2003 Mazda MX-5 Miata
2003 Mazda MX-5 Miata Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
The definition of sports car.
Car companies are always trying to 'redefine' things. One car that hasn't been redefined in the past dozen years is the traditional sports car. Look up 'sports car' in a modern dictionary and there's a picture of a Mazda Miata. Well, there should be. The Miata is everything the classic sports cars were meant to be, and many things the two-seat British roadsters never were. The Miata is simple and affordable, absolutely reliable, and fun to drive in a way not achieved by powerful sport coupes or high-performance sedans.
The Miata is not brutally fast, nor particularly exotic. Nor were the great roadsters it emulates. Like them, however, the Miata celebrates the simple joy of motion, of human beings relating to machines in a manner that borders on intimacy.
Since its 1989 introduction, Mazda has sold a half-million Miatas, making it the most successful two-seat roadster in history. Its success has inspired a number of imitators, most of them more powerful and more expensive. Those more expensive sports cars are faster and fancier, but whether they're more fun is debatable. The Miata remains the benchmark, for its low-cost simplicity and outstanding sports-car handling. Last year, Mazda increased the Miata's power with variable valve timing, enlarged its brakes, stiffened its chassis, and upgraded its interior.
The 2002 Miata Special Edition comes in two new colors: Titanium Gray Metallic with saddle brown leather seats, and Blazing Yellow Mica with black leather seats with silver stitching and embroidery.
Two primary models are available: the base Miata ($21,280) and the slightly up-market Miata LS ($24,080). New for 2002 are two Special Edition models ($25,755): Titanium Gray and Blazing Yellow.
The current Miata is more lavishly trimmed than its predecessors. Even the base version comes with air conditioning, alloy wheels with 195/50VR15 tires, four-wheel-disc brakes, a CD stereo with four speakers, and power windows and mirrors. Interior upholstery is black cloth and the convertible top is black.
LS adds leather upholstery, a tan convertible top, 205/45WR16 tires, a Torsen limited-slip differential, power door locks, and cruise control. For 2002, the Miata LS features a modular Bose audio speaker system with automatic speed sensing volume control.
Special edition models come standard with a six-disc CD changer and six-speed manual gearbox, aluminum foot pedals, scuff plates, Special Edition badging and floor mats, a black leather Nardi® steering wheel (two tone silver and black on the Blazing Yellow version), and aluminum-like interior trim pieces (center panel, meter rings, inner door handles and shift plate bezel).
All Miatas are powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, and variable valve timing. It produces 142 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque.
An optional Suspension Package ($1,025) beefs up the base model with a strut-tower brace, Bilstein shocks, Torsen differential, and the wider tires from the LS. Or you can put the Bilsteins on the LS for just $395. Anti-lock brakes ($550) are available only on the LS, as is a six-speed manual transmission ($650) in place of the standard five-speed. You can order an automatic transmission for $900, but if you do, we'll have to wonder whether you are buying the right car. Optional features new for the 2002 model year include an in-dash 6-CD changer and a perimeter alarm with shock sensor. A detachable hardtop ($1,500) is available for driving in cold climates, scary neighborhoods, or on racetracks.
The Miata took on a more aggressive look last year, with a new front fascia, and a grille opening that adopted the corporate five-point shape. Headlights were made larger with projector beams and multi-surface reflectors. The taillights were redesigned as well and echoed the appearance of the headlights. In spite of these changes, the Miata remains a classic-looking roadster. Its appearance has not changed for 2002.
The Miata seats two in a cockpit reminiscent of the British roadsters of the 1950s and 1960s. It feels snug to folks over six feet tall, and those who sit tall in the saddle are likely to find the top brushing against their hair. But it's perfect for people of standard or smaller stature. The bucket seats are comfortable and supportive. The mirrors are bigger and more effective than those found in BMW's more expensive Z3. The trunk is tiny, but you can wedge in a couple of golf bags, or enough luggage for a weekend excursion.
Mazda upgraded Miata's interior trim last year, and switched to the white-faced gauges that have been in vogue lately. The driver's footrest was improved, and door trim was revised, with chrome door handles for the LS. High-back bucket seats can be covered in black cloth (base) or tan leather (LS). A center console hides covered cup holders and relocated power window switches.
For 2002, the Titanium Gray SE model comes with a deep saddle brown leather faced interior and door panels. The Blazing Yellow SE has, for the first time in the Miata's 13-year history, a black leather interior. The seats on the black leather SE carry the Miata logo embroidered into the seat back.
In spite of the upgrades, the Miata's cockpit remains traditional and familiar. After years of big, padded four-spoke steering wheels, the new leather-wrapped Nardi is a refreshing reminder of the three-spoke steering wheels of old. Besides lending a spiffy appearance, it affords a good view of the tachometer and speedometer.
