Story and photos by Laurance Yap
How’s this for irony? The Mazda Miata you see in front of you is fundamentally one of the oldest sports cars on the road, but it’s also the one most suited to our modern-day driving realities.
The basic Miata formula, remember – revvy four-cylinder engine coupled with the world’s sweetest gearbox and a supple rear-drive chassis wrapped in a cheeky-cute wrapper – has remained the same since its introduction in 1989, and even the 1999 redesign was more of a facelift than a redesign. This 2003 special edition model, painted in this year’s special shade, a beautiful titanium-blue, is no different. It may be done up with a (to my eyes) tacky body kit, but it still has a snug two-seat interior, a top that drops in less than five seconds without you needing to get out of the driver’s seat, and a windshield header identical to the original car’s.
Which is not to say that the Miata hasn’t changed since its inception. In order to haul around more safety, luxury, and entertainment equipment (there are two airbags, the seats have a high-back design reminiscent of a Porsche’s, and there’s a fantastic Bose audio system), the engine has grown from 1.6 to 1.8 litres and now pumps out 142 variable-valve-timed horses on premium fuel. Though the original gem-like five-speed gearbox is still available, most Miatas these days are sold with the six-speed fitted to my tester, which has even tighter gates, if not quite as slick a shift action. Tires are now 16-inches in diameter rather than 14, and the five-spoke alloys are a lot nicer than the original’s steelies. Fundamentally unchanged are the Miata’s key assets: a rigid Power Plant frame backbone, a light, quick, feelsome steering rack, and a sporty but still sweet-riding independent double-wishbone suspension.
All of which sounds pretty simple, and not very fast. Which is the key to the Miata’s elemental, and everyday, appeal as a roadster. So many cars these days are so fast, so grippy, so all-round capable, that you have to be going insanely fast to exploit their limits. But though the Miata’s own limits are pretty high as well – it’ll scream away from stoplights, charge up to 170 km/h given enough space, and will circle corners faster than you’ll ever likely try to tackle them – its sweet spot, the range in which it’s most fun to drive, is at much lower speeds. Like when you’re double-declutch downshifting when turning into your driveway at 30 km/h. Or when you’re working the snarly, flexible engine between 3000 and 5000 rpm, snapping between gears in downtown traffic. Or when you’re taking a leisurely country drive and guiding the front wheels with mere motions of your fingertips.
It’s funny. The automotive world we live in is currently going power-mad, but that’s mostly because we’ve also gone weight-mad as well. Big sports cars pushing 400 horses need that much power just to feel quick, given that they’re groaning under the mass of so much leather, wood, and electronics – and when you’re not booting these cars around and enjoying the power, when they’re idling in 401 traffic, they’re just hugely wasteful machines, drinking fuel and spitting hydrocarbons while making no more progress than this Miata.
Lightness and simplicity have paid it huge dividends not only in economy but in driving feel: make a car lighter and you can fit skinnier tires to corner at the same speed, but you get more feedback through the steering wheel. Littler wheels and littler brakes make for more immediate braking, which makes for faster corner entries, and so on and so on. All this while the cabin is a snug but still comfortable fit for two, with enough trunk space for a weekend trip or a week’s worth of groceries. Power windows, locks, and mirrors are standard; the stereo’s clear with the top down and wind management is excellent even without the optional windblocker. What more do you need from a roadster?
Still, there are aspects of the Miata, that while the whole car still feels very modern, just seem old, especially in a car optioned up beyond $30,000 like my tester (less than $27,000 will get you into a base Miata, still the best deal). The steering wheel, for instance, is fixed in place – thankfully, it’s perfect for me, but other drivers complain. There’s not much of a range of adjustment for the seats. Some of the switchgear is shared with Mazdas of the eighties, and what felt reassuringly clicky back then just feels cheap now. Visibility with the top up is poor. Storage space in the cabin is limited to a shallow console bin and two map pockets which aren’t even big enough to hold a couple of CDs. Your elbow’s always flipping the cover on the second cupholder as you shift. And radio reception from the huge power antenna (turn it off before you go into a carwash) is surprisingly poor.
Rumour has it that there’s a new Miata in the works, and I’ve already seen a couple of sketches in car magazines that show what it might look like. Whatever Mazda does to the car’s styling and to its mechanical specification, all will be fine if they don’t forget the essential, minimalist formula that defines the current car. We may be used to the zoom-zoom slogan these days (some of us may even be a bit tired of it), but it’s easy to forget that that slogan, and Mazda’s current fun-to-drive image, was built on the back of this car and the elemental joy it fostered in its drivers. The Miata’s as much sports car as you’ll likely ever need, and the fact that it isn’t more is what makes it so great.
|2003 Mazda Miata SE|
|Price as tested||$32,915|
|Type||2-door, 2-passenger compact sports car|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive|
|Engine||1.8 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves|
|Horsepower||142 @ 7000 rpm|
|Torque||125 @ 5000 rpm|
|Curb weight||1066 kg (2350 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2265 mm (89.2 in.)|
|Length||3945 mm (155.3 in.)|
|Width||1678 mm (76.0 in.)|
|Height||1228 mm (48.4 in.)|
|Cargo Capacity||144 litres (5.1 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 10.4 l/100 km (27 mpg)|
|Hwy: 7.8 l/100 km (36 mpg)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/80,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|