I originally wrote this in December 2018 and published it on my blog. It’s the story of how I ended up with a 2003 Shinsen Miata as my first full-blown sports car (with a stick) and the strange decisions and circumstances behind it. Seeing as it’s a massive, 3000-word essay, I figured I’d re-publish it here in parts for easier reading.
If you want to see the original blog post, you can see it here.
Michael stared up at me, cocking his head out of the tiny window of his Mazda Miata; a gorgeous 1990 Mariner Blue NA. His normally stoic gaze was instead incredulous, with his eyebrows propped up in bewilderment. I looked back at the crossover behind me, then at the pink slip.
“Yep, I just sold the Rogue. Let’s go look at the Miata!“
At the time, I was working as a sort-of photographer for a company that contracts out photographers to dealerships in order to offer “professional photography services for new products and older inventory”. Basically, I was a lot porter with a camera and an internet connection.
Aside from being underpaid for the amount of work needed to be done (imagine having to drive, photograph, and park 30-40 vehicles a day just to make $100), the hours were long, the commute was ridiculous, and each dealership had a different package deal, so depending on what needed to be taken care of I either made a little money, or practically nothing at all.
That being said, that job killed my car. At the time, I was driving a Nissan Rogue Crossover all over the Bay Area. It wasn’t uncommon to break 500 miles a week, which meant that over the course of 9 months I drove more than most soccer moms do in a year. The Rogue took it all until the transmission started acting silly around 84,000 miles and it was transformed into a 15 mph rolling roadblock filled with hand-me-down computer equipment, a camera, and the avatar of anxiety. After stopping on the side of the road and trying the “turn it off and on again” method, it worked fine. Still, I didn’t like the idea of potentially getting stranded and having to resort to methods stolen from the I.T. Crowd. I decided the next chance I get, I was going to get the Rogue checked out at my local shop.
Fast forward to me sitting in the Rogue and having the technician practically shove a paper towel in my face with what looks like something he wiped off the seat at the local gas station restroom, and explaining to me that the thing might need a fresh transfusion of transmission fluid. This was only 20,000 miles since my intermediate service, so clearly either someone was screwing with me, or my car was about to screw me. After doing some research later that night, I come to find out that Nissan’s CVT Transmission for my Rogue was known for having more issues than Autoweek. In fact, there are entire websites dedicated to Nissan and their lemon CVT transmission, with the same symptoms I experienced reported by other drivers.
I suddenly had the feeling I was riding on a ticking time bomb in the shape of a mom’s band practice transport, especially after seeing the darker-than-normal transmission fluid and reading a comparison between the CVT’s shift patterns and Helen Keller’s ice skating skills. So I made the decision to look for something that I could get for the trade-in value of the Rogue. And of course, in wisdom beyond my years, I asked Michael for advice.
Michael drove a Miata. In fact, simply stating that he “drove” it would be a disservice because of his obsession of subtracting weight where he could to squeeze every ounce of performance from the machine, without having to take drastic measures or change the exterior of the car in any noticeable way. Thinking back now, I might have already had my mind made up when I asked for his help. I wanted a Miata or something like a Miata. The allure of something sporty and fun like a rear-wheel drive convertible more or less guided my decision to look for a replacement for the Rogue, but I still had the frame of mind to look for a suitable replacement in the long term. I wasn’t just going to look at a Miata of course, but maybe something like a Mazda 3-Series, a Subaru, or a Volkswagen that wasn’t puking oil.
I decided that I might as well put my computer skills to work and create a spreadsheet comparing multiple cars and their costs of ownership for one year, with my driving habits, current gas prices, and mileage estimates gleaned from multiple sources. After all, I’d rather make an informed decision. After my date with Google Sheets, I managed to come up with a shortlist of cars that could be candidates for replacing the Rogue:
- A 3-door or 5-door hatchback, like a Mazda 3-Series: A car like this would have actually been my first car, but my parents thought “He needed something he could beat up.” instead. We ended up getting a Ford Contour. That car nearly killed me.
- A Toyota MR-S: Hilariously impractical, but the gas mileage was phenomenal. It took regular gas for its Celica-derived engine, so it was rated at 40+ MPG Highway which meant a savings of over $1,500 a year in fuel costs. The trunk space though was barely large enough for Schrodinger’s Cat, and insurance costs wouldn’t change due to the fact that the MR-S was more of a pure sports car.
- A Miata: Here’s where things get interesting since I was leaning towards a Miata anyway. Though not as practical as a hatchback, the gas mileage was claimed to be 28-30 MPG Highway observed by multiple sources, which meant a savings of $1,000 a year for fuel costs over my Rogue. An insurance quote also told me that I would be saving $60 a year over my Rogue. That’s because apparently the Miata is considered a compact car. That, or they figured if I crashed it would be more likely to kill just me, but no one else because there are no backseats and I’m single.
I had the data I needed; now, came the scheming. At this point, I was leaning heavily toward the Miata since it was cheaper to drive and maintain, and I would get to have some fun without having to resort to selling organs south of the border. However, I had an ulterior motive; I wanted to drive a stick. I had learned a little bit because of my job, but my exposure was limited because I couldn’t legally leave the lot, so I never had the chance to actually shift out of 1st gear. Since getting started in a manual car is essentially the hardest part, it shouldn’t have been that hard to learn the rest and finally ascend to where all car enthusiasts should be. Still, cargo space would be an issue since I was carrying a massive (and massively outdated) boat anchor of a printer, and a bunch of stickers and buyers guides for different dealerships. I figured I could learn to carry less and then pocket all those savings from the gas mileage and insurance costs. Having something more practical was still the logical choice, so I wasn’t about to just cave in and buy a Miata despite my desires.
Then Michael shot me a message: “Hey, there’s this guy selling a Miata in Santa Clara. It’s the shit.” With piqued curiosity, I asked him for the Craigslist ad. He sent it to me and I looked it over:
“Rare 2003 Shinsen Miata 1.8L, 93000mi”.
A fairly recent Miata, at 93,000 miles seems pretty common, but a Shinsen Miata? That’s a god-damn unicorn. I felt my resolve to get a more practical car melting.
End of Part 1