Versus the competiton:
I never thought I would meet a Mazda Miata I couldn’t like.
Then came this week’s test car, the Miata R, one of two limited edition models Mazda is peddling this year.
The other special car, the Miata M Edition, is a fully loaded luxury machine costing $22,000 and change. It’s basically the same as the black-and-red special edition Miata I tested last year, but with a new color scheme and some minor trim changes.
The Miata R, however, has no luxury items at all.
The R after the Miata name stands for racing. And that means most items that don’t contribute to the car’s ability to go, stop and turn have been left off.
Hard to steer, noisy over rough roads and somewhat uncomfortable, the Miata R somehow manages to erase most of the charm and goodwill created by the original Miata.
Unless you like driving a stripped down, bare-bones car designed for the racetrack, you probably won’t find much to like about the Miata R.
For 1994, the Miata’s double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine has been stretched from 1.6 liters to 1.8 liters, and horsepower has been increased from 116 to 125. The bigger, more powerful engine is standard on all Miatas.
Instead of tweaking the engine’s tuning or making any mechanical changes to increase power, Mazda opted to make the car lighter by taking out the power steering and most accessories, such as power windows and mirrors and cruise control.
Mazda spokesman Fred Aikins in California estimated that the Miata R is about 50 pounds lighter than the standard Miata, and he said the performance gained by leaving out all that equipment is marginal at best.
What I can’t figure out is why anyone would pay nearly 20 grand for a stripped Miata when for about the same money you can get one with all the goodies and have the almost same performance.
In any case, the 1.8-liter engine delivers spirited performance. The Miata is no lightning bolt, but it is very quick, snappy and agile. Figure 0 to 60 mph in8.8 seconds.
The exhaust emits a hearty growl that, especially with the top down, enhances the driving experience. You find yourself revving the engine with a little extra enthusiasm just to hear the sporty rumble from the exhaust.
There’s plenty of passing power and, once at cruising speed, the Miata settles in quietly.
Fuel mileage was generally excellent. With the air conditioner on, I averaged better than 26 mpg in combined city/highway driving.
Because the Miata R doesn’t offer much better acceleration, you might be thinking that it handles far better than the regular model.
But I don’t want to mislead you here. The Miata, with a perfect 50/50 weight balance, handles wonderfully. With 50 percent of the weight on the rear wheels and 50 percent on the front, the Miata has a feeling of balance and steadiness that few other sporty cars can equal.
But because the Miata alr eady handles so well, there just isn’t much room for improvement.
Even though the Miata R handles well in a tight, fast curve, it is not much fun to drive. Without power steering, turning the car is a chore. It takes quite a bit of effort to turn the wheel when doing something like backing out of a parking space. And because the steering is so heavy, the Miata R loses much of its lightning-quick reflexes when you change lanes.
I’m convinced the standard model Miata has the best suspension system. I can see no advantage in the Miata R’s high performance setup.
Mazda engineers fitted the Miata R with a special set of Bilstein racing shocks, a limited-slip differential, stiffer suspension bushings and modified stabilizer bars. In doing so, it’s as if they removed the car’s ability to take a bump without causing the whole car to shake, rattle and roll. The suspension is so stiff that each inconsistency in the pavement sends shock waves of energy through the entire ca . That makes it annoying to drive.
FIT AND FINISH
Except for a powerful AM/FM cassette radio and air conditioning, our test car offered nothing in the way of luxuries.
A base model Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro or Pontiac Firebird convertible offers more of everything than the Miata R -and for far less money.
Mazda made a minor but annoying change in the interior of all its Miatas this year. The inside door panels have been redesigned to incorporate map pockets just below the handles. The new style door panels do away with the large armrest. Now there’s no place to prop your left arm when driving. Instead, you have to rest your arm on top of the window ledge.
The cloth-covered seats in the Miata are unusually comfortable, and they offer good support.
All Miatas this year are outfitted with dual air bags. Optional anti-lock brakes add $900 to the price of the regular Miata, but are not available on the Miata R. That seems strange, because this is the car that is intended to be driven aggressively.
Front and rear spoilers, special wheels and large white racing stripes on the hood and trunk are the most noticeable features of the Miata R.
Mazda still hasn’t addressed a problem I’ve noticed in every Miata I’ve tested since the car first came out five years ago. Interior lighting is exceptionally poor. At night, one small light facing down from the passenger-side dash is all the interior lighting available.
Mazda has made some beautiful special edition Miatas in the last three years. But it’s made some mistakes too. The Miata with the optional automatic transmission has not sold particularly well. I can’t see how this one will either.
Truett’s tip: If you have your heart set on a Miata, you’ll probably want to steer clear of the R model. It is expensive, unrefined and tiresome to drive.