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 last 25 years. Here’s our take on the Miata’s first redesign, from our December 1997 issue. Come back Friday for our next installment.
A gorgeous British racing green Mazda MX-5 Miata wrapped in a big red velvet bow. A fire-engine red Miata with a festive evergreen wreath on the hood. Images of sugarplums dance through our heads this holiday season. There would be no sweeter treat than taking yuletide delivery of the masterfully reworked 1999 Mazda Miata.
Yes, masterfully reworked. That was the biggest concern, correct? That somehow, the new Miata (which had to happen sometime) would miss the incredible, indelible high-water mark of the original. A car we have enthusiastically lauded in print year after year as “one of the best cars a person could ever own,” a car that “feeds our automotive soul like no other car does,” a car that will “hold its own over the long run,” and a car that “reaches out to the perpetual teenager in all of us.” A magic car.
What was going to happen to our first Automobile Magazine Automobile of the Year (1990), the only car to have ever been named to the Automobile Magazine All-Stars list seven years in a row — every single year of its life? Only good things, it turns out.
One can imagine the almost paralyzing trepidation faced by the design and engineering teams given the task of reinventing Mazda’s standard-bearer, the car that gives Mazda reason to still be alive. Or perhaps they reveled in the opportunity to be the heroes who would revitalize one of the truly iconic cars of the past two decades. Heroes they are: The new Miata is lighter, faster, stronger, and quieter. Side by side, new car and old, the 1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata muscles its way into your vision to the exclusion of the delicately drawn original. Almost nothing remains in terms of body parts but the A-pillars; the body is lower, with shorter overhangs, and the front air intake has been reshaped. Wind-buffeting pop-up headlamps have been replaced with shallow oval fixed headlights, and the taillights are shapelier as well. The sills bulge slightly, the midsection looks more substantial, and the wheels fill nicely bulging wheelwells (the old Miata’s add-on wheelwell lips in the rear are gone). The entire look is organic, voluptuous.
To answer complaints about space efficiency and utility, there are bigger door pockets, a larger console bin, cupholders (!), and more trunk space now that the battery and spare are stacked under the floor. It is a different car than it was, yet the Miata’s original spirit of joy, simplicity, and “oneness between horse and rider” (as so eloquently stated by Toshihiko Hirai, the Miata’s original product program manager) remains intact.
Having fought the good fight to maintain the simple sweetness of the original Miata concept, Mr. Hirai is long gone — he left in 1993 to teach engineering at rural Oita University. In his wake, the Miata underwent a number of changes, some of them modest in scope, some more aggressive: different colors; special performance packages; optional ABS; upgraded stereo systems; power steering, windows, antenna, and mirrors; retuned suspension; dual air bags; and side-door-beam protection.
The biggest upgrade was in the 1994 model year, when the Protegé’s 1.8-liter engine was popped into the Miata’s engine bay for an instant 12-bhp boost. Brakes, clutch plate, shocks, dampers, and anti-roll bars were beefed up to handle the additional power, and steel braces were added to the suspension front and rear and inside the cockpit behind the seats. A further power boost of 5 horsepower came in the 1996 model, bringing the total to 133 bhp.
Extensive redesign of that 1.8-liter engine (variable intake, larger-diameter intake and exhaust ports, higher-compression pistons, new cam profile, new cylinder head with knock control) raises the new Miata’s horsepower figure to 140. Torque improves from 114 to 119 lb-ft, climbing longer after 3000 rpm to its 5500-rpm peak. The improved power, combined with weight savings of 44 pounds, enables the 1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata to rip off an 8-second run from 0 to 60 mph, an improvement of 0.7 second. Weight distribution is still a sporting 50 percent front, 50 percent rear. A five-speed manual transmission is still standard equipment, but reverse gear has been moved directly south of fifth gear and now has a lockout. Changes to the shift linkage reduce shift-handle vibration and make the little shift lever even smoother and quicker to operate. The knob has been reshaped to better fit the palm. You can still order a Miata with a four-speed automatic transmission (sacrilege), but only those clueless about operating a manual would want it.
There were some 15 to 20 tweaks to various steering, suspension (the same sophisticated double wishbones at all four corners), and structural components, mostly to improve roll characteristics, straight-line stability, handling feel, and ride comfort.
“Twisting and static rigidity is pretty much the same as in the old car,” says Takao Kijima, product program manager. “But bending rigidity is up 10 percent.”
Among the most important changes:
- The front pillars, side sills, and transmission tunnel were bolstered, increasing bending rigidity;
- The front and rear crossbars were reshaped to improve rigidity;
- The tie-rod ends, upper and lower control arm pivot points, and rear-hub supporting arms were all moved;
- The steering-gear mounting was changed;
- The dampers and springs were changed, and the bump-stop material was switched from rubber to urethane;
- The old Mazda steering wheel was replaced by a smaller leather-wrapped steering wheel from Nardi that includes a center-mounted air bag.
We had a very brief and hush-hush opportunity to wheel a 1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata prototype around Mazda’s Miyoshi test track. Seeing the car for the first time was like watching a sequel to a great movie: It was wonderful, but missing the dramatic impact of meeting for the first time. Still, we had a great afternoon, buoyed by the success of the new Miata’s more nimble and connected handling performance on a variety of road conditions, its stronger and more willing engine, its isolation from chattery road surfaces, and its much-improved body structure.
The Miata’s top has also been reworked. Amazingly, it is 2 pounds lighter despite the addition of a glass window (a defroster is optional). But what happened to the little handle that allowed you to reach over your shoulder from the front seat and pull the top back up? Consider this an official plea for its return.
Back and forth we jumped, from old to new. Ride? Check. Performance? Check. Noise? Check. Bigger 195/50R15 tires as an option? Better. The optional sport suspension’s extra strut? Not for everyday. A high-performance R package coming? Check.
The beauty of the Miata remains: It is not a high-speed car but a lightweight, carefree cruiser with responsive steering and an exceptional gearbox. The makings of a huge success? Check.
How unusual it is to see this once iconoclastic, fun-loving band of rural Japanese carmakers now peppered from the top down with Ford executives representing the Blue Oval’s 33.4 percent share of Mazda. One can only hope that Ford will bring to proud Mazda the stability, the business acumen, the money, and the light touch they brought to Jaguar, much to Jaguar’s good fortune. Says Mazda’s gaijin president, Henry Wallace: “My focus for the past three years has been on taking away concern of the unknown, on looking at policies and developing better efficiencies. Morale and expectations right now are pretty good.”
So far, about 450,000 Miatas have made it into the hands of its adoring public, a phenomenal success in the very limited roadster category. The future looks bright to Mazda product planners, who expect demand to remain stable despite the BMW Z3, the Mercedes-Benz SLK, and the Porsche Boxster crowding the scene. As for filling that Christmas wish list, Americans will have to wait for a spring delivery of the 1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata. They will also have to wait for a firm price, though estimates are just above the current Miata’s $19,125 base sticker. Worldwide production has already begun, though only Japan is scheduled for deliveries in this calendar year. A nice set of fitted driving gloves may have to hold you till then.
1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata Specifications
- Base Price: $20,150 (in 1998)
- Engine: 1.8-liter DOHC I-4
- Power: 140 hp @ 6500 rpm
- Torque: 119 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm
- Transmission: 5-speed manual
- Drive: Rear-wheel
- Length x Width x Height: 155.3 x 66.0 x 48.4 in
- Wheelbase: 89.2 in
- Curb Weight: 2299 lb
- Fuel Economy: 22/27/24 mpg (city/highway/combined)