The Beauty Of Dual-Purpose Cars, Pt. IV - 1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata Long-Term Road Test

1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata Long Term Road Test

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1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata: The Beauty Of Dual-Purpose Cars, Pt. IV

July 15, 2011

[Photo courtesy Dan Gielas]

This is the beauty of dual-purpose cars. Drive up to the paddock, attend a rambling, hour-long driver's meeting, take a first guess at tire pressures, put on your helmet, forget to pee and then grid up.

I'd forgotten how easy this is. These days my track time is always served with a giant logistical pain in the ass -- these crapcan endurance races require trucks, trailers, spares, fuel cans, tools, driving gear, tech inspection, RVs, canopies, towing, mindless freeway slogs, hotels, costumes.

Here today, showing up and just... driving. Novel concept, that.

I'd already been trained to watch Project Miata's coolant temp gauge like someone afflicted with OCD. Fortunately, Laguna Seca's near sea level and this day is in the low 70s. Should be okay. I'll run the heater, of course.

Our run group is loaded with some serious hardware, most of them Porsches, and many of them race-prepped -- a couple 911 GT2s, Turbos, a Boxster Spyder, Caymans, older 911s, Dan's Exige, a C6 Z06 on Hoosiers, a Shelby Mustang GT/SC. Our Miata, driven to the track and still wearing street tires, ought to be more or less a chicane out there.

It's been a long time since I've been to this track so I warm up my brain in the first session, reacquainting myself with braking points, proper gear selection, etc. This is a great track, but it's sort of a power track. In this car the rhythm is interrupted by long stretches of accelerating mildly, making it more of a digital brake-turn-gas-wait sequence.


Miata dorks, unite! That heap in the middle is my LeMon, the Eyesore Racing FrankenMiata. It was dragged to the track behind that sweet boxtruck by my friend Alex of the Metro Gnomes, and driven by two of my teammates.  

Second session, things pick up. Braking for turn two, I'm reminded how crappy Miata calipers are. The braking force is there, but there's so much twist that it's like stepping on a spring. Makes it hard to be right on the threshold, but not over. Hysteresis, that's the word. The pedal grows a bit more spring-like as sessions wear on, the onset of fluid fade. Never gets out of hand, ABS can be tripped but it gets a tick lower.

Lots of grip for a street tire. And though the wide RS-3s will get a bit greasy by the end of a session they don't ever fall off a cliff like many street tires. They kind of peak, then settle to a slightly lower grip state and just camp there. Nice. The balance is easily adjustable even when there's some slip angle in them, too.

I'm a berm-riding kind of guy, and again I appreciate Project Miata's ability to soak up this track's FIA curbing, which is like driving over a set of railroad tracks. The car is a touch soft in roll stiffness, but more spring rate would erode the other side of the dual-purpose thing. Instead I'd dial in more low-speed compression damping to add some precision. These are fixed-rate dampers, though. I hear FCM's doing adjustables now.

There's definitely more chassis (and grip) here than engine. Roll into the gas to power out of a corner (any corner) and... well, there's no powersliding, that's for sure. But it'll out-drag Mike's '99 Miata out of turn 11 onto the straight, so there's that. Coolant temps are staying happy, too. Worst it gets is the needle creeping over to the "12:30" position by the end of the two hottest sessions.

All five sessions in the bag, it's time to head home. Yup, Mike and I have to be in the office tomorrow for a video shoot. Its 5pm and there's a 330-mile drive ahead of us. But maybe there's still time to squeak in one more fun road.

--Jason Kavanagh, Engineering Editor

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