James Barone Racing

Jundla's Journal

January, 2006

In With the New

All that chatter about the NA being a better Miata and the NB being a better sports car has become quaintly amusing with the introduction of NC. For all their differences, the NA and NB were essentially the same car. This new model is an entirely different, unrelated animal. It may carry the MX-5 label but it is not the car that hundreds of thousands around the world have become so familiar with that they can bicker passionately about vanishingly insignificant differences between one model year and the next. I may be stating the dreadfully, painfully obvious here, but the NC is the son of Miata. It is not the Miata. The Miata that we have known and loved for 15 years is dead.

Truly, until I got a good look at a black NC, I hadn't realized how far behind the times the Miata had fallen. My winter-grime-covered NA on its black winter steelies made for a pretty sorry sight when I walked back to it in the dealer's lot. It looked cheap, old and decidedly bottom rung. For the first time I felt aware of what other people saw when they looked at my car. I could just feel the scorn of the salesman burning into my back. Really, the truth is inescapable; It is a dated car, and not visually either. It quivers and shudders incessantly over surface imperfections, the brakes are imprecise and weak. It is buzzy, vibey, has lots of road noise, and it is unsettled at speed. The engine is quite crude by modern standards and the car wouldn't meet modern crash standards. It has to be faced; if Mazda can now deliver a car minus these traits without increasing weight much, the old car has become obsolete.

Mazda may have needed a new model to strengthen the market position of the MX-5 for another decade, pre-empt competition and halt the sales slide, but did enthusiasts necessarily need a replacement model? Further, does a new model automatically devalue the original? Do owners who have enjoyed and loved the NA/NB suddenly have to love their cars less because the state of the art has moved on? The automatic emotional reaction might be "of course not." Still, cars do get old and drivers do come to expect their cars to provide up-to-date levels of refinement and design. Hardly anybody would buy a 1980 Honda Civic today if some company bought rights and started making it again, would they? I have long felt that if a car is enjoyable to drive today, it should be just as enjoyable for ever after, but really, a car's worth is not absolute at all. Progress changes perceptions and expectations. A great car today is a crummy one tomorrow.

We humans have the wonderful ability of adaptability that renders virtually everything relative and erases most absolutes. A good car can become poor and a bad one can become decent. Consider the Jeep Wrangler that I drove exclusively for a month this autumn while the Miata stayed garaged. The first time I drove it was as if I was trying to ride an ADD afflicted buffalo through town. Shocking. With some time, I acclimated to the Jeep, found its rhythms, and after that, in spite of its crudeness and lousy dynamics (of which I never became unaware), I could have accepted it as my primary use vehicle. Though my initial reaction was very negative, I adapted. After a couple of weeks in the Jeep, my 1.6 Miata felt like a little Ferrari. Everything about it was wonderful, the engine, the brakes, the structure, all seemed race car superior. However, while my car may be wonderful relative to just about everything else on the road, it has now become a matter of my personal frame of reference. To the public at large, the reference standard is all the latest flash cars on the road. Relative to those, both the NA and NB feel like old school. The NB felt dated compared to the MR-2 Spyder even 4 years ago.

Don't get me wrong; my sense of contentment and happiness with my Miata is absolute, so much so that, barring family and health changes, I would be happy driving this car and no other for the rest of my life. I love its buzzy, noisy vibey-ness, its unsettled live-wire attitude on the interstate. The car is alive in a way that the calm, isolated, refined modern cars of today have forgotten all about. The MR-2 was clearly the newer, better car, but it lacked the organic classic goodness of the Miata. Even so, it is a rare company that can thrive by peddling the romance of dated machinery and the antiquated charms of yesteryear. Mazda is not one. It must run in the rat race of progress. The NA/NB was fundamentally so sound that Mazda was able to live off its fat for 15 years, but to continue to do so would have been foolish. It's a good thing that Mazda had the NC in the oven because the Solstice would have left the NB no place to hide and Mazda with no response to make. A simple rule that the Japanese and the Germans car makers have used to great effect is, "obsolete yourself before somebody else does it to you." Mazda delayed the deliberate obsolescence of Miata for a long time, but the beloved original has now necessarily passed into the history books.

Still, I cannot help wishing for some way for the NB to be kept alive. Perhaps Mazda could restyle the NB (for the sake of freshness) and continue to sell it alongside the NC as an economy roadster at a low price. Surely all the fixed costs have been paid by now and the car could easily be made cheaply. It won't happen though; it makes no business sense. Mazda would need to dedicate production, distribution and marketing resources to the car and the effort would be rewarded with an in house rival for the NC which would cannibalize NC sales and reduce the total revenues, while providing no benefit to Mazda.

I guess I need to learn to let go. While I wish the NA/NB wasn't obsolete, my offering a comparison with the primitive Wrangler tells the truth. And anyway, progress is a marvelous thing. It is wonderful that the NC preserves the essential philosophy of the NA/NB while incorporating the latest wonders of technical art. Progress shouldn't be resisted just because one is concerned about the obsolescence of what one loves. The NC is rightly going to take the place of the NA/NB but we can continue to love the old while we embrace the superior new. NC or no, my NA isn't going anywhere. There isn't ever going to be another car just like this one.



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