1996 Mazda Miata

By November 10, 1999
1996 Mazda Miata

Who would dare to criticize the Mazda Miata? Not us. Say a negative word about the world’s niftiest production 2-seater and you might as well be attacking motherhood, apple pie, or 4th of July picnics.

There’s a large group of loyal–sometimes fanatical–owners out there, each of whom selected the littlest Mazda because it’s fun, each of whom is likely not to care a whit for practical considerations. Miata’s a sports car for a driver and one passenger, pure and simple, and normal rules of evaluation simply do not apply.

The practical aspects come later, in the form of reliability, economy and everyday usability. That the Miata scores reasonably well on each point is a bonus, a little surprise that only becomes apparent after a year or two of ownership.

Competitors? What competitors? The best alternative is a fully restored vintage sports car, Austin-Healey Sprite or Lotus Elan preferred. Yes, BMW is starting to offer its excellent new Z3 roadster, but don’t look for any price breaks there. Ditto for the upcoming Porsche Boxster and Mercedes SLK. They’re certain to be priced upstream of the Z3.

One might compromise a bit and opt for a Honda Del Sol or leftover Toyota MR2, but for the real thing at a relatively modest price, it’s Miata or nothing.

Walkaround

The current Miata looks just like every other Miata built since 1989, save for subtle changes to the optional alloy wheels and some minor revisions inside. It remains cheeky and chunky, with only a few details–the pop-up headlamps for example, a throwback to the days before flush-fitting lamps were feasible–to date it. But never mind; a simple, direct design carries its age well, and the Miata has lost none of its appeal. It looks like fun even when it's sitting still, and fun is precisely what it delivers.

Some convertibles lose a good bit of their attractiveness when the top is up; the Miata doesn't. Nor does appearance suffer with the base steel wheels. The only way to make a Miata unattractive is to dent it or add aftermarket body kits that detract from its uncomplicated lines.

One drawback: The truncated tail means minimal trunk space. Miata's driver and a companion had best be prepared to travel light.

Miata is a one-model offering that can be personalized with options packages. The Popular Equipment Package brings aluminum wheels, limited-slip differential, power steering, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, power windows/mirrors/door locks and antenna, cruise control and headrest-mounted radio speakers on board. The Leather Package, which adorned our test car, does the same, while adding hide-trimmed seats (tan only, with a matching tan top).

Mazda also does a special edition Miata each year with special paint and various goodies, but these cross the $25,000 frontier.

Serious–as in racing-minded–owners can order the R Package, which consists of limited-slip diff, aluminum wheels, air ducts for the front brakes and Bilstein shock absorbers, plus modest side sill extensions and a small rear spoiler.

While the spoiler doesn't really add anything to performance, the rest of this equipment does, something the Miata R demonstrates weekend after summer weekend in Sports Car Club of America amateur racing events.

Every Miata we've sampled has displayed better-than-average attention to details. Paint is smooth and consistent, gaps between panels are even and narrow, and materials inside and out are of good quality. The only complaint we've heard in this area has to do with the plastic rear window in the convertible top, which in some cases deteriorates rapidly. Careful handling and regular cleaning will help a lot.

Interior Features

Space for two, and hold the frills. The Miata cockpit is attractive, well-finished, and somewhat on the minimalist side, with simple controls, easy-to-read gauges, and two comfortable seats (which could use a little more side support) dominating.

One caveat on the seats: While they're fine for short jaunts, they become a little tiring when trips extend beyond, say, 100 miles or so. Cars like this aren't designed for coast-to-coast blitzes; they invite short blasts on country backroads, punctuated by respites at country inns and antique shops.

Even with the top up, the cozy Miata will carry two full-grown adults, depending on just how full-grown they are. Individuals with personal dimensions that run north of 6 ft. are likely to find themselves a little short on leg room.

Appearance-wise, the Miata interior is decidedly retro. The instruments–a complete array that includes speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, coolant temp., oil pressure and voltmeter–look as if they'd been removed from a classic British sports car, although they differ in one important respect: They work, consistently and accurately.

The cowled pod arching over the instruments softens the yesteryear appearance some, but not too much. And if the steering wheel didn't have an airbag stuffed into its hub, it too would probably continue the classic design theme. Which is all to the good.

In base form, the Miata is better-equipped than almost any sports car from the past, sporting a passenger side airbag (in addition to the driver's bag) plus an AM/FM radio. Air conditioning is optional; lowering the top for fresh air is free.

The manual top, by the way, is a marvel of well-executed basic design, and far easier to operate than the tops that covered Austin-Healeys and the like. When up, it keeps the interior dry and draft-free; when stowed, it hides under a soft removable cover. Raising and lowering is a matter of two simple latches and a flick of the wrists, a task the driver can perform one-handed.

A removable plastic hard top is optional.

Driving Impressions

This is where the fun starts. The responsive 1.8-liter engine growls entertainingly when used hard and delivers good performance. No wheel-spinning excess here, just power that can be used, and more of it than ever before. The '96 Miata generates 133 peak horsepower, a 5-hp gain over the '95 edition. That may not sound like much, but it makes a noticeable difference in a car that weighs less than 2300 lbs.

Respectable fuel economy is part of the deal as well. The 5-speed manual transmission is perfectly matched to the engine, and has one of the most positive short-throw shifters around. That's a good thing, because the Miata engine thrives on high rpm. We suggest you ignore the optional automatic; it's simply out of place in this car.

Although the Miata will scoot to 60 mph in about eight seconds, acceleration isn't really its strongest suit. Handling is. Simply stated, the little roadster begs to be driven with brio on a winding road. Body roll is minimal, the steering is both light and pinpoint-sharp, and the extra-cost limited-slip differential allows the driver to make maximum use of the power available.

Of course there's a tradeoff, in that the low-speed ride is firm, though not harsh. The brakes are very good, even without ABS, a $900 extra that's baked into one of two option packages.

Unless you have to have the accoutrements that go with it, the power steering is an unnecessary expense. Like the automatic transmission option, it's not bad, just superfluous.

On the other hand, the stiffer shock absorbers that go with the R Package aren't so stiff as to cause real discomfort, and do make a fine-handling chassis even better.

If there's any fault to find here, it's in the area of noise. Like most convertibles, the soft top doesn't do much to damp out sound waves. Between wind noise and the sweet but loud music of the engine, there's a fair amount of interior racket at highway speeds.

Summary

By every measure, Miata buyers get what they pay for, even if they're paying rather more these days. The Miata is no longer a $14,000 plaything; price increases have kept pace with the rest of autodom.

But where else can buyers attracted to the Miata's undeniable appeal go? At a minimum, they'll spend some $8000 more for the BMW Z3, and have to wait months for delivery. If they look at similarly priced convertibles, they'll find more interior and trunk space, but nowhere near the driving fun.

Face it: The Miata is unique. It is a classic sports car updated with the benefits of modern technology, backed by a solid warranty. If that's what you're looking for, and your budget is less than $25,000, this is your choice.

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