The perfect sports car.

by Mitch McCullough

Base Price $20,545
As Tested $20,995

Mazda Miata remains the benchmark in spite of an invasion of two-seat sports cars from other manufacturers. It offers truly outstanding, classic sports car handling. There's plenty of power for this lightweight rear-wheel-drive roadster. Amenities are traditional elegantly designed sports car: simple and functional.

It isn't the most powerful, or the most luxurious. It isn't the most exotic or the most sophisticated. But in terms of an affordable roadster, which is what the original sports cars from Great Britain were, the Miata is near perfection.

Mazda dropped the price of the Miata in March 2000 and added air conditioning and other features as standard equipment.

Model Lineup

Three models are available: base ($20,545), LS ($23,545) and Special Edition ($25,055).

In previous years, the Miata models were organized as packages. The base Miata now comes standard with air conditioning. Also standard are alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, a CD stereo with four speakers, and power windows and mirrors. The base model comes with black cloth and a black convertible top.

LS adds leather upholstery, a tan convertible top, 195/50VR15 tires in place of the base model's 185/60HR14s, a Torsen limited slip rear differential, power door locks, cruise control and a Bose CD/cassette stereo with six speakers.

Mazda is also selling just 3,000 examples of a Special Edition model for that includes a six-speed gearbox, exclusive Mahogany Mica paint, parchment convertible top, parchment leather-trimmed seats and interior appointments, mahogany-colored Nardi wood-rimmed steering wheel, shift knob and handbrake lever, white gauge faces, chrome accent rings on the gauges, chrome interior door handles, stainless steel scuff plates and polished 15-inch alloy wheels.

An optional Suspension Package includes a sports suspension with strut tower brace is available for the LS ($495); this package is also available for the base model ($995) and includes the Torsen LSD and 15-inch wheels and tires. Anti-lock brakes ($550) are an option on the LS. A removable hardtop ($1,500) is available for driving in cold climates, bad neighborhoods or on race tracks.

All Miatas come with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 140 horsepower. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard; a four-speed automatic ($900) is optional.

Walkaround

Miata remains a classic-looking roadster with traditional rear-wheel drive. Miata was redesigned and re-engineered for 1999. The resulting car features a more aggressive appearance. Compared with pre-1999 models, exposed projector-type headlamps replace the old pop-up units, there's more sculpturing along the sides, and there's a little raised bump at the rear of the trunk lid reminiscent of the third-generation Mazda RX-7. This newest generation model is lighter, more powerful, more refined and boasts a stiffer chassis than pre-1999 models. For 2000, the model line was simplified and Evolution Orange Mica was added to the color palette.

Interior Features

This car only seats two. The cockpit feels snug to folks over six feet tall and those who sit tall in the saddle are likely to find the top brushing against their hair. But it's perfect for those of standard or smaller stature. The bucket seats are comfortable and supportive. The mirrors are bigger and more effective than those found in BMW's more expensive Z3. The trunk is tiny, but you can wedge in a couple of golf bags back or enough luggage for a weekend excursion.

Miata's cockpit remains traditional and familiar despite a complete overhaul for 1999. The switches were relocated, the instrument panel was redesigned, rotary knobs replace the old climate control sliders and audio systems are now stacked above the climate controls. After years of big, padded four-spoke steering wheels, the leather-wrapped Nardi steering wheel is a refreshing return to traditional three-spoke steering wheels; besides lending a spiffy appearance, it affords a good view of the tachometer and speedometer. But Miata remains loyal to the original design, which is reminiscent of the British roadsters of the 1950s and '60s.

The top drops with one hand and couldn't be easier. A boot covers the folded top for an improved appearance, but isn't necessary. An optional Windblocker is designed to keep cabin turbulence to a minimum when the top is down. You still get wind in the hair, but without having your hair standing straight up. A glass rear window complete with an electric defogger is standard and preferable to plastic windows that become foggy and distorted with age.

