MIATA: Responsible Change

By Tom Smolenski - tsmolens@nmu.edu

Back in 1989, automotive journalists gave a collective cheer for the Miata. Their enthusiastic reviews trumpeted all the virtues of this fun, inexpensive, and reliable roadster. Lately, though, some of these magazine writers have complained that the Miata needs updating. More power--better ride--wider tires--more trunk space--more dramatic styling--or, just something different to keep up with new competitors.

I suppose it is to be expected. After all, marketers/advertisers go to great lengths to cultivate a "newest is best" mind set in consumers. Still, it is a little disappointing to see journalists apply this philosophy to the Miata. So far, Mazda has wisely limited changes to those of an evolutionary nature. I previously owned a '91 Miata, and I really value the improvements included in my '94 model (stiffer structure, 1.8 liter engine, slightly wider alloy wheels, dual air bags, improved brakes, etc.). It is important to note, however, that these differences only enhanced the Miata--the basic character of the car was unaltered.

I sincerely hope that Mazda does not repeat some of the model-change mistakes made by others--bigger, more powerful, and more luxurious do not necessarily equate with better. If you want examples, just look at the some of the muscle cars as they evolved during the sixties and seventies. I doubt that Mazda's designers will mess with any of the Miata's major dimensions, but I am concerned that they may feel compelled to make some dramatic styling changes in response to: 1) the journalistic clamor for something different, and 2) the emergence of new (albeit much more expensive) competitors.

I may be in a minority, but I was not particularly impressed with the Speedster concept car that Mazda displayed several years ago. Yes, it definitely had a more muscular look, but the overall styling was not very attractive. I hope that Mazda will avoid turning the Miata into a mini muscle car with contemporary styling. If anything, they should move toward a more "classic" look (see below).

In response to the requests for a "new and improved" vehicle, Mazda should maintain a balanced perspective, and remain keenly aware of the Miata's classic heritage. I'll give you a very specific example. I smile every time I read a magazine article that complains about the Miata's plain door panels. These writers seem to ignore the pricing dynamics of automobiles, and/or they do not understand the true nature of the Miata.

With regards to pricing, the Mazda is situated in the "affordable sports car" segment. Trade-offs are inevitably made in the content of such a vehicle to stay within overall cost parameters. The Mazda folks chose to spend their available money on four-wheel independent wishbone suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, a power plant frame, light vehicle weight, and optimal weight distribution (e.g., aluminum hood, special battery for the trunk), etc. They obviously saved money in other areas, such as interior trim--an appropriate trade-off for an inexpensive sports car.

Further, in terms of the Miata's character, the functional interior reflects the minimalist philosophy of a classic small roadster. No cloth-trimmed doors or fancy instrument panel for me, thanks. Much of the Miata's charm comes from its elegant simplicity. If someone wants more luxury, there is a selection of suitable convertibles available from other automakers. It should be remembered, however, that the overall nature of these vehicles is, by definition, much different than that of the Miata.

In light of the significant model revision that is rumored for 1998, I suppose it is a little late to give Mazda some unsolicited advice regarding changes to the Miata, but I'll go ahead anyway:

  1. Make no gratuitous changes to the Miata's styling and character. Let the aftermarket take care of those individuals who want large spoilers and dramatic body cladding.
  2. Stay with the functional interior theme. A higher grade interior is already available, at a price.
  3. Don't let the quest for trunk space force a bad decision elsewhere. I have seen rumors of mounting the spare below the car for the 1998 model year--if it works, fine, but I don't try to carry building materials in my Miata. For me, the limited trunk space is in keeping with the minimalist experience of a roadster. Grab your camera, a good map, a small bag of clothes and GO.
  4. Maintain the current amount/type of horsepower. MG, Fiat, Triumph, and Alfa Romeo roadsters never had great amounts of horsepower. In fact, their acceleration times were, for the most part, slower than the Miata. Their popularity was not due to breathtaking acceleration, but instead to their overall character, and to the special kind of driving experience that they provided on two-lane country roads. For those owners who insist on a significant increase in horsepower, the aftermarket has some nice components available.
  5. Add a nice metal grille of some sort, integrated into the hood/bumper (i.e., not just one of the aftermarket honeycomb grilles stuffed into the existing cooling opening). The front grille has historically been an important item in classic automotive styling/character, and the current
    Miata does not have this design element. I know, I know. I just made a big deal about staying within overall cost parameters, but an attractive metal grille is a necessity. Really. If money is needed for the grille, go with fixed headlights to offset the cost. I am one of an estimated 143 people world-wide who likes the existing pop-up headlights, but fixed headlights would probably be better suited to a classic front end (i.e., with a grille).

All right, I've had my say on mindless consumerism and the possible pitfalls of changing the Miata. Now here's the part where I come clean. Despite all my high-brow talk about consumerism and succumbing to the latest/greatest products, I must say that an attractive new automotive shape can catch my attention just as much as anyone. I find the BMW Z3 particularly seductive. OK, I'll come right out and admit it. Last Fall, I gave some thought to selling my Miata and buying the six cylinder Z3 when it became available. After reading some reviews of the Z3, however, and looking past the sexy emotions that it evokes, it became clear to me that the Miata compares very well in terms of style, value, character, and driving enjoyment.

I have to compliment the staff members of Automobile magazine. In each of the past eight years, they have included the Miata on their "All Stars" list. During the 1997 selection process, their judgement was not overwhelmed by the excitement of some newer and more expensive two-seaters. The new roadsters from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche, are great cars, but they were not conceived in the classic, inexpensive roadster mold. The writers at Automobile magazine seem to appreciate that the Miata is a unique vehicle, a modern day MGB.

Similarly, I realized that these latest roadsters would not necessarily provide more fun or satisfaction, despite their higher performance and well established pedigree. In some ways, I believe they could be less fun, because the simplicity and easy-going nature of the Miata might be absent. Besides, I am not sure that I would want so much money wrapped up in a pleasure vehicle. There is no doubt that these vehicles are a welcome addition to the automotive scene, and they will obviously give much satisfaction to their owners. For me, however, they ultimately served to point out just how much I already have in my Miata.

Sometimes, we just need a reminder.