MazdaSpeed’s Second Product Makes Even The Miata More Fun
By MARK VAUGHN/AutoWeek
ON SALE: Now
BASE PRICE: $25,500
POWERTRAIN: 1.8-liter, 178-hp, 166-lb-ft turbocharged I4; rwd, six-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 2529 pounds 0 TO 60 MPH: 7.1 seconds (est.)
Best conditions for trying out your new MazdaSpeed Miata? How about rain-dampened pavement, plenty of potholes, a narrow two-lane mountain road in the Malibu hills, oncoming monster SUV traffic with high-beams on full blast driven by inattentive actors and TV producers juggling cell phones? Oh, and it is pitch-black nighttime so if you do go over the edge they won’t find you until next fire season. But by then you will have done your part in keeping some vultures fed.
Luckily, we weren’t driving that particular stint. Townsend Bell, the Indy Lights, CART and F3000 racer angling for an F1 ride, was our pilot. Bell had returned from a Euro test session in Jaguar’s F1 car and was resting and plotting his ascent of the Grand Prix ranks from the harsh confines of his father-in-law’s stately seaside Malibu mansion. Bell was happy to give the MazdaSpeed a whirl.
“We’re about the same size,” he said, buckling up the seatbelt. The car was parked in the huge brick courtyard between the main house and the garage. The bricks were wet with rainwater. “Does this thing have traction control?” he asked, starting the car.
Before we could say it had a Bosch torque-sensing limited-slip differential, he had the back end sliding around from launch in a nice, smooth arc.
“No, I guess not.”
That’s how race car drivers do these things, like you or I might scribble with a ballpoint pen to see if it has ink. In addition to the LSD, the car has 17-inch Racing Hart wheels with 205/40 Toyo Proxes tires to keep it in line.
“I really liked the last RX-7,” Bell said, as we merged onto California’s Pacific Coast Highway.
He made a U-turn and headed north, rolling on the gas before cutting up nearby Corral Canyon Road.
“Power’s pretty good,” he said.
It should be. MazdaSpeed added an IHI ball-bearing single-scroll turbocharger with a Denso air-to-air intercooler that is good for 7.25 pounds of boost. That means horsepower goes up from 142 in the stock Miata to 178 here, and torque from 125 lb-ft to 166. A stronger clutch, six-speed transmission and drive-- shaft are required to handle the extra power. The radiator is larger to help keep things cool.
Corral Canyon Road is not in the best shape even when the road is dry. Under hard acceleration we whomped onto a bump and felt the Miata’s bump stops briefly connect with the suspension. The MazdaSpeed Miata rides about a quarter-inch lower than the stock Miata, with tighter springs and stiffer Bilstein shocks as well as larger front and rear stabilizer bars and a front strut tower brace.
“That shouldn’t have happened,” Bell said. “The car bottomed out and that wasn’t even a very big bump. Needs a little bit better damper control.”
We were going kind of fast, so that added to the energy the suspension had to absorb. Plus, this guy just got out of a Jaguar F1 car. “That RX-8 looks pretty nice, too, is that like the RX-7?”
We told him yes, more or less, like an RX-7 with more room, better rotor seals, side exhaust ports and not quite as much styling appeal.
Bell was zipping up the road much quicker than we would have chosen to zip, given the weather, the road, the guardrail and our talent. We are not as confident in knowing the limits of the Miata’s adhesion in this slick situation. But Bell identified the limits immediately and happily danced along next to them. Cornering quicker than we would have thought the car could corner resulted in no understeer or oversteer—just steer.
That is why race car drivers, good ones anyway, are so helpful in evaluating a car’s handling. Being able to provide accurate feedback to your engineers is one of the things Bell had listed as a necessity to be an F1 pilot.
“The turn-in is good,” he reported.
The MazdaSpeed’s rack-and-pinion steering is, in fact, quicker than stock.
Bell continued a bit farther up the canyon, turned around and came down, again, faster than we would have thought possible without a trip to the fender shop. The MazdaSpeed Miata was even better than we had imagined after a few days of driving it.
“I like it more than the old Miata,” Bell said, handing us the keys.
So do we. But the thing is, this could be the last year of the Miata, or at least the last year of this version of the Miata. Look at the timing of the MazdaSpeed Protegé. That car came out about a year before the new Mazda 3, right? Sources at Mazda say to expect similar timing for the next Miata. We all saw the Mazda Ibuki show car at Tokyo, or at least we saw pictures of it. Love it or hate it—and, personally, we loved it—that seems to be the look of the new roadster.
A new look is necessary. After 14 years in production with only a facelift and numerous special editions to liven things up, the Miata is so long in the tooth it is beginning to look like a saber-toothed tiger. Mazda had to do something to it. Thank you, MazdaSpeed.
Since we first saw the Miata in 1989, sales have steadily decreased. It set its highest sales figure in 1990, its first full year in showrooms, at 35,944. Last year was its lowest ever, with 10,920 U.S. sales. Mazda couldn’t sit and wait for it to dry up completely, or wait for the replacement. And yet another special edition likely wouldn’t have fooled anyone. This hot rod version costs little, compared to the investment to make a whole new car. So the MazdaSpeed Miata makes good business sense.
The car is on its way to showrooms now, priced at $25,500 for a cloth-interior version and $26,200 for leather. We’ll happily take this until the all-new Miata arrives. Or at least the MazdaSpeed RX-8.