original roadster craze in the 1950s and 60s the Miata also benefited from Japanese quality and reliability, in stark contrast to the pretty but troublesome British two-seaters of the distant past. Like all traditionally styled sports cars, the Miata (officially called the MX-5 Miata) has rear-wheel drive.
Restyled modestly for 1999 with minimal dimension changes, Mazdas still-popular sports car gets a more powerful engine with variable valve timing this year. It now produces 15 horsepower more than before. Additionally, the front fascia is newly restyled and the interior revised, including reworked high-back bucket seats, a new console and chrome bezels for the white-faced gauges.
Brakes have been enlarged to improve halting talents, while chassis revisions have enhanced body rigidity. Bending stiffness on models with 16-inch wheels is claimed to be 16 percent better, with torsional rigidity increased by 22 percent (the figures are 13 and 6 percent, respectively, for Miatas with 15-inch tires). Base and LS versions are still available. Previously offered only on limited-edition Miatas, a six-speed-manual gearbox now is available for the LS, which also gets 16-inch tires.
Special editions have been part of the Miata picture, and Mazda introduced another one at the Chicago Auto Show in February 2001. At least 500,000 Miatas now are on the road globally, and more than a quarter million have been sold in North America. The Miata now ranks as the best-selling two-passenger roadster of all time. Sales have remained respectable even after more than a decade on the market, with 18,299 units going to U.S. customers during 2000, according to Automotive News.
Exterior The first Miata was loosely patterned after an older British Lotus Elan two-seater. The current body is little changed and still features a conglomeration of curves, offset by few straight lines. The manual-folding fabric top has a glass back window with a defogger and can be raised or lowered from the drivers seat without undue twisting. A removable hardtop can be added.
At just 155.7 inches overall on an 89.2-inch wheelbase, the Miata is about 3 inches shorter than the BMW Z3. Five-spoke alloy wheels on the base Miata hold 15-inch 195/50VR15 tires, up from 14-inchers last year. Standard tires on the LS are 16-inchers, which is a first for the Miata.
Interior Miatas are two-seaters, with cloth-upholstered buckets for both occupants. Because its only 4 feet tall to the top of the roof, occupants have to drop down into their snug-fitting seats. The driver faces a simple dashboard with all the controls and gauges within easy reach.
Standard equipment includes air conditioning, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, variable-assist power steering, power windows and mirrors, a CD player, power antenna, tachometer, digital clock, intermittent wipers and a theft-deterrent system. In addition, fog lights and a windblocker panel come standard. A detachable hardtop and rear spoiler are $1,500 and $295 options, respectively.
In addition to 16-inch tires, the LS version adds tan leather seating surfaces, a tan fabric top, cruise control, chrome inside door handles, power door locks, a Torsen limited-slip differential, remote keyless entry and a 200-watt Bose CD stereo system with four speakers. An optional suspension package includes the 16-inch tires, alloy wheels, limited-slip differential and strut-tower brace from the LS and adds Bilstein shock absorbers.
Under the Hood Mazdas 1.8-liter dual overhead cam four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing develops 155 hp and teams with a standard five-speed-manual transmission or an optional four-speed automatic. A six-speed manual is optional on the Miata LS.
Safety Side-impact airbags are not available, but antilock brakes are an option on the Miata LS. Dual depowered front airbags are installed, with a key-operated deactivation switch for the passenger side. Mazda also added seat belt pretensioners and force limiters.
Driving Impressions Created for fun, the Miata is just as enjoyable to drive today as it was more than a decade ago, when the two-seater first went on sale. Except for the early days, when Miatas were selling for far above sticker price, the two-seater has been a good buy, retaining its value well in the used-car market. Plenty of competitors have come along since then, but Mazda remains the standard of comparison at least at the affordable end of the price spectrum.
Although the ride can be a bit stiff, engine noise is by no means absent, and performance lags behind some rivals, the traditional-looking Miata still ranks as the one to beat. Although the snappy-shifting manual gearbox and positive clutch behavior add to the driving pleasure, even a good thing can become tedious after a time being stuck in slow-moving traffic with a stick-shift roadster can almost turn pleasure into pain.
But that doesnt happen often. On sunny days, not many cars deliver as much sheer driving delight as the Miata. They are snug inside, and getting down there might be a bit of an ordeal if the top is up. But settled into the drivers seat, the Miata owner is sure to wear a smile when its time to steer the roadster onto the road.