Considering that my last two posts on Right Foot Down have been about a Mazdaspeed MX-5 and a Miata show, you’ve probably gotten the idea that I’m a bit of a Miata fanatic. You’d be right. I’ve had three – a 1990, 1991, and 1993, all Classic Red. They were daily drivers, back road bombers, autocross beasts, and track toys, and I loved them. Josh has challenged me to take my knowledge and experience of these cars, and use it for evil – to explain why, contrary to popular internet belief, Miata is NOT the Ultimate Answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything. (That answer is 42.)
All three of my Miatas were equipped with the original 1.6 liter B6P motor, generating a mind blowing 116hp. It wasn’t exactly a fast car. This is a car that appeals to the “slow car fast” crowd, who doesn’t mind when a Dodge Caravan smokes them at a stop light. Later cars saw minor power increases over the years, topping out with the 167hp 2.0 liter motor of the NC. Yes, the brand new ND actually slides backward to 155hp, though admittedly with a bit less weight than the NC as well. My “underpowered” 200hp BRZ may weigh more, but will still beat any stock Miata in a 1/4 mile drag race. It’s a slower car, so why don’t we hear all the journalists who call the BRZ too slow off the line complaining about the Miata’s lack of power?
(UPDATE: Since originally publishing this, many have cited multiple comparisons showing the ND Miata to be slightly faster 0-60 and in the 1/4 mile. They’re right. I was wrong.)
Probably because the car is small and light, and doesn’t need as much power to get its zoom-zoom on. But there is such a thing as too small. When I get into a Miata, it feels like putting on a glove. I’m six feet tall and not particularly wide, but I have no room to spare. Unless the seat is modified, I sit too high. My legs bump the steering wheel. The top of the windshield is in my line of sight. And my head fails the “broomstick test,” sticking above the windshield and roll bar. Even with a modified seat I got black flagged for this in my ’90 at more than one track event, and had to contort myself into a seating position that passed.
It’s not just because it’s a small car. My 1987 Toyota MR2 was roughly the same size as my Miatas. Being mid-engine, you’d think it would be even tighter on interior space. But no – while I put on my skin tight Miata (please don’t picture that), I got into my MR2 like an ordinary car. Once inside I had plenty of room and could get quite comfortable. Since it wasn’t a convertible, there was no broomstick test for me to pass to get on the track. Plus it had totally awesome 80s T-tops, so I could still catch a breeze through my hair without the hassle of installing an aftermarket roll bar to get on track. It was the best of both open air motoring and a hardtop coupe. I just chose to ignore the fact that the T-tops leaked, and the gas tank sat between me and my passenger.
Not only is the Miata’s interior cramped, its trunk is barely big enough for a pack of cigarettes. On the plus side, that’s a good reason to quit smoking. This goes double for earlier models, where the tiny spare tire took up most of the trunk space. If you have a passenger and get a flat tire, I have no idea where you’re going to put it, since a full size wheel and tire won’t fit in even an empty trunk. You’ll have to leave either your flat or your passenger behind. (Helpful hint: Ditching the passenger won’t get you fined for littering. If they get busted for hitchhiking, the fine is on them.) The MR2’s trunk was also small, but it also had a second trunk in the front, which helped a lot, and got a lot of funny looks when I popped the “hood” and put my groceries inside. And don’t even get me started on the relative practicality of the Honda CRX. Compared to a Miata, it might as well be a spacious Civic wagon.
Then there’s driving the car. You sit so low, even at stock ride height, that the top of the windshield is lower than many SUV windows. Not only can you not see around them, they can’t see you at all, which may be why they frequently change lanes into you as if you’re not there. Seriously, you’re about the size of a speed bump compared to most cars on the road these days, and other drivers often try to use you as one. If the top is down rear visibility is excellent, but as soon as you put it up you have blind spots the size of British Columbia. From the side windows to the porthole of a window, it’s solid vinyl or cloth, depending on how nice the top is. Whatever the material, you can’t see through it. A hardtop has a bigger back window, but that defeats the purpose of having a convertible in the first place.
Head out on the highway, and the car is buzzy. My cars used to turn almost 4000rpm just cruising along at highway speeds in top gear. There’s enough power to get there, eventually, but it’s not exactly a highway cruiser. The high level of sensory input is great to give the driver accurate feedback on a track or windy road, but it can get annoying on a long, open highway. If the car could talk to you verbally, it would be like your passenger yelling over the wind noise, “You’re going fast in a straight line! You’re going fast in a straight line! You’re still going fast in a straight line! You’re going in a straight line! And you’re going fast!!!” At this point you’d pull over and leave that passenger behind, whether you had a flat tire or not.
“But the Miata isn’t about making miles on the superslab,” you say. “It’s about enjoying the corners.” OK, so you take some corners at a good clip because that’s what the car is made for – and it leans like a sailboat. I can understand excessive body roll in the NA, or even the NB. They were made years ago, and if they’re still on their original suspensions, of course they’re not going to be as tight as they used to be. But the NC went even softer. The first thing an enthusiast had to do was put an aftermarket suspension on to make the car what it was supposed to be in the first place.
Even the new ND flops around a lot. I had the pleasure of taking a ride with Travis Okulski, Jalopnik Editor-No-Longer-In-Chief, in the latest and greatest Miata – sorry, MX-5 – around the autocross course at Lime Rock Park a couple of months ago. Look at that body roll. That’s a brand new example of a brand new design, and they still haven’t figured out how to keep it level in the corners. From inside the car, it felt very much like my old NAs. That’s great for nostalgia, but most people expect some progress in the past 25 years. I guess progress comes in the form of its angry rather than cute looks, plus the infotainment screen that looks like some intern superglued an iPad to the dashboard as a joke.
So if you want a slow car that you can’t fit inside, can’t fit any cargo inside, can’t see out of, yells at you on the highway, and leans like a sailboat, buy a Mazda Miata.
This begs the question, “If the answer is not Miata, then what IS the answer?” I think the definitive answer is “It depends.” For me, it was the Subaru BRZ. It has all of the sporting qualities the Miata aspires to have. I also got mine for less than its clone, the “less expensive” Scion FR-S. But it’s big enough for me to fit inside comfortably, and to satisfy nearly all of my cargo carrying needs. Fold the back seat down, and it’ll swallow my 70″ Hoyt Pro Medalist recurve bow. I can also pack my tools, luggage, and helmets for two for a weekend getaway to the track, with room to spare and without having a Master’s degree in Tetris. Its solid roof is more practical for New England winters, and doesn’t require me to add a roll bar for track use. It has very little body roll, and is World Rally Blue, which as we all know is the fastest color. With a set of good snow tires and its standard Torsen differential, it’s even a good car to drive when the snow flies and gives the
empty parking lots roads a good coating for maximum hoonage.
But like I said, it depends. My needs may be different than yours. So what’s the right answer for you?
Photo credits: Matthias93 and Wikimedia Commons, Spannerhead.com, Literative.com, Elana Rabinow, Justin Hughes