2001 Mazda Miata First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
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2001 Mazda MX-5 Miata Convertible

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

Still the One

For the past 12 years, you've been the belle of the ball, with everyone praising your beauty, sharpness and wit. Yet a mysterious new contender in the form of the Toyota MR2 Spyder comes your way, certainly not a looker like you are; it's one of those who get by with sheer force of personality, and with plenty of other goodies to avert those once adoring fans away from your countenance. What to do? Should you Gilooly the competition? Mope around in the vestiges of your former glory, like a vehicular Miss Havisham?

If the Miata were a woman, it would be a "Rules" girl. Get a makeover, inject more vavoom into its life, and basically become "a creature unlike any other." And get on with life.

The 2001 Miata emerges from a day at the spa refreshed and rejuvenated. One chilly September afternoon, we had a chance to test-drive the slightly improved Miata around the mist-shrouded foothills of the Cascade mountain range.

Of course, there isn't much room for improvement. Since its inception, the Miata has almost single-handedly revived interest in two-seat roadsters and injected a bit of vibrancy into the charcoal-gray decade of the '90s. Now, almost every maker has a roadster in their stable or are planning for one, and you can bet that they're looking to the Miata for inspiration. The '99 redesign was brilliant, improving upon every aspect of the already excellent previous iteration.

The 2001 model further ameliorates a terrific car by tweaking it up a notch, resulting in a slightly raunchier, sexier version. The big news here is the 15 horsepower increase, thanks to variable valve timing (VVT) and a boost in the compression ratio from 9.5:1 to 10.0:1.

Although a somewhat flatter torque band and a more sonorous exhaust note (imagine Haley Joel Osment after the ravages of puberty) does ensue, we can't say that the added power makes a huge impact on the day-to-day driver.

You see, peak horsepower is reached at 7,000 rpm, up from the previous 6,500 rpm, and you really have to flog it in order to engage the VVT. Once you get it up to the peak range, get ready to shift up—the rev limiter kicks in at 7,200 rpm. That's 200 rpm to diddle with, folks, and unless you've got super-dexterous toes with which to minutely stroke the throttle, you're not going to enjoy it all that much.

But you didn't buy your Miata to win the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, did you? No, you bought it for its commonplace vivaciousness, an everyday car with a lot of verve. Its excellent road manners bespeak not of refinement but of exhilaration, of fitting into a machine perfectly and having it do exactly what you want it to, or, as Mazda pundits put it, "oneness between the horse and rider."

In that, it excels. Its pert engine response is joyously raucous. Although still buzzy, the Miata never claimed to shield you from the sensory assault of the daily commute. But boy, will you feel alive afterwards.

The ride from the front and rear independent double-wishbone suspension is as taut as ever. The suspension package that you can opt for in the base Miata enhances road feel and structural integrity with a strut tower brace, Bilstein shocks, a Torsen limited-slip differential and 16-inch alloys.

Step up to the LS and you'll lack the Bilsteins, but you'll get the choice to purchase ABS with electric brake-force distribution, a worthy $550 option. They enhance what are already excellent disc brakes, the sizes of which have been increased to handle the increase in horses.

If you opt for the versions with the new 16-inch wheels, and the incumbent strut tower brace, you'll notice a sharper turn-in, due to bending stiffness that's been improved by 16 percent and torsional rigidity increased by 22 percent. The new numbers for models with the standard 15-inch wheels (up from 14s in 2000) ain't too shabby either; they are increased 13 percent and 6 percent, respectively. Yet cowl shake is still evident, as both structures jiggled over small-sized bumps in the road.

Speaking of balance, the weight ratio is now a perfect 50/50 as a result of numerous subtle changes, including the use of lighter componentry for the front headlights, rather than the 52/48 front-bias of the 2000 model. And what a joy it is to pitch the Miata into a curve—steering is still precise, sharp and direct. Though it lacked the telepathic feel of an MR2 Spyder, it's pretty much point-and-shoot.

Oh yeah, did we mention that the LS also has the option for a six-speed gearbox? Although we think that it needs more overdrive in order to keep the revs and NVH down (it still revved at 3,500 doing 70 on the highway) and adds a hefty 155 pounds to the welterweight, it will behave in a more couth manner while rolling on the highway than the standard five-speed.

You can also get a four-speed automatic transmission, but take it from someone who got stuck driving one—it really detracts from the whole raison d'etre of a Miata. Porquoi? You've got to drive one to understand, but there is something so pleasing about the Miata's manual that is unlike any other. The shifter fits perfectly into the hand, the engagements are razor sharp, the response immediate.

The exterior receives a nip and a tuck, as the front fascia sees a subtle alteration, with a more angular front air inlet. Although it supposedly adopts a five-point pentagon shape that is the trademark of Mazda products, it still seems like an obtuse rectangle. The headlights are slightly larger as are the taillights, but the changes are understated as to preserve the already graceful lines of the Miata.

Another advantage over that other low-end roadster is that the Miata is a more livable car. Not only can you pack a week's worth of groceries into the 5.1 cubic feet of trunk space (compare that to the niggling 2.8 cubic feet for the MR2), you don't have to defend its looks to every aesthete who points at your car and chortles.

Inside, you'll notice new, handsome white-faced gauges surrounded by chrome rings with numbers that glow red at night. There's a new black cloth material for the base Miata's seats, and the leather in the LS is now perforated, in case you get bored while sitting in traffic—you can count the holes!

This driver was able to get perfectly comfortable in the seats of the 1999 Miata, as well as the "sportier" new driver's seat. The center console has been redesigned so that it doesn't have to be opened if you happen to have a Snapple in your possession. Previously, an opened console meant irate driver—it got in the way of the shifting—and a drink will still do so, only to a lesser extent.

The beauty of the Miata lies in its minimalism. About the only options you can choose are the ABS with electronic brake-force distribution, a hardtop, cassette player, mud guards and spoiler. But it still offers much for the money.

Get the base Miata, and you'll receive standard power steering, antenna, windows and mirrors; a NARDI steering wheel; air conditioning; windblocker; fog lights; CD player; and of course, the all-important glass rear window with defogger which the skinflints over at BMW and Porsche can't ante up.

Step up to the LS and you've got good quality leather, cruise control, power doors locks with remote keyless entry, 16-inch alloy wheels, a Torsen limited-slip rear differential, strut tower brace and a Bose. LS options include the aforementioned six-speed and ABS. And don't forget, all Miata tops are locked by an idiot-proof latch that takes 8 seconds to open and 10 to close.

Sure, two-seat convertibles have limited appeal. They lack functionality, and for those who shun non-recirculated air, it's more of a pain than pleasure to ride in it. For those who do relish the thought of mussed hairdos, sun-, wind-, and hair-burn, and the exhilaration of living an unfiltered life, the Miata is one of the best drop tops this side of $30,000. We figure that there's gotta be a reason why the Miata seems to be the transport of choice for numerous auto weenies, as well as the fact that Guinness World Records hails it as the best-selling roadster of all time. Yup, it's right there in the record book next to the five-nippled man.

Zoom zoom.

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