If there’s any car that perfectly captures the Automobile Magazine way of looking at things, it’s the Mazda MX-5 Miata. It’s a machine that prioritizes feel over statistics, the romance of the road over marketing clinics. And it’s never boring. As we near the official reveal of the fourth-generation Miata, we’re revisiting our favorite stories about the roadster from the past twenty-five years. We’re starting with our very first review of it, reprinted from our March 1989 issue. Come back Wednesday for our next installment.
“Like seeing your former lover thirty-years later.”
Hiroshima — This is what sports car driving is all about. It’s face-in-the-air fresh, in an immensely appealing two-seat roadster. The car is light, agile, and quick, with a seat that supports, a wheel that commands, a shifter that snaps, and an exhaust note of sheer exuberance.
If you think this 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata looks like a Lotus Elan from Japan, you won’t be the only one who thinks so, although at 155.4 inches overall (with an 89.2-inch wheelbase), the Miata is ten inches longer than the Lotus. Its shape is definitely evocative of the lovely mid-Sixties Elan. Mazda says officially that it did not set out to re-create a retrospective sports car, that the MX-5 Miata is a “completely modern sports car,” that it was “engineered with Mazda’s best and most up-to-date technology from the ground up to fulfill the unique, specific objectives that Mazda’s planners, designers, and engineers embraced from the outset of the project.”
But we can’t help looking at the MX-5 Miata—with luck, one of these two names will go away—and thinking that Mazda has built a car for those of us who were born too late for the English roadster craze. Thank God. That means we finally can have our classic roadster, but one that, being a Mazda, will likely be completely reliable.
Mazda is unusually candid (for a Japanese company, if not necessarily for Mazda) about the genesis of the MX-5 Miata. All of the key development people point to Robert L. Hall, a former automotive journalist who has been in Mazda’s California product planning office for eight years.
“I cannot overstress Bob Hall’s involvement and passion,” says Shigenori Fukuda, who was vice-president of Mazda’s West Coast product planning and research facility at the time of the Miata’s conception. “Bob Hall made the suggestion to Mazda North America. He talked about the idea of the Spitfire, the Lotus, the MG, and the first-generation RX-7. We discussed various proposals, from a Trihawk-like vehicle to a rotary-engined sports car. We produced three mockups—a convertible, a front-driver, and a mid-engine design.” But Hall’s vision was much simpler and more classic.
“At first we couldn’t understand what this old design was, why he was suggesting this,” says Fukuda. “For two years, our top managers hesitated to go ahead with the project. They had no idea whether it would be successful. Bob Hall’s passion convinced us.”
The rumor mill says that during the development phase, Mazda’s engineers actually tore down and analyzed an old Elan, a performance classic. (To add fuel to the rumor, Hall was seen tooling around in an Elan, bleeding oil across a number of driveways in Southern California.) Perhaps more important, Mazda tore down the concept of a purebred sports car, laid bare every word, every trait, every emotion associated with a sports car, and sorted them out on paper under the heading, “Oneness between man and horse.”
This “fish scale chart,” never before used at Mazda in the area of designing a new car, was the idea of the Miata’s project manager, Toshihiko Hirai, a modest middle-aged engineer with an easy smile and a singular drive.
The six areas of Hirai’s chart were labeled Handling, Driving Performance, Touch, Visual Perception, Acoustic Perception, and Direct Brake Feel. Each of these spawned more specific lists of desirable traits: “Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout, suitable kickback in wheel, hair in the wind” went under Driving Performance. “Low silhouette, power bulge in hood, air intake in front bumper, tailpipe, aluminum wheel, accurate speedo needle, functional engine appearance, instrument panel gauge design” were listed as necessary appearance criteria. “Pedal travel, no spongy brake” were identified as elements important to the integrated feel of the driver and car. And in the corner of the paper were three words in English: direct, tight, and communicative.
“We tried to put all our ideas into words so there would be a clear goal for all the development engineers,” explains Hirai. “It was the job of each engineer to find a specific answer to our image of the car.”
The image: oneness between man and horse.
The specific answers:
—an aluminum powertrain frame, such as Porsche uses, that connects the 116-horsepower, DOHC sixteen-valve 1.6-liter four (borrowed from the non-turbo 323) and the close-ratio five-speed transmission to the final drive. This powertrain frame is connected to the front and rear subframes with rubber mounts. The resulting rock-solid response of the engine to the flick of the short-throw stick goes a long way toward making up for the engine’s lack of brute force (a turbo is in the cards).
