Have Coppertone, Will Travel
Editor’s Note: This year, Mazda celebrates its 90th anniversary and along with our extensive retrospective, we’ve gone through the archives to bring you a look at several classic Mazdas from the 70s and 80s.
Get used to the picture. This summer, and probably for many to come, little scenes like this are going to play on every strip of sunny sand accessible by man and machine. Mazda’s MX-5 Miata has arrived, and summer will never be the same.
You see, Mazda has a hit on its corporate hands with the Miata. Here’s a car that can relight the fore in an older enthusiast’s heart or just as easily drive a teenage girl to the point of hot flashes. We know. The driver’s seat of the Miata puts you right at ground zero. In our experience, the appeal of the Miata knows no bounds. No Motor Trend test car in memory has gotten the numbers of stares, comments, and questions the Miata has garnered during its short stay with us.
Best of all, the Miata honestly deserves the attention it gets. Not just because most people find it unbearably attractive, but because, as a car, the thing just plain works. This is not a case of a luscious shape draped over a bare-bones econobox chassis. The hardware underneath the Miata’s skin is current-tech stuff the classic open roadsters of the past never had. Consider the Miata’s fully independent suspension and rear-drive powertrain. A limited-slip differential is available as an option. The car’s 2182 lb are distributed nearly equally on the optional cast aluminum wheels, which are all stopped by disc brakes. The 1.6-liter engine has 16 valves and two cams and breathes deeply enough to make 116 hp and 100 lb-ft of torque. Then there’s the price. Base is just under $14,000, which, quite simply, makes the Miata the best sports car buy in America.
A large measure of the Miata’s success is due to the wise decisions made during the car’s development. The most critical ones, the decision to go with rear drive and to build from scratch as a convertible, reflect the “concept comes first” directive that governed development of the car. The temptation to knock the chassis off the 323 front-drive econobox must have been nearly overwhelming, but somehow, the Mazda people resisted. We’re glad.
The result is a car that’s pleasing for everybody from secretaries to off-duty race-car drivers. From superficial first impressions to deep investigation, the Miata stands up to any scrutiny. Consider the hardware. The suspension, for example, uses double wishbones at all four corners. The rear suspension has bushings tuned to provide track-correcting geometry at high lateral-g loadings. Gas-charged dampers control the movement of the 14-in. cast aluminum wheels. Anti-roll bars are fitted at each end of the car. The suspension pieces mount on subframes front and rear to isolate the passenger compartment from road noise. There’s also an elaborate aluminum framework that bolts over the driveshaft to rigidly connect the transmission and rear differential. The goal here is to keep the driveline components in their correct relationships at all times, thus bringing driveline whip and slop down close to zero.
Lift the aluminum hood (the rest of the body is steel) and peer into the engine compartment, and you might feel for a moment that you’ve been transported to a bygone era. The twin-cam 1.6-liter engine has the organic, rounded castings of ’50s-vintage engines, but the technology here is all completely current. The iron-blocked motor is derived from the turbocharged engine used in the 323 GTX all-wheel-drive car. It’s been extensively retuned to run at normal atmospheric pressure, and plopped down in the engine compartment longitudinally instead of transversely as in the 323.
Though this engine’s 116-hp peak is not particularly awesome, it has a light load to pull. The result is a 0-60 mph time of 8.86 sec and a quarter-mile time of 16.78 sec with a terminal speed of 81.9 mph. According to Mazda, the car has a top speed of 116 mph, though quite frankly, we were having too much fun driving around at lower velocities to try it out for ourselves. The redline is set at 6500 rpm — hardly stratospheric by today’s standards, but certainly enough to give you room to play. Flexibility is the engine’s strong suit; it’s comfortable and responsive at all speeds and is free of oppressively loud rpm ranges that might wear on the occupants. There’s a definite exhaust note, though, and a real sense of excitement as the revs rise. It’s sporty without being fatiguing. Hard-core enthusiasts will wish for more power, but the vast majority of buyers will find the car plenty quick just as it is. There are rumblings of a 1.8-liter or even larger engine waiting in the wings. That might better satisfy drivers looking for a touch more urge; but if you wait for the future, you’ll miss a lot of fun today.
The best part of the whole powertrain is the transmission. The stubby lever is linked to a little clockwork 5-speed that defies description, but we’ll describe it anyway. The throws of the Miata transmission are wonderfully short; for example, the knob moves just 3 in. between 3rd and 4th gears. The gates feel clearly defined, and the effort level is low. It’s marvelous. Combine this gearbox with a tight driveline, and you’ll find yourself looking for excuses to shift just for the sheer joy of it.
The rolling stock has been wrapped in simple, curvaceous sheetmetal that’s refreshingly free of the traditionally overdone graphics and gimmicks that used to characterize Japanese efforts. As the spiritual successor of the great roadsters of the ’50s and ’60s, it’s only fitting that the Miata echo the familiar styling cues of some of the greats. But the look here is not merely derivative; the car stands on its own as a clean, elegant design. And new technologies allow Mazda to achieve a level of appearance and function not possible in the glory days of roadsters. The MX-5’s plastic nose is an excellent example. The car has no front bumper, per se; the color-matched plastic nose does the job of meeting impact standards, while presenting a simple, uncluttered face to the world.
Inside, the MX-5 is all business. The cloth interior comes in your choice of black, and all the controls are well placed and simple to operate. A driver-side airbag is standard. There’s a complete array of easy-to-read analog instruments that can be complemented with either of two basic equipment upgrades. One package gives you an average-sounding AM/FM/cassette stereo deck, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and power steering. That’s the setup our car had. The upper option level gives you all that, plus cruise control, headrest speakers, and power windows. You can even add air conditioning (as on our test car) or a compact disc player. Either of the equipment packages comes with the cast alloy wheels.
