What red-blooded American automotive journalists would admit in the pages of a car magazine that they drove to the beginning of one of the most spectacular roads in these United States, saw the 35-mph speed limit, and found it didn’t bother them?
Call me a girl, which only means I’ll be brave enough to write that gentle motoring has a place in our hectic world, that it can even be alluring. Depending, of course, on the transport. And, of course, on the locale.
We’ve come all the way to the Big Island of Hawaii (4038 square miles) to stare into the ocean’s depths at dawn and ride at dusk to the top of Mauna Kea (13,796 feet), lifted up into a heaven packed with more stars than we’ve ever seen in our lives. In between, we’ll fling the top back on the planet’s most popular roadster and drive through a goodly number of the eleven microclimates on the island. By the time we get to that perfect road, Highway 250 north out of Waimea to Hawi, we’re packing some major aloha-that’s “love” to you haoles-and feeling as if our groove has come all the way back from the flatline we’ve been feeling after a long, rainy month on the mainland.
No, the all-new Mazda MX-5 is nothing like the ass-kicking S. Yes, it does have a lot more horsepower than it had, though not an overabundance of same-170 with the five- and six-speed manuals and 166 with the six-speed automatic transmission, up from 142 last year. It has slightly more room for longer torsos, thanks to a 0.6-inch-taller windshield header, a seatback with another degree of rearward travel, and a new tilt steering column. There’s 2.2 inches more hip room, as well as enough extra cargo space for another grocery bag or two (plastic, not paper). The body feels tighter, the handling nimbler, the chassis sturdier, and the steering more responsive. It looks fresher, a bit edgier from the sidewalk, more luxurious and more richly appointed from behind the wheel.
Not so much as a nut, a bolt, or a switch has carried over from the second-generation Miata-not even the name. And yet the most important element has not changed-that would be, simply, driving fun.
The perfectly executed two-seater that began the revolution in late 1989, spawning the Mercedes-Benz SLK, the Porsche Boxster, the BMW Z cars, and now the Pontiac Solstice, remains true to its roots. “Jinba ittai,” they say in Hiroshima. The synergy of rider and horse moving as one. Manly automotive journalists don’t go around talking about jinba ittai, no matter how perfectly it expresses the very soul of the Miata. It might be easier to embrace a more freewheeling interpretation, delivered in the quaint syntax of our Japanese friends at Mazda as the “lots of fun concept.” Who can’t appreciate lots of fun?
MX-5 program manager Takao Kijima, who has spent more than a third of his life on the Miata, explains that the engineering focus was not on direct measures such as performance and quality achievements but rather on “intangible virtues such as pleasure, beauty, and emotional attachment.” Instead of 0-to-60-mph acceleration statistics, the Miata engineers felt it was more important to understand “how the car feels through the driver’s sense of touch, how it sounds at speed, how it looks with the top folded, and what pleasant scents can be enjoyed during a spring drive.”
Despite the fact that I’ve pushed the idea of the simple, lightweight roadster to the wall with my very own lusty 178-hp, turbo-charged 2005 Mazdaspeed version of the Miata, Big Island driving makes it easy to embrace the lots of fun concept. Only a handful of roads circle and straddle this still wild, volcanic paradise. One is more heavily pa-trolled than the next by a zero-tolerance police force lurking in their own personal cars and trucks behind the 25- and 35-mph speed-limit signs found on every single road of note. None fast, all fun. A flick of the steering-wheel-mounted cruise-control switch preserves our driving record-for now.
With a land-speed record out of the picture, those intangible virtues become more apparent as we tootle north on Queen Kaahumanu Highway 19 through the stark, black lava fields covering the Kohala Coast’s lap of luxury (boasting Four Seasons, Kona Village, Mauna Lani, and Orchid resorts), breaking due east at the Kawaihae Harbor (after lunch at Cafe Pesto) to climb swiftly into the blustery Kohala uplands through the vast Parker Ranch lands.
The MX-5 is solid as a rock, a car of real substance. That’s the first thing you notice after admiring how perfectly the little shift lever snicks through its six gears and the surprising amount of acceleration and sustained torque; 90 percent of the peak 140 lb-ft of torque is available from 2500 rpm to the 6700-rpm redline. The gen-three Miata is only 22 pounds heavier, yet bending rigidity has improved by 22 percent, and torsional rigidity is higher by a whopping 47 percent, as we noted in our initial technical presentation of the car in the April 2005 issue.
