When the Miata first came out Mazda was accused of taking the original Lotus Elan and simply copying the lovely lines. This is only partially true; in actuality the lines on the
1991 Miata were cleaner, simpler, more minimalist and very attractive. Fast-forward to 2004 and the second generation Miata is still one of the most attractive cars on the road. Our car was a turbocharged MazdaSpeed Miata. The paint was a true hot rodder's candy apple red with the metal flakes that dance in the sunlight. Unsolicited comments from the women who saw it were "cute car!" And the guys thought it looked nice too, but wanted to hear about the turbocharger and how it drove.
The matte black and polished aluminum dash board sports black on white round gauges, infinitely variable circular dash vents and easy to work heating, cooling, and radio controls along with a black leather wrapped steering wheel. The red on black door inserts match the seats, and those seats fit better than most sporting the name Recaro. The latches for the roof were fiddly the first time we went to lower the roof, but surprise, the roof dropped back with the smoothest action ever seen on a top, light, easy, and better than any of the more complex manual tops out there currently.
The ride was taut, but not punishing, slightly better than the Mini Cooper S, but nowhere near as supple as a regular Miata. And yes, there was mild cowl shake, grade it half way between the BMW Z4, which is the benchmark in the convertible category for smoothness with power, comfort, and control and the BMW M3 convertible, which lacks the poise that its brethren has.
Want to go auto crossing or win the stoplight derby, then pass on the MazdaSpeed. While on the road acceleration was a torque everywhere, wonderfully linear experience that well matches the supercharged Saturn Ion Redline, and Mini Cooper S. Accelerating hard from a stoplight felt a lot like driving the Subaru WRX or the Mitsubishi Evo, nothing there, UNTIL it's there. It takes a bit of time to learn to be consistent with the go pedal. My least favorite aspect was the header above the windshield, very annoying in the way it blocks the view of stoplights. A potential problem is that while shifting into sixth gear it's easy to hit fourth, something that has seen a large number Toyota Celica engines blown to bits at track days where missed redline shifts are common.
But out on the road it is sweet. The platform was very stable, accelerating onto the highway it was rock steady into triple digits with little more wind noise at 55 mph.
The tires smacked on the cross strips on both sides of the San Mateo Bridge, but the control was as laser accurate at absurd speeds as it was in the cul-de-sac. No body roll at all. We were passed by a recent big engine Firebird convertible, with lots more power, but you could see his chassis flex where we felt none. And the interior fit and finish are where Toyota and Honda used to be before their latest rounds in cost cutting.
Back in 1991 a well-equipped Miata without added dealer mark-up was an $18,000.00 car. And while the MazdaSpeed Mulroney is over $25,000. 2004 MazdaSpeeds are being advertised in the Sunday Papers for around $21,000. Which is an incredible value for a sporting convertible. What are the other options in ragtops? The nimble, but not very fast, Toyota MR 2 has no trunk, almost zero storage and odd styling. It goes away at the end of 2005. 3,000 cars per year did not make Toyota happy. The base model PT Cruiser is cheap, but it can't get out of it's own way without a turbo, and then the price goes up fast while the chassis shows its lack of willpower. The Chrysler Sebring, Mustang, and Ford Thunderbird have chassis that define the term "stiff as a wet noodle" and "great in a straight line on a smooth road." The Honda S2000 starts in the mid-$30,000 range, but the engine is a lot better on paper than on the road, and zinging it to 5,000 rpms to launch it gets tiring fast. The outgoing Mercedes ragtop has recirculating ball steering and drives like an older Oldsmobile, while the new one is pricier. The Mini Cooper, like the Volkswagen Beetle, is weak enough with the base engine, but the added weight of the convertible makes both cute four -seater cars into slugs and the upgraded motor brings the price up into the high twenties. And BMW ragtops are never seen on the lot at under $40,000.
Surprisingly good. It was easy to put a child safety seat in place, and turn the key operated passenger airbag switch to the "off" position. The trunk swallowed six full bags of groceries on a run to Trader Joes; altogether a surprising amount of utility for a small ragtop. And the "Peanut Gallery" loved the top-down-with-no-wind ride. And while Arielle snoozed away her time, Sam kept up a long list of
statements like "cool car," "Dad, this is a fun car," and "whhhheeeeeeeeee!!"
With turbocharger, intercooler, six speed transmission, body kit and bigger alloy wheels riding on upgraded springs and 36 extra horses (178 horsepower in the 1.8 liter MazdaSpeed), this is a balanced car that feels much more poised than the multitudes of aftermarket propositions for a go-faster Miata. And more than anything else the MazdaSpeed Miata shows just how good the standard car with 142 horses pulling about 2,450 lbs. The MazdaSpeed adds a scant 100 pounds to become a pavement ripper par excellence. Both the standard Miata and the MazdaSpeed represent tremendous purchase value and re-sale value, style, efficiency and utility and it's a heck of a lot of fun to drive. Dollar for dollar it's very hard to a find a convertible that even comes close.