Like all convertibles, the Miata is a little noisy inside. When the tires pick up sand or small rocks, you hear them hit the fender wells. But the exhaust sounds great and it's all part of the traditional sports car experience. If extended Interstate droning is on the menu, the Miata is far from ideal. Like its British ancestors, this car is designed for driving fun, as distinct from mere transportation. The destination is unimportant; getting there is everything. Viewed from this perspective, the Miata is just about perfect.

Driving Impressions

Miata is the contemporary embodiment of the 1950s sports car spirit, minus the irritations that went with the MGs, Triumphs and Austin-Healeys of the day.

Handling is excellent. It reacts to the driver's input just like a Formula Ford race car: Lift off the throttle in the middle of a fast corner and you'll feel the chassis rotate as the car turns in tighter. Step on the gas again and it straightens out as weight is transferred to the rear and the rear tires gain grip. It's just perfectly balanced. Unlike most front-wheel-drive sports coupes, the rear-wheel-drive Miata does not mask poor driving technique. Conversely, it really rewards good technique. A good driver will become a better driver in this car. Last year's steering and suspension revisions make the new car more predictable in quick transitions. Mazda tweaked the rack-and-pinion steering system to make its initial response a little less abrupt. But turn in to a corner and the car responds instantly. In fact, the steering is so quick, that you may find yourself turning in a little too early or a little too much for corners until you get used to it. Braking performance is of the right-now variety with or without the ABS option and the pedal feel is excellent.

Miata rides like a traditional sports car. It shudders over bumps like an old MG. When you run over ripples in the pavement, you feel them. But like the noise, it's all part of the experience.

The 5-speed manual transmission shifts smoothly. It features short throws from gear to gear. You only have to push the clutch in part way to change gears. Heck, if your timing is good, you don't have to push it in at all. It is excellent and a big part of the fun of driving the Miata. A 4-speed automatic is available as an option, though this erodes the sports car driving experience considerably.

Throttle response is instant. Acceleration is brisk, and the new exhaust note conjures up visions of Watkins Glen and roots of American sports car racing. In fact, Miatas have won a number of Sports Car Club of America national championships. And with its keenly honed reflexes, it should keep right on winning. Compared with the more expensive roadsters and some of the front-drive compact coupes, the Miata's little 1.8-liter engine does not provide a lot of torque. But it loves to rev and there's plenty of power to satisfy all but the hungriest sports car enthusiast.

The engine is basically the same 1.8-liter twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder that propelled the 1997 Miata, but Mazda has coaxed 140 horsepower out of it along with 119 foot-pounds of torque and improved its mid-range response. More power and reduced curb weight (this model is 45 pounds lighter than pre-1999 models) add up to better acceleration. The exhaust system delivers a spirited tenor bark to go with the engine's increased bite. It's a high-tech echo of the '50s, and sounds exactly what sports cars are supposed to sound like. The Mazda engine isn't as smooth as a Honda, but its roughness somehow makes the Miata more endearing and adds to its sports appeal.

Our car did not come with the optional limited-slip rear differential and, as a result, I encountered rear wheel spin when accelerating hard out of tight corners. If you're a hard-driving enthusiast, opt for the limited-slip. If you're buying the Miata for its carefree open-air motoring, there's no need to spend the money on the limited-slip.

Final Word

Like all pure sports cars, the Miata is a recreational implement rather than a transportation device. Practicality doesn't apply here. There are many sports cars that deliver a lot more performance. But the new Miata is far from slow, and its agility measures up with the best for far less money.

Like everything else in life, the Miata hasn't gotten any cheaper. Over its first decade, the base price has crept up from about $14,000. Nevertheless, considered as an automotive recreational value, it just doesn't get any better than the Miata. The good news is that the Miata is extremely reliable. Just check the oil and it'll run forever. Most people who sell their Miatas do so only because they need a bigger car.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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