1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata: Palomar Perfection
February 14, 2011
Okay, not quite perfection, but pretty damn close. If you aren't familiar with Palomar Mountain's South Grade, this 7-mile stretch of serpentine asphalt in southern California (comprised of largely tight, decreasing radius turns) rises to about 5,500 feet. On the weekends it's a sportbike playland.
But the Project Miata proved its combo of light weight, reasonable-enough supercharged power and phenomenal grip make for one sleeper of a sports car (doubly so because the tires never squeal, unless you hit a patch of painted line). You have to really work to get this car loose, and when you do (usually with a bit of power-on oversteer, but occasionally also under hard braking while entering a turn) it's so well balanced and forgiving that it's easy to catch.
It could definitely use a bit more torque to make those oversteer moments more accessible. But it's truly remarkable just how stuck this Miata is to the road simply via stiffer suspension, a lower ride height and sticky (albeit wimpily-sized, at 185/60R14) Dunlop Direzza Sport Z1 summer tires.
You'll never be wowed by the power from the supercharger up a hill like Palomar, that's for sure, but Project Miata isn't wheezy like a stock Miata. And the "whoosh" from the bypass valve with each upshift adds to the car's flavor.
The brakes held up remarkably well, especially considering how hard the Miata was being pushed on some of the downhill runs. The pedal always felt just a bit mushy, but it never got worse (other than a bit of squeaking) and there were never any "Oh crap!" moments heading into a turn because it felt like the car wasn't going to stop.
There's so much about this car that makes it a willing back-road partner, from the quick turn-in and communicative steering to the precise, short-throw shifter to the excellent pedal placement for heel-and-toeing.
And because this was a two-up weekend trip with the old ball and chain, that parcel shelf where the soft-top would sit was a real boon since we couldn't quite fit everything in the small trunk.
Things that don't work as well: Those crappy stock seats. Not only do you sit a bit high, but the seatback gets so narrow toward the top that there's basically zero lateral support for your upper back.
Beyond that, noticed a few squeaks that I hadn't previously heard, including one toward the back of the roof on the passenger side and on the dash on the driver's side; but they only made themselves apparent on coarse, bumpy roads. And, this is a 14-year-old multi-owner car with almost 130,000 miles on it.
The steering wheel has started making a squeak when you turn it from left of center back to the right beyond center.
Oh, and Project Miata's low ride height made the short drive up a dirt road to our weekend cabin a bit challenging.
But the overwhelming experience was a fantastic one, with lots of admiration for just how quickly the Miata could blast up and down Palomar; it's all about corner speed in this thing. And the car proved bulletproof, the gauges barely rising at all, even during the hardest running.
Here's something to think about: The grip this car will have once it gets bigger wheels and tires. Then JayKav will definitely need to add some more power for the drivetrain to keep up with the chassis.
Mike Monticello, Road Test Editor @ 129,406 miles