I’ve been bitten.
I don’t know how long it will take for the virus to take hold and the effects to show, but it will happen eventually. It’s too late for me, and I’ve already accepted my fate: I need to start a Miata piggy bank.
This past Saturday, I attended the local autocross (shout out to the Southern West Virginia SCCA chapter) and barreled through the cones in my Camaro. I’ve done some fairly extensive modifications to the suspension, wheels and tires, but between my ineptitude behind the wheel and not having fully vetted the suspension, the car hasn’t yet achieved the fun, neutral handling I’m looking for. I could have left the event satisfied, but thanks to a fellow named Bronson, I left amazed.
Whereas I brought a sledgehammer to a knife fight, he brought something actually appropriate for a tight autocross; a reasonably stock NA Miata. I’ve driven cars with similar philosophies to the Miata before, such as a manual, 4 cylinder Z3 and the Toyobaru twins, but I’ve never actually experienced The Answer. After all of the run groups had finished their afternoon sessions, the course was opened up for a half hour of unofficial fun runs, and Bronson threw me his keys. He had taken his passenger seat out so he could transport a new Sparco seat home from the autocross, so I was on my own. This made me a little nervous, since I had no experience in a Miata, I had never beaten on a car without abs, and even though I turn traction control off and loosen stability control when I run my car, there have been a couple of incidents where I’m not sure if I had a little help in saving a slide.
After the final advice of “give her hell,” I was on my own. My initial impressions idling towards the staging area were certainly good. The clutch is light with plenty of feel, the shifter is short, smooth and direct, with an aftermarket delrin knob that was sized perfectly for my hand. The ergonomics were good, but they didn’t hold a candle to the visibility. My only car is a 2012 Camaro coupe, so driving something like my girlfriends ‘06 Civic is a drastic change, and the Miata was borderline surreal. Although the top of the windshield was just below forehead height, I didn’t have trouble looking around it, and otherwise, I had perfect, unrestricted visibility in all directions. I’d never spent any appreciable time in a convertible before, so the open top coupled with such low door sills felt unnatural. Not in a bad way, just completely unfamiliar.
By the time I was at the starting line, I was legitimately nervous. Would I break something? Would I flat spot the tires? Bronson described his best launch with “I waited until I heard it bounce off the limiter once, then let the clutch in” but I wasn’t about to do that. I slipped the clutch at about 3,000 rpm, which got the car moving, but didn’t feel like it would leave a half shaft on the ground. The course was set up with a three cone slalom before the first corner, and I felt like I was running out of gear by the third cone, so I up-shifted and grabbed not only second gear but the horn button as I brought my hand back to the wheel, letting everyone know there was an idiot on course.
Buffoonery aside, the Miata was excellent. The course was suddenly wider, with more options to finesse my line. The steering had a nice weight and speed, without being overly heavy or darty coming off-center, and it provided plenty of feedback. Between the weight, suspension suppleness, reasonable tire sidewall and low grip compound, the chassis is incredibly communicative. When I did get it sideways, it let me know as it happened, and breakaway was gradual and linear, making it easy to steer in and correct the slide. If you’re looking to have fun, really, what more can you ask for?
I came away even more impressed than I expected to be with the Miata. Would I trade the Camaro for one? No, the power, mechanical grip, storage space and creature comforts will keep me in the Camaro for a long time. However, Miatas are awful cheap, and I could probably find room for a well-loved example in the garage...
Photo Credit: Pinterest, GTCARLOT