On-ramp: a car is reborn – the Mazda Miata is redesigned

On-ramp: a car is reborn – the Mazda Miata is redesigned – Brief Article

Arthur St. Antoine

Everyone’s favorite roadster, the Mazda Miata, gets a surprisingly successful face-lift

THERE’S NO GETTING away from it: This is the Summer of the Volkswagen New Beetle. Pity the poor carmaker trying to launch a new model in the monumental shadow cast by VW’s fabulous cartoon on wheels. You might as weld go to the producers of Titanic and pitch them an art film called Dinghy.

* Yet the tumult sparked by “Beetlegate” is actually a case of deja vu all over again. Nine years ago, another affordable, impossibly cute fun car caused a similar front-page frenzy and had normally dignified country-club denizens smacking each other upside the head for a spot on top of the waiting list. That car was the Mazda Miata–a jaunty, two-seat convertible with the look and feel of a 1960s British sports car but without the tendency to leave oil stains and transmission parts at every stoplight.

The combination created an instant sensation. In 1989, while test-driving one of the very first Miatas, I vividly remember thinking. “Ah, so this is how it feels to be pope.” Motorists waved, pedestrians cheered, people even dropped to their knees and prayed. (I still didn’t hand over the keys, though.) And the car didn’t just look great, it drove great, too. As I wrote in my review: “If the new Miata were any more talented and tempting, buying one would be illegal.”

Of course, the only thing illegal about the Mazda Miata was that it had the same initials as Michael Milken. In the years following the car’s heady debut, Mazda sold more than 450,000 copies–making the Miata the world’s bestselling two-seat roadster. Indeed, the original Miata was so right straight out of the box, Mazda hardly touched it during the car’s entire existence.

Then a few months ago, Mazda unveiled a redesigned Miata. Probably you didn’t hear about It, what with all the racket being made by the Beetles. You probably haven’t even noticed the new Miatas that are already running around on the road–at a glance, the exterior changes are subtle. Yet overlooking the new Miata would be a mistake: This is one smashingly successful upgrade.

The lines of the original Miata were so inspired, so impeccable, that altering the design probably felt like sewing a back massager onto an Eames chair. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Mazda’s makeover has turned out so well. Though built on the same basic platform as the original car, the 1999 Miata (there is no ’98 model) is a bit wider, a bit shorter and almost an inch lower. The original’s motorized pop-up headlights have been replaced by flush mounted projector-beam lights, saving both weight and complexity and giving the car’s face an appealing new pair of eyes. New curves along the sides hint at added muscle.

Interior spaciousness is about the same as before–the driver’s seat accommodated my six-foot frame well enough, but you wouldn’t want to be much taller. My test car, equipped with the Popular Equipment Package, included a boffo three-spoke, leather wrapped steering wheel from Nardi of Turin, Italy Also onboard were such options as a 200-watt Bose premium audio system (which complements the standard AM/FM stereo with CD player), plus power door locks and cruise control.

The cabin may not be roomier, but the trunk is. By cleverly relocating the spare tire and the battery, Mazda engineers have squeezed 42 percent more space out of the trunk. In practical terms, that means the Miata can now accommodate two compact golf bags. The old Miata could do the same, of course, but your golfing partner would always get huffy at having to run alongside the car.

The Miata’s already easy-to-use soft top has gotten even easier. To drop the top, simply unlatch two releases on the windshield header and fold the top into a compartment behind the seats. The process takes about 10 seconds. Better still, the old car’s plastic rear window–which had to be unzipped before the top could be stowed and which tended to become opaque with scratches–has been replaced by a permanent glass rear window with a built-in defogger.

The original Miata began life with a 116-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that Mazda increased to 1.8 liters for improved low end responsiveness. The new Miata also uses the 1.8-liter four-cylinder, but it’s been upgraded with numerous refinements, including a new Variable Intake Control System for better engine breathing. The result is a solid 140 horsepower (we in emissions strict California get 138 horsepower). The added power doesn’t transform the Miata into a drag-strip star, but there’s a sense of urgency in the throttle response now. Coupled to the standard five-speed manual transmission (an automatic is optional), the engine provides more than enough thrust to tickle your backside. And as it zooms to its 7,000-rpm redline, it sounds more like a British sports car than most British sports cars.

As testament to the structural improve meets and savvy tweaks made by Mazda’s engineers, the new Miata feels noticeably more solid and robust than the old model–despite being roughly 50 pounds lighter. Also, a wider track and thoughtful suspension revisions contribute to greatly improved stability on the road.

In California, the 1999 Miata starts at $20,370. Add air-conditioning and the Popular Equipment Package, and you’re looking at $23,600. Behave like Congress with the options list, and you can pork the price above $26,000. Even then, Miata generously undercuts such premium roadsters as the Mercedes SLK ($40,295), the Porsche Boxster ($41,765) and the base BMW Z3 ($29,995).

Amid the morass of lumbering sport-utility vehicles and giant, security-glassed sedans, the new Miata feels as nakedly pure as a surfboard. Simply dropping the top and blasting into the breeze is as stimulating as eating a plate of Viagra brownies. Feel that tingle on your skin? Why, that’s called the sun. And that strange commotion in your wrist? That’s your pulse kicking back to life. And that enormous thing on your face–what in the world is that?

We don’t hear the term enough in L.A. these days, but scientists typically refer to it as a “thousand-watt smile.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Los Angeles Magazine, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group