AT THE WHEEL REVIEWS
The Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata: Is it the best one yet?
By Frederick Staab
It’s hard to avoid it; the days are getting shorter and the air is a bit too cool for a short-sleeve shirt, on the East Coast at least. Sitting at my desk, my mind begins sliding back to warmer times, sunny days, traveling in a bright red roadster through the countryside with the top dropped. I’m going through the gearbox, and there’s a crisp exhaust note in my ears. A dreamscape created in my gear head brain? No, actually it’s a flashback to my time behind the wheel of the Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata.
Launched in 1989 for the 1990 model year, the Mazda Miata was a cute if somewhat under-powered two-seat roadster that handled well, but did not give drivers a lot of right-foot response.
Sixteen years later, along comes the Mazdaspeed Miata with more than 1,000 modified performance parts compared to the base model. To tell the truth, who even thought Miatas had 1,000 parts to begin with? The concept behind Mazdaspeed is to factory design performance cars where drive train, suspension and appearance all work in harmony.
The part that made the top of the engineers “to do” mod list was a single-scroll turbocharger with air to air intercooler. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder is squeezed with 8.5 psi of turbo boost pressure and tallies up 178 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. That’s a 36-horsepower bump from the base, naturally aspirated power plant, but on the road, it feels like a lot more. The engineers who breathed some heat into this tiny roadster (the same crew that launched it more than a decade ago) also added increased cooling for all engine fluids to offset the heat generated by the turbo. Pop open the hood, and your eyes will be treated to one of the best detailed engine compartments this side of a Ferrari, thanks to the red crinkle-coated valve cover along with numerous polished bits and pieces.
All that new found power is fed through a slick six-speed manual transmission with shot-peened treated internal parts for added durability. The horsepower is transferred to the ground via a Bosch-supplied torque-sensing limited slip differential.
Walking around our striking Velocity Red test car, I had to remind myself that the Miata is only built on a petite 89-inch wheelbase with a 155-inch total length. Thanks to a ride height lowered by 7 mm and upsized 17-inch Racing Hart alloy wheels, your eyes get tricked into seeing a much longer car. Those rims wrapped with Toyo Proxes R28 205/40R17 tires are the first use of wheels bigger than 16 inches on any Miata. There are other exterior clues that you are dealing with more than the average two-seat Mazda. Up front, there’s an under spoiler and smoked headlamp covers. The tail gets a thankfully conservative spoiler and the exhaust is trimmed with a large Mazdaspeed chrome tip. While there are some Mazdaspeed badges, this car’s attitude comes from its road-hugging stance and meaty tires.
Roadsters of this ilk normally have strictly functional, nothing-but-the-facts type of interiors. When it comes to our test car, in certain areas this holds true, in others false. Open the door and you will be greeted with a bright red and black interior. There are luxury sport goodies such as brushed stainless steel door sills and pedals. High-contrast red stitching is found on the shifter boot, steering wheel and emergency brake handle. A 225-watt Bose sound system easily fills the small cabin, even at highway speeds. Sirus satellite radio is an option, and a six-disc CD changer is standard. I did not enjoy the fact that cruise control was deemed “a non-roadster purist option” and was therefore not included on the test car. You never know how much you miss it till it’s gone. Thankfully, for both you and your right leg, it can be had by checking off the convenience package that also includes power door locks.
After three hours of highway driving, I found the passenger compartment to be a little tight even for my 5-foot-8-inch frame. Driving the Miata is almost like strapping yourself into a two-seat motorcycle – in both a good and bad way, you become part of the car. The lowered performance suspension that included Bilstein shock absorbers was comfortable and at the same time capable of razor-sharp handling. I did notice the air conditioning had trouble keeping ahead of the heat generated by highway travel.
By this time, my daydream was coming to an end, and the harsh reality of winter once again began to set in. Perhaps a cool top-down ride in what is arguably the best Miata yet is just what the doctor ordered for those change-of-season blues.
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