We also mentioned there that the major masses under the body-the engine, the battery, the fuel tank-have been moved closer to the center of the car to minimize the polar moment of inertia and to achieve a nearly balanced weight distribution. Managing weight, improving antidive and antisquat, stiffening steering, and improving brake response and rigidity are among the most important factors in making the new Miata feel as sensational to drive as it ever did, with every-thing operating in perfect harmony at a higher level.
There is a problem. It is no longer quite so sensational to ride along in this Miata, perhaps because of the new engine placement. Whatever the cause, the center tunnel intrudes farther into the passenger compartment than before, at an angle that causes several different riders of varying body types to suffer back cricks from shifting sideways in their seats. The driver has a different problem. Some change in the seat bolstering causes pressure that, after eight hours in the saddle, brings on sciatica.
For now, we are oblivious, especially as we’ve found Highway 250, the Kohala Mountain Road, heading north just before the laid-back cow town of Waimea (the site of Aioli’s for lunch and Merriman’s for dinner). Only twenty miles long, Highway 250 is a narrow, winding, two-lane blacktop that climbs to 3564 feet through windswept volcanic fields and waving silvery grasses. Cattle graze on endless ranch lands to the right; paniolos on horseback guide dude riders across high desert to the left. As you climb, you catch glimpses of the vast Waimea Valley back to Mauna Kea or out to sea, where Maui’s rocky peaks rise through mist-filled clouds. It’s windy as hell the higher you climb, and majestic ironwood trees lining the road at the high elevations are permanently bent toward the sea. The MX-5 loves 250’s twists and turns, especially with traction control and dynamic stability control switched off, both accomplished at once by depressing the DSC button for seven seconds. Its sweet nature is perfect for this combo plate of top-down sightseeing and easygoing road-rallying. We feel no speed deprivation.
Not everyone might appreciate the new Miata‘s sharply creased fenders or rounder hood, but no one would complain about the utter simplicity of the Z-fold top that flops behind the seat with no trunk intrusion and clicks neatly into place-no need to struggle with the snaps of an extra tonneau cover. When the sky turns dark as we descend into Hawi at the junction of 250 and the Akoni Pule Highway 270 and the air gets a tad moist, it’s a cinch to pivot in the driver’s seat, pop the top release button, reach back, and haul the top over our heads, cinching it down with a one-handed twist of the newly designed center latch.
And then the sky falls.
This being the tropics, it falls hard for only an hour. Twist and flop, and we’re back in the open air, admiring the bougainvillea, giant agapanthus, hibiscus, bird-of-paradise, and towering lines of Norfolk pines throughout the restored Victorian-era villages of Hawi and Kapaau, near the birthplace of Kamehameha the Great, the warrior king who united the Hawaiian Islands in the 1790s. Seventy years ago, this town of clapboard churches and modest, pastel-hued homes was the hub of the sugarcane industry, which eventually went bust in 1975. Artists, hippies, and assorted haoles have blended with the local native Hawaiians to create a laid-back corner of paradise.
Here you can find fresh-shucked macadamia nuts for two dollars a bag at Virginia Graham’s honor stand (“We have a wonderful record of honor for ten years,” she says). You can camp at the end of the road in the Makapala district, buy wildly beautiful shirts and dresses of unique design at Rainbow-Jo, and find books among the world’s largest collection of Hawaiiana at the Kohala Book Shop. Browse among the galleries in Kapaau, eat overstuffed burritos at Hula La’s Mexican Kitchen, order a killer pizza at the Hawi Bakery, or buy a rare wooden bowl (from $75 to $7900) at Larry Zeidman’s gallery in Hawi.
Taking Highway 270 down the coast gives you an unparalleled view of the blue Pacific, suddenly taking your breath away as the entire Waimea Valley comes into sight below, from dormant Mauna Kea to the vast black nothingness of lava rolling for miles right into the sea, frozen in place from Hualalai’s last big blow in 1801.
How you get your own ride in a 2006 Mazda MX-5 on the Big Island is your problem. This rider’s problem right now is shaking out the sciatica and figuring out how to transplant the seats and the turbocharger from a 2005 Mazdaspeed Miata into this otherwise spectacular horse.