—independent double-wishbone suspension at all four wheels, a special touch even the RX-7 didn’t have, and one that is absolutely essential for a true modern sports car. Both upper and lower arms are connected to the crossmember in front so that camber and caster can be easily adjusted in assembly. Anti-roll bars, coil springs, and hydraulic dampers are also fitted at front and rear.
—four-wheel disc brakes.
—rack-and-pinion steering, 18.0:1 ratio, that could very well be the most responsive and satisfying steering on any Japanese car we have driven.
—52/48 percent front/rear weight distribution, partly achieved by mounting the engine longitudinally behind the front axle and by parking the battery in the trunk.
—an exhaust system chosen for its pleasing sound. (While developing the MX-5 Miata’s exhaust, Hirai taped a half-hour of his favorite exhaust notes, including that of the BMW M1, and listened to it during his commute to work.)
—a fairly low curb weight of 2182 pounds, aided by fitting an aluminum hood to the steel body (a saving of more than fifteen pounds), by using resin bumpers front and rear (almost nine pounds each), by going to a stainless steel tubular exhaust manifold (nine pounds), and by using a motorcycle-type battery with reduced liquid volume (six pounds).
—185/60HR-14 Yokohama tires, somewhat short of the correct footwear, in our opinion, as much as we love performing low-speed handbrake turns in this car.
Clear direction produced clear results. Says Hirai: “Every mechanism has been designed for sheer driving pleasure. For instance, our company standard dictates 45 mm [1.8 inch] maximum accelerator pedal travel for the typical passenger car. This car’s is 65 mm [2.6 inches], because that’s what felt right. And it’s not only areas like the gearbox but the combination of total vehicle design—the body and suspension rigidity, the optimal control of caster and camber angles, and such. Each component designer understood our strong feelings about communicative handling.”
One can begin to understand Mazda’s assertion that the MX-5 Miata is a completely modern sports car, although you will find no four-wheel steering, no electronic suspension or transmission gizmos, no traction control or four-wheel drive to detract from the basic simplicity of the exercise (or to drive the cost up). And when you slip behind the wheel, you will likewise find no superfluous distractions—no pop-up vents, no trip computers, no navigational frippery, no lumbar balloons to inflate—unless you are distracted by the MX-5 Miata’s strange horizontally folding sun visors. The seats are firm and spare, the doors covered with basic vinyl. The dash features a compact set of the necessary gauges. An air bag meets passive safety requirements.
Other than turn the key, you have only to reach overhead, flip back the soft top’s two retaining clips at each A-pillar, grab the simple handle above the rear-view mirror, and literally toss the lid behind you, where it accordions into a neat pile behind the seats. You don’t even need the tonneau cover, but snapping it over the folded top is a breeze. (For Northerners, an optional plastic hard top with a glass rear window can be fixed in place.)
With these two moves, the 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata puts high-tech on hold and brings back the pure sport of open-air driving. Of tooling downtown on a warm spring day. Of motoring past cornfields, racing the stallions, and smelling the alfalfa in bloom. Of exploring the wavy blue lines in your Rand McNally for the pleasure of working the roadster’s crisp little stick, and of twisting its wheel to sling the tail around the tightest bends. The 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata feels just about perfect, delivering every bit of simple fun its voluptuous, organic shape promises.
“Some people thought this simple idea was stupid,” says Hirai. “But the original RX-7 concept has gone too far upmarket. This level is now vacant. We may not make a big profit with this, compared to cars like the 929. There might not be so many of these customers, but they have very strong feelings. It is like seeing your former lover thirty years later.”
The 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata will go on sale first in the United States, about the first of June. Mazda hopes to sell 3000 a month at a price it has yet to fix, although the numbers we’ve heard range from $11,000 to $13,000. In addition to the red of our roadster, we’ve seen the MX-5 Miata in bright blue and silver. Chrome yellow would be a winner, but odds say the U.S. marketing guys will ask for white and black to go with silver, red, and blue.
We are hoping the blue one we ordered for our Four Seasons test fleet will be one of the first MX-5 Miatas off the boat. Once they hit our shores, they’re bound to be scarce.
1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata Specifications
- Base Price: $13,800 (in 1989)
- Engine: 1.6-liter DOHC I-4
- Power: 116 hp @ 6500 rpm
- Torque: 100 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm
- Transmission: 5-speed manual
- Drive: Rear-wheel
- Length x Width x Height: 155.4 x 65.9 x 48.2 in
- Wheelbase: 89.2 in
- Curb Weight: 2189 lb
- Fuel Economy (1990 EPA testing): 25/30/27 mpg (city/highway/combined)
- Fuel Economy (revised testing): 22/28/24 mpg