Functionally, the cockpit is a nice place to be. The ride can be choppy at times, but is rarely uncomfortable. With the top down, the pocket of calm air is large enough to make even highway cruising comfortable. You’ll arrive at your destination with a different hairstyle from the one you started with, but this is the price you pay for being a sun-worshipper.
Some of our drivers were bothered by the parking brake lever when it was in the released position, but by and large, everyone could get comfortable. The seats adjust only for position and seatback angle, but they’re firm and acceptably supportive. During most driving, the Miata offers unlimited head room, but when the clouds come out and the top goes up, there’s still a remarkable amount of interior volume. Anyone up to 6 ft 5 in. fit in our test car without significant difficulty. The only drawback for taller drivers is the relatively low position of the windshield’s upper edge. Sometimes you need to duck a bit under the folding sun visor to get a look at nearby traffic signals. The hardtop that will be sold as an option offers about the same head room as the ragtop, but provides a lot more security. Initially, it will be available in red only and is expected to be priced at about $1000. The convertible top is manual, but it’s so well designed you hardly notice the lack of motorized assistance. You can put it down at a stoplight: Release the two front latches, unzip the rear window, grab the central handle, and throw it back over your head. All you have to do after that is remember to smile at motorists less fortunate than yourself. And you can put the top up while never leaving the driver’s seat, but it takes a determined (and awkward) lift on the handle to do the job. It’s simpler just to jump out and fling it up into position. A vinyl cover can be put over the folded top, and if you really take this topdown stuff seriously, you can snap on the tonneau to cover all or part of the interior.
Though there’s no insulation in the ragtop, the noise level in the Miata is relatively low and the wind and weather sealing particularly good. The car has a generally tight feel, though our test car (a pre-production prototype that had led a hard life) had a few more rattles than we would have expected. The chassis seems strong, and there’s not much of the cowl shake present in many convertibles.
A lot of people will fall in love with the Miata for its looks; the car’s marvelous road manners ensure that the love affair will last a long time. With its 50/50 weight distribution (with two people aboard) and nicely tuned chassis, the Miata is a neutral, predictable handler. When the cornering limit is approaching, the MX-5 understeers initially, but the driver can coax the tail out with the throttle. In the lower gears, there’s enough power to induce oversteer with a stomp on the gas, and in the upper gears, you can get it out of line with trailing throttle then hold it there with power. Through it all, the Miata feels stable, never darty or nervous. The power steering is a touch on the dead side for our taste, and we wouldn’t be surprised if the manual steering is somewhat more communicative, but otherwise, there’s nothing to complain about. The 4-wheel disc brakes are progressive, powerful, and almost fadeproof. The suspension settings at first feel surprisingly soft, but they turn out to be nicely matched to the Bridgestone SF325s.
And the Miata does more than just act like it loves to corner — this thing is deadly serious. Our test car lapped the skidpad over and over at 0.92 lateral g, tail hung out, smoke billowing from the rear tires. It was great. You have to spend several times the Miata’s asking price to find a stock production car that sticks better.
This is a serious for-real sports car that churns up all sorts of wonderful memories of late, great roadsters. The only difference is that this one is a far better, more capable car. And it even starts in the morning. For a newer generation of drivers who don’t have those bittersweet motoring experiences to look back on, the Miata is ready to make them from scratch. Just add sun.
|1989 Mazda MX-5 Miata|
|Vehicle mfr.||Mazda Motor Corp., Hiroshima, Japan|
|Vehicle importer||Mazda Motors, America, Inc. Irvine. Calif|
|Body type||2-pass., 2-dr.|
|Drive system||Front engine, rear drive|
|Base price||$13.999 (est.)|
|Price as tested||$14,999 (est.)|
|Engine type||Inline 4, liquid cooled, cast iron block, cast alloy head|
|Displacement||1597 cc (97.4 cu in.)|
|Induction system||Multi-port EFI|
|Valvetrain||DOHC, 4 valves/cylinder|
|Max. power (SAE net)||116 hp @ 6500 rpm|
|Max. torque (SAE net)||100 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm|
|Emissions control||Catalytic converter|
|Recommended fuel||Unleaded regular|
|Final drive ratio||3.48:1|
|Suspension, f;r||Independent, double wishbone unequal-length transverse A-arms, coil springs, gas-filled shocks, anti-roll bar; Independent, double wishbone unequal-length A-arms, coil springs, gas-filled shocks, anti-roll bar|
|Steering type||Rack and pinion|
|Turns (lock to lock)||3.3|
|Turning circle||9.1 m (30.0 ft)|
|Brakes, f/r; ABS||236 mm (9.3 in.), vented discs, power assist/231 mm (9.1 in.), discs, power assist; not offered|
|Wheels||14 x 5.5 in. cast aluminum|
|Tires||185/60R14 Bridgestone steel-belted radial|
|Published curb weight||990 kg (2182 lb)|
|Weight distribution, f/r||52/48%|
|Wheelbase||2266 mm (89.2 in.)|
|Overall length||3948 mm (155.4 in.)|
|Overall width||1676 mm (65.9 in.)|
|Overall height||1224 mm (48.2 in.)|
|Track, f/r||1410/1428 mm|
|Power-to-weight ratio||18.8 lb/hp|
|Int. noise lvl. @60 mph||75 dBA|
|EPA (city/hwy.)||25/30 mpg|
|Quarter mile||16.78 sec @ 81.9 mph|
|Braking, 60-0||148 ft|
| Acceleration (sec)