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 Porsche Boxster 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.