1999 Mazda Miata First Drive

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1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata Convertible

(1.8L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

Change is Good

Call me a skeptic or maybe a misfit, in the automotive world anyway, because I've never been a big fan of the Mazda Miata. Sure, it's a cute little convertible, but it just didn't appeal to my practical SUV-biased sensibilities. Our Editor-in-Chief even owns one and babies it like it's his first born, but I failed to see the appeal of buying a car that stays parked four months out of year for fear of snowflakes touching the paint.

But that doesn't explain my instant affection for a certain droptop from Munich. When I first saw the BMW Z3 I thought, "that's what I want to drive someday." One fine day I did. And I fell in love with Germany's interpretation of Mazda's roadster. I thought my loyalty to the Z3 could never be changed or broken. That is, until Mazda invited me to check out the reinvented 1999 Miata.

On this trip I would be getting intimate with a Miata for the first time. Brief introductions and chats with the Mazda crew about the days ahead made me want to investigate the original flavor first. One quick drive under sunny skies in a 1997 model was all it took; I caught Miata fever big time.

I spent a day in the first-generation Miata tooling around the Big Island of Hawaii. I drove the car along the coast, top down, music flowing all around, with a big grin on my face. The Miata's capabilities far exceeded my expectations. It felt more aggressive than I had imagined, though not quite as much as the German roadsters I had driven. Acceleration was downright speedy in the upper portion of the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine's rev range, but the way this convertible carved corners filled me with glee. "How could Mazda improve upon this?" I thought. "Was a change even necessary? Don't they know that sometimes change is not good?"

The next day provided the answer. Change is good. Mazda and a mess `o journalists toured Hawaii in brand spankin' new 1999 Miatas. But before the driving began, we had to sit (impatiently) through a formal introduction to the car and its subtle yet significant changes.

Mazda designers and engineers vowed to stay true to the original concept of the Miata - "to give consumers a lightweight, affordable, two-seat roadster that delivers the pure enjoyment of wind-in-the-hair driving." They also vowed to rejuvenate the Miata, to make it better than its predecessor in every possible way.

First and foremost, there isn't one teeny, tiny piece of sheetmetal from the original Miata design carried over into the new car, but from near and far the new Miata is still as recognizable as its name. The old, outdated pop-up headlights have been replaced with sexy, almond shaped beams. At the front of the car, the air-inlet opening is slightly wider under the front bumper and the front air dam is deeper. The fenders of the new Miata are a little thicker to create a wider appearance while reminders of the RX-7 are apparent in the more sculptured body sides and door openings that curve gently upward along the trailing edge. The back of the car wasn't left untouched either, now displaying a pouty raised lip along the rear edge of the decklid. The new Miata looks as though it joined a gym, pumped some iron and went on to win a beauty contest. The new look is without a doubt a very good thing.

There were several practical elements of the old Miata that begged (and received) attention from the designers during the makeover. The trunk, which previously could barely hold a duffel bag and a briefcase - literally - can now accommodate up to two sets of golf clubs. Mazda engineers moved the spare tire and battery below the trunk floor to create the extra space. In the main cabin of the older version I couldn't find room for even a few CD's. The new Miata takes care of that problem too. Nooks and crannies are abundant in comparison to the car's predecessor. The gauges on the new car got a minor makeover as did the side mirror controls and the power window buttons. Gone for 1999 - the "useless after one summer" plastic rear window and the window zippers that made lowering the top more hassle than it should have been. Miata buyers now benefit from the convenience of a glass backlight complete with defroster.

Additional changes include a key-operated de-activation switch for the passenger-side airbag. The switch, installed on the center console, makes the Miata the first in its class to offer this feature. The much-needed Windblocker significantly reduces wind turbulence in the cabin when driving with the top down. I experienced its usefulness first hand while driving back to the hotel at dusk. Dark clouds crept over 13,000-foot peaks as temperatures plummeted. I was cruising around in the car during my last day on the island, and managed to make the drive back to the hotel without ever stopping to put the top up. The inside of the cabin never got anywhere near as cold as the temperature outside.

Inside that cozy cabin a new three-spoke steering wheel hides a compact air bag in the center hub. Most models receive a leather-wrapped NARDI wheel designed to improve grip and enhance the feeling of stability while driving. The new wheel looks great, significantly improving on the old car's generic looking four-spoker. A sculptured instrument panel and door trim enhance the basic design of the original car by providing a more contemporary appearance, though the snazzy chrome gauge rings got lost in the translation from old to new. Those icky little nail-breaking chrome door handles of the original Miata got a much-needed makeover. The new car has large conventional body-color handles that flip upward to open the door.

