My Miata, the day I got it home

It’s been a long-standing meme in the automotive enthusiast community that Miata is always the answer - want a cheap fun sports car? Miata. Want a somewhat efficient commuter car? Miata. Want a family hauler? The trunk’s big enough to stick a kid in, Miata. However, for me, Miata’s no longer the answer.

As those who have read my posts here probably know, I’ve been an efficiency enthusiast for a very long time, and that was my route into car enthusiasm. My first car was a 1985 Jetta diesel (and I’ve owned two more VW diesels over the years), for years I had plans to build my own homage to the Volkswagen 1-Liter concept, and my current daily driver is a 2016 Prius.

So, how does someone get into Miatas from there? Well, when you have a horrifically unreliable VW diesel, and you have to borrow a RWD Ranger with bald tires, in winter, just to get to work... you learn quite a bit about controlling a RWD vehicle. That’s really what led to my interest in Miatas - and, with small 4-cylinder gas engines, they’re not going to be terrible efficiency-wise, right?

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Upshot was, I bought a 1992 Miata. It was rusty, it was salvage title... but it was cheap, and it was fun. And, even with all of that, it was a hell of a lot more reliable than the 1986 Golf diesel it replaced. That was the car that sucked me into believing that Miata is always the answer - for me, it could do everything, while being driven at 9/10ths everywhere, and get 28-34 mpg doing it. (Well, the blown headgasket and the failing timing belt tensioner had other things to say about that, but it was still the best car I had ever owned by far, up to that point.)

When it quit running, it wasn’t worth fixing, and I missed having actual low-end torque, so I got a 1999.5 Golf TDI. It wasn’t a Miata handling-wise, but after the tuning that I had done to it, the torque was pretty epic. And, it was a great road-trip car, unlike my previous Miata. It was a total basket-case, though, and after a few years (and two blown heater cores), I went off in search of another Miata... and I found one, a 2000 Miata LS with 14,000 miles. In February 2015.

Of course, what I bought was too nice to actually use in winter, so I ended up driving the Golf, with no heat, for the winter of 2015-2016. Yeah. My plan was never to have two cars, but, well... that happened.

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But, when I drove the Miata, it felt like I was home - I was back into a car that did what I told it to, when I told it to do it, and the larger, properly working engine meant that I actually had some torque, even if it wasn’t much. (Now, it does mean that my lifetime fuel economy average is only 24 mpg, but hey.) After swapping some NA cloth seats in, it was surprisingly comfortable, too. (NB1 seats, especially with Mazda’s crappy leather, are torture devices.)

But, really, I think it was September 2015 that I began falling out of love with the Miata - I took it on a 2000 mile road trip. Physically, I was quite comfortable, the tweaks made to the NB’s chassis took up the miles (most of them spent at 4000 RPM) with aplomb unlike a NA, and I got about 30 mpg. However, you spend 2000 miles in a convertible, even with the top up, at 80 mph, and the noise is going to eventually get to you.

So, I knew I was going to have to replace the Golf before winter hit in 2016 - I wasn’t going to drive the Miata on the wintry roads (snow tires are nice, and a Miata does amazingly well in winter with them, but that doesn’t help prevent rust), and I needed heat, and ideally better heat than even a properly working old TDI could give me. In addition, I had some interest in going plug-in hybrid, although it would require convincing my landlord to install an exterior outlet.

Come March, I was considering the Gen 2 Volt as the replacement for my Golf - on paper, it looked like an ideal package for my requirements - I could drive on all electric in my daily driving, and then only use gas on occasional longer trips - and the restricted back seat was a non-issue, considering I was dailying a Miata anyway. I was also idly considering the Tesla Model 3, although I wasn’t sure if I’d want to be tied to the Supercharger network - often, when I’m on a roadtrip, I want to choose where my longer stops are, so I can eat in more interesting places, rather than whatever chains are clustered around a Supercharger. And then, Toyota announced the Prius Prime - shorter range than the Volt, but plenty of range for my daily commute, far better charge sustaining efficiency... and, wait, the reviewers were saying that the Gen 4 Prius actually drives a lot better? Hmm. Maybe I should test drive a Gen 4, see what it’s like, to see whether I should even consider the Prime.

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One thing that I like to do when considering a car is... never make a decision the day I drive the car. (I’ve made that mistake a couple times, although one time, my existing car wasn’t running, so...) Instead, drive it, then get back in my existing car and drive home. This is important, because it gives me time to compare more thoroughly to what I’m used to. That technique saved me from replacing my Golf with a Fiesta 1.0T - what felt OK (not good, merely OK) when I was test driving the Fiesta, felt disconnected and boring in comparison, the moment I started backing my Golf out of the parking space. So, I did three test drives before buying my Prius - I test drove a Gen 4 Prius (not the one I ultimately bought, instead a Touring trim with 17" wheels and stiffer dampers, to give the Prius the best chance possible), a Gen 2 Volt, and a Tesla Model S (the closest thing to a Model 3 I could drive). In each case, I drove my Miata to the test drive, and went back home - sure, it wasn’t fair to compare the driving experience of 3000-5000 pound four-door eco-friendly liftbacks to a 2300 pound Miata, but if a car held up to that comparison, I’d probably like it.

Upshot was, the Volt drove so badly that I hated it on the test drive - I didn’t even have to get back in the Miata to know it was bad. The Model S drove nicely, but it wasn’t a Model S I was after, and the Model 3 still isn’t out. The Prius drove shockingly nicely, and I got along with it really well. I decided not to wait for the Prime (which was a good decision - I wouldn’t have gotten one until deep into winter), and bought the standard Prius instead a few months later.

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Once I had the Prius, though, it didn’t make sense to daily drive the Miata - after all, the Prius uses less than half the fuel, and I’m paying quite a bit for it. I decided to drive the Miata on the weekends, though, to keep everything in good shape.

Somewhere along the line, though, this began to feel like a chore - the Miata was no longer fun. I had to fight the engine’s power curve, grab it by the scruff of its neck, and beat on it to get anywhere. The ancient engine management was really showing its age in the lack of engine refinement. The built-to-a-price nature of the Miata was showing pretty badly, with rattling windows and such. There’s even little things that are normal to conventional ICE cars, where rolling down the power windows causes the revs to dip and the cabin lights to dim, as the alternator is loaded down, that bother me.

Come October or so, and I was down to driving it once a month, and only because I felt I had to. Then, winter came, and it was parked to avoid salt. I did end up driving it for a few days in January, but only because of an incident with a tire that put the Prius in the body shop. Since then? I’ve only driven it a couple times - once in March I think, and then this morning, to blow out the cobwebs.

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It feels every bit of the 1980s economy car that it really is (having come out in 1989), and I don’t enjoy driving it any more. The handling is still telepathic, of course, and it makes me want to put bigger sway bars on the Prius... but it’s not good enough to make me want to drive the Miata over the Prius (it helps that the Prius isn’t bad in that department). I’ve somehow even lost my love of the manual gearbox, although the Miata’s manual is excellent as always - I’d rather have the smooth, relentless torque of an electric, or even of my Prius’s power split device.

That’s not to say that the Prius is my ideal - the handling could be tightened up some, I’d love to have RWD handling characteristics, and on the efficiency side, I want more electric power share, but overall, I really like it. And, maybe it’s just me getting older (next year, I’ll be 30), maybe it’s me getting more boring, but I don’t love the Miata any more. It’s no longer my answer.