Mazda Miata honed with new version of a racy ragtop roadster
Date Posted: 5/10/2005
MALIBU, Calif. -- Narrow ribbons of blacktop, contorting through canyons and twisting across ridges of the Santa Monica Mountains above Los Angeles, allow a driver to feel the subtle improvements in chassis dynamics effected for a new rendition of Miata, Mazda's racy 2-seat roadster.
It's stiffer now with less flex evident in the body structure, while double wishbone geometry of Miata's independent suspension system, acting quickly and quite predictably with weight pared from front corners, plays all curves and nuances of road bumps with the dexterity of a gymnist tumbling across an exercise mat.
On the multi-lane Pacific Coast Highway, Miata romps in traffic with a dash through the elite enclave of Malibu.
Hunkering in a wee cockpit and wielding the tightest shifter of any automobile, a driver recognizes that no other sports car generates such thrills on pavement as Miata.
It's one writer's idea of the perfect car: Quick and lively, precise and totally balanced, not practical as a family car but -- wow -- what a delight for driving.
Miata first appeared in the creative mind of Tom Metano, Mazda's California-based designer, and it emerged in production reality as a 1990 model.
From the outset Miata promised the appeal of a 1960s British roadster with 1990s bullet-proof durability of a Japanese machine. It became an instant hit, then scored time after time on every critic's "Ten Best" car list.
Despite subtle changes in subsequent models, Miata remained essentially the same car: A pure 2-person open-top roadster with pint-size engine but ideal weight balance, plus the shortest stick shifter in the industry.
For 1999, however, Mazda hones the concept of Miata and improves where needed to craft a second generational expression of Miata that's sleeker and more powerful, yet still true to the original concept.
This driver, die-hard Miata fan from the get-go, approached with skepticism a day of play in the new version: How, one wondered, would it be possible to improve upon an automobile that, despite size and scope limits, seemed ideal from the first issue?
Powering up Malibu Canyon to run the Mulholland crest route in a silver edition with Miata hugging around hairpin curves and surging up all hills, I began see the light.
This new Miata feels more substantial and stable, with backbone braced to create a more rigid structure, and thus dampen chassis vibrations.
Front and rear wheels spread wider now to forge a broad track for increased stability, and the race-tested double wishbone suspension forms a 20-mm lower roll center up front to make Miata even more agile when navigating through turns.
Quick rack and pinion steering has revised geometry.
Despite increased structural strength, Miata's weight remains relatively the same as before -- now at 2,299 lbs.
Miata also wields more power in the new version, due to new cylinder heads and enlarged intake and exhaust ports, plus elevated compression ratios. The 1.8-liter in-line-4, with dual overhead cams, also links to a new variable intake control system.
Output increases from 133 to 140 hp, with torque climbing from 114 lbs/ft at 5500 rpm to 119.
While these numbers do not present a clear contrast to the former Miata, the stable weight and enhanced structure combine with the engine's thrust to create a quicker feel that's evident when shifting up through lower gears.
These subtle performance traits compare with the subtle changes in sheetmetal: Even though all is new, you may still recognize the shape and form as unique to Miata.
It looks more muscular now, thanks to a humpy shoulder added above each wheel which creates curvy undulations on both front and rear decks. Former flat sides appear roundly sculptured, with door trailing cutlines sweeping up at the rear to mimic the profiles of doors on Mazda's RX-7 coupe.
At the nose, former flip-up bug-eye lights were discarded in favor of more sophisticated and sleek exposed oval headlamps, which wrap the corners and form a snake-eye face in counterpoint to a bolder oval grille mouth.
At the tail, a raised lip at the trailing edge of the deck hints at the spoiler treatment of RX-7.
More changes come in Miata's tight cockpit.
The instrument panel was revamped with new white-on-blue analog gauges, and a center stack has audio system with CD player mounted above climate controls.
Two contoured bucket seats flank the center console, which houses Miata's gear shifter and a rear storage basket featuring built-in cupholders. Switches for optional power windows mount between shifter and storage bin.
Miata's steering wheel was redesigned in 3-spoke arrangement with compact de-powered airbag in the hub. For most trim versions, a leather-wrapped NARDI wheel shows up with thick rim for great grip.
A second airbag tucks into dashboard above the passenger-side glove box. It ties to a key-operated de-activation switch on the center console, making Miata the first vehicle in its class with this safety feature for use when installing an infant car seat.
Behind the two seats a high deck adds a storage net and stiff lateral brace, where a flip-up windbreak flap can be used with top down to spoil air flowing over windshield and backing into the cockpit.
Miata's manual folding convertible top, already the easiest to operate among all drop-tops, now becomes even easier to deploy, thanks to the addition of a new glass rear window with built-in defogging heat element.
In the trunk, formerly big enough for only a gym bag, more than five cubic feet of space have been crafted by moving spare tire and battery below a flat floor partition. Now there's room for two sets of golf clubs.
Despite so many improvements for Miata, the car remains essentially affordable, with base price of $19,770.
A number of packages permit customization for luxury as well as performance. Variable-effect power steering, anti-lock brakes and limited-slip differential are available, as is a 4-speed automatic transmission. Packages include Popular Equipment and Leather, the latter with Bose sound, plus a Sports edition with front air dam and spoiler, 15-inch wheels and Bilstein shocks with firm suspension.
1999 MAZDA MIATA ROADSTER
| Vehicle Specifications:
| 1999 MAZDA MIATA Specs
| Model Options:
| Overall Length:
| Engine Size:
||DOHC 1.8-L I4
||Power 4-disc/ABS opt.
| Gas Mileage:
||$ 20,000 to $ 27,000