There was a single step backward in terms of interior design and ergonomics. The old Miata had a well-placed drink holder in the center console. The new car does not. True, the storage compartment has increased in size, but the drink holder is now located beneath the driver's right elbow. Bad move.

Other good moves include temperature controls that were upgraded to a more functional rotary design and moved to the bottom of the center of the instrument panel. This gives the newly optional, incredible sounding Bose AM/FM/CD stereo system room to strut its stuff. What do I mean? Put it this way: you're going to want to crank up some form of music every time your butt hits the seat of a Bose-equipped Miata. Mazda and Bose put their experts together and created a sound system unlike anything I have ever heard in any other roadster, or any other car in this price range for that matter. The sweet stereo, which is standard with the Leather Package and optional with the Popular Equipment Package, makes you want to take one more spin around the block before pulling into the driveway for the night.

I took more than a spin around the block in the new Miata, but the first few minutes behind the wheel didn't provide much insight as to what lay ahead. Assembled scribes left in single-file, one car after another, forming a little Miata caravan. As the miles unfolded, so did the distance between cars. The first hour of the drive offered little more than wide open space, which was perfect for testing passing capabilities. While acceptable, the Miata is not quite as powerful as its German counterparts in the higher price range (excepting the BMW Z3 1.9, of course), but what was I to expect? I did appreciate the Miata's responsive mid-range acceleration as we gingerly passed some folks in an Olds.

As the day progressed, we were treated to a generous helping of narrow, winding roads. I was pleased with how quickly the car responded to my requests. With no tire scrub, holding tight in turns was amazingly easy. Better still, scattered gravel in the road did little to hinder the car's agility. However, the Miata was a tad slow in answering my pleas for quick up-hill acceleration. On the downhill run, however, the car climbed back to the top of this driver's list while excelling in the braking and overall handling categories.

In the middle of the afternoon we ventured to a local airport to test the Miata's abilities on an improvised autocross course. Not that it was real track time - but it did provide an opportunity to really stretch this car's legs. After a short briefing, we were off. Instruction was provided by the Skip Barber Driving School - lessons I won't soon forget. Once I learned the fine art of driving the Miata, my fondness for this car grew even more. Changes in the geometry of the front suspension make for quick and decisive steering response. The slightly wider track of the new Miata greatly reduces the car's tendency to oversteer during sharp, aggressive cornering.

Miata product engineers left few stones unturned when it came to updating the engine. They began by increasing horsepower from 133 @ 6500 rpm to 140 @ 6500 rpm. The new Miata's higher compression ratio increases power and improves fuel economy without requiring the use of premium-grade gasoline. New solid valve-lash adjusters replace hydraulics for enhanced reliability. They even enhanced the Miata's engine note so that it sounds more aggressive.

Mazda reduced the manual transmission's shift-stroke effort by 30 percent and tightened the linkage even more than before. This results in less side-to-side shift knob play. In an effort to prevent the accidental selection of reverse gear when shifting out of fifth, an interlock system was devised. It prevents the driver from shifting into reverse without first moving the lever to the far left side of the neutral plane. The shift knob has been redesigned to provide a more comfortable grip.

The Miata's new electronically controlled automatic transmission replaces the old hydraulically controlled system. This enables the tranny to shift more smoothly during normal driving conditions and provides the car with better off-the-line performance. Tighter torque converter specification gives an automatic-equipped roadster better shift quality and causes less slippage.

Mazda engineers even went to work perfecting stability at high speeds, something most roadsters aren't famous for. By changing the shape of the front and rear cross bars, designers were able to reduce the amount of body shake at normal highway speeds. Additional efforts at refining the Miata were made by raising the outer attachment points of the tie rods by a quarter inch.

There will be four option packages available. They are the Touring Package; the Popular Equipment Package; the Leather Package; and the Sport Package. Mazda expects most buyers to opt for the Popular Equipment Package or the Leather Package. The Sport Package is for weekend autocrossers only, because ride harshness in everyday driving is bit more than most customers will want to bear.

Needless to say, the new Mazda Miata was a big hit with writers. Several days behind the wheel of Mazda's image car convinced me that change is good. The first-generation Miata was a great car, full of fun personality with a scrappy edge. Mazda has improved upon that formula in almost every way, but the Miata now feels a little more grown up than before. It handles more confidently, it accelerates more strongly, it looks more refined inside and out. Designers and engineers changed it enough to entice new shoppers to Mazda showrooms, but not so much that hardcore fans of the original will snub their noses. I'm no longer skeptical. A perfect blend of performance and style at a price anyone can afford, the 1999 Miata is a solid homerun.

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