The top couldn't work any easier; with just one hand you can drop it into the well behind the seats. A glass rear window complete with an electric defogger is standard, and preferable to the plastic window that would get crinkled when someone forgot to unzip it. A boot covers the folded top for an improved appearance, but isn't necessary. Just make sure you flip the latches down after dropping the top or you'll look like a Miata newcomer. An optional Windblocker is designed to keep cabin turbulence to a minimum when the top is down. You still get wind in your hair, but without having your hair stand straight up.
Like all convertibles, the Miata is a little noisy inside. When the tires pick up sand or small rocks, you hear the debris hit the fender wells. But the exhaust sounds great, and the rest is all part of the traditional sports-car experience. If extended Interstate droning is on the menu, the Miata is far from ideal. Like its British ancestors, the Miata is designed for driving fun, as distinct from mere transportation. The destination is unimportant; getting there is everything. Viewed from this perspective, the Miata is just about perfect.
The Mazda Miata is the contemporary embodiment of the 1950s sports car spirit, minus the irritations that went with the MGs, Triumphs and Austin-Healeys of the day. So you won't need to worry about oil stains on the driveway nor having to spend every weekend wrenching.
Throttle response is instantaneous. Acceleration is brisk, and the exhaust note conjures up memories of Watkins Glen and the roots of American sports-car racing. Miatas have won a number of Sports Car Club of America national championships. And the Miata is one of the most entertaining and one of the most reliable cars in SCCA Showroom Stock (unmodified) competition, as I can attest. Compared with the more expensive roadsters, and some of the front-drive compact coupes, the Miata's relatively small 1.8-liter engine does not provide a lot of torque. But it loves to rev, and there's plenty of power to satisfy most enthusiasts.
Last year, Mazda boosted compression to 10:1, and added variable valve timing to increase horsepower to 142 at 7000 rpm (which is the redline) and torque to 125 foot-pounds at 5500. More important, torque swelled throughout the rev range for better flexibility when driving around town.
The exhaust system delivers a spirited tenor bark to go with the engine's increased bite. It's a high-tech echo of the 1950s, and sounds exactly how sports cars are supposed to sound. The Mazda engine isn't as smooth as a Honda's, but its roughness somehow makes the Miata more endearing.
The five-speed manual transmission shifts smoothly, with short throws from gear to gear. Its excellent action is a big part of the fun. You only have to push the clutch in part way to change cogs.
The available six-speed manual tightens up the ratios, allowing the skilled driver to keep the engine revving in the optimal power band. Fifth gear on the six-speed has the same 1:1 ratio as fourth in the five-speed. Both transmissions use an overdrive ratio for the top gear, and achieve identical EPA fuel economy ratings of 23/28 mpg city/highway. The optional four-speed automatic erodes the sports car driving experience considerably and drops fuel economy slightly, to 22/28 city/highway.
Handling is excellent. The Miata reacts to the driver's input like a Formula Ford race car: Lift off the throttle in the middle of a fast corner, and you'll feel the chassis rotate as the nose tucks in tighter. Step on the gas again, and the Miata straightens out as weight is transferred to the rear and the rear tires gain grip. It's perfectly balanced. Unlike most front-wheel-drive sport coupes, the rear-wheel-drive Miata does not mask poor driving technique. By the same token, it rewards the smooth, skilled driver. A good driver will become a better driver in this car.
Last year, Mazda's engineers widened the gusset at the rear of the transmission tunnel, added reinforcements behind the cockpit, and strengthened the side sills, all of which increased the stiffness of the chassis. The changes make the Miata feel more solid and secure. As a result, the Miata now turns in more sharply. Turn the wheel toward a corner and the chassis responds instantly. In fact, the steering is so quick that, until you get used to it, you may find yourself turning in a little too early or a little too much.
The Miata rides like a traditional sports car. It shudders over bumps like an old MG. When you run over ripples in the pavement, you feel them. But like the noise, it's all part of the experience.
If you're a hard-driving enthusiast, opt for the Torsen limited-slip differential ($395), which comes standard on the LS and SE models. Without it, you may spin the inside rear wheel when accelerating hard out of tight corners. On the other hand, if you're buying the Miata simply for its carefree open-air motoring, and won't drive it real hard, then probably won't need to spend the money on the Torsen.
Braking performance is excellent, primarily because of the Miata's light weight (2,387 po.
Many sports cars deliver a lot more performance than the Mazda Miata, but few are more fun. The Miata is far from slow, and its agility measures up with the best for far less money. Like all pure sports cars, the Miata is a recreational implement rather than a transportation device. Practicality doesn't apply here.
In terms of automotive recreation, the Miata delivers a lot of value. And unlike the sports cars of old, the Miata is extremely reliable. Just check the oil and it'll run forever. Most people who sell their Miatas do so only because they need a bigger car.
Base ($21,280); LS ($24,080); Special Edition ($25,755).
Options As Tested
Miata Special Edition ($25,755).
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