Mazda MX-5 (Miata) keeps on going

The Mazda MX-5 is one car that has endured. It emerged 16 years ago and despite the ‘purists’ who kept likening it to a Lotus Elan (the first model), it has defied early skeptics and is probably even more popular today as it was in 1989. Do not forget that it is the best-selling two-seat sports convertible in history.

Having had one of the 1995 models as a daily drive car, it was hard not to fall totally in love with it. It was cramped, the seats were dreadful, it really did not have enough power, but it was a ‘drivers’ car. A vehicle that just delivered fun, was totally bulletproof, and kept its resale value amazingly. After three years I sold it when I moved to Thailand, and I still miss it.

It has now gone into its third guise, and I wondered if Mazda had managed to retain that ‘fun’ element, which had made the previous models so entrancing. GoAuto in Australia would make me believe that it has. Their take was that the third-generation MX-5 has more performance, better handling, more comfort and more safety, yet it hasn’t watered down the charm of the 1989 original. Rather, it’s enhanced it.

The various models have stuck very closely to the original 1989 concept. The MX-5 was virtually unchanged until 1997. There were some limited edition models and a larger 1.8 liter engine in 1993 but the essence of the car remained – a stylish, soft-top two seater. In March 1998, the all-new second generation two seater arrived with new sheetmetal and no pop-up headlights. In October 2000, the MX-5 was tweaked a bit more - given a new front bumper, bigger alloy wheels, subtle head and tail-light changes and a power increase courtesy of variable valve timing. And now we have the 2005 model.

According to GoAuto who tested the new MX-5 in Australia, it is an entirely new model (apart from the side indicator repeaters apparently), and almost all the things considered less than perfect in the second generation MX-5 have been dealt with.

The car is bigger in every dimension than the Series II MX-5, yet Mazda says the weight is up by just 4 kg. The boot is bigger than the previous MX-5 by four percent, achieved by ditching the spare wheel and replacing it with a repair kit. Record one black mark for Mazda’s latest sports car.

The new 2 liter MX-5 alloy engine is more compact and weighs less than the previous 1.8 liter but the increase in horsepower and torque is not much. With 118 kW at 6700rpm it’s only up by 5 kW, while the torque increase is equally conservative, going from 181 Nm at 5000rpm to 188 Nm at 5000rpm. Like the previous engine, it uses twin overhead camshafts with four valves per cylinder, along with variable timing on the inlet valves, which combines with the variable inlet manifold to maximize torque spread.

The transmission choices include a six speed manual and a new six speed sequential auto, complete with steering wheel paddle shifters, that is sure to be a hit in the new car (though I still do not like paddle shifters).

The new larger body has a bigger cockpit but in base form it still sports velour seats and a simple instrument layout that doesn’t even include a trip computer.

Mazda has given driver and passenger more room to stretch and breathe (10 mm more legroom and 17 mm more headroom), and the A-pillars have been moved back and re-angled to improve vision, while the gearshift and brake continue to sit where they easily fall to hand. The wider body means less for shoulder room than it does for safety, for it has allowed the standard fitment of side airbags, as well as improved side-impact protection by the body itself.

The new folding rag roof is still manually operated, but the process is simplified by a single, center-mounted fastener above the windscreen rail.

The new 2 liter four-cylinder, consistent with previous MX-5s, is far from being a rorty, punch-in-the-back powerplant, but it does enjoy a bit of a wind-out and develops a distinctly throaty note as it winds towards its 6700rpm red line.

The 5000 rpm torque maximum indicates it might be a high-strung engine, but the torque curve is such that 90 percent of the maximum is available from 2500rpm. This means that once past 2500rpm – and even a little bit before - the engine feels nicely throttle-responsive and well matched to the six-speed transmission.

The MX-5 delivers a satisfying accelerative surge, helped along by the short and tight shifter mounted high on the transmission tunnel. The only problem experienced with our test car was a decided baulkiness shifting from first to second when cold.

Even more significant, and maintaining a well-earned tradition, the third-generation MX-5 remains a beautifully-balanced driver’s car. Its center of gravity is lower than before, and its neutral handling has improved to the point that the MX-5 is best in its class. Without the face-saving luxuries of electronic stability control, or automatically adjusting shock absorbers, the MX-5 simply points ands steers like a sport car should.

And the brakes, always nicely capable in the MX-5, are always assured and comforting with standard ABS along with electronic brake-force distribution to maintain a solid grip even on tricky surfaces.

It’s not easy to convey in words the pleasure of spending time behind the wheel of an MX-5 on a winding, dipping road with the roof lowered. But this is a car that really imprints itself on you and engenders a fondness that borders, with time, on obsession. Just ask the many multi-MX-5 owners of first and second-generation cars who are growing misty-eyed at the arrival of generation three (and I am one of them).

The only real disappointment with the new MX-5 in the GoAuto experience was that the seats, though generally fine, weren’t up to long-distance driving and induced back pains after more than two hours at the wheel.

And that is how the Down-under testers saw the new MX-5. Undoubtedly Mazda have yet another winner on their hands!

Rossi to drive for Ferrari in 2006

The photographic proof has just arrived on my desk, after sending Vic Garra to Modena to get this exclusive photograph. As you can see, Valentino Rossi was having a little trouble adapting to the seating in the Ferrari, preferring to be able to move around, rather than being strapped in. As this photo shows, he has now managed to combine both F1 and MotoGP styles and is lapping three seconds quicker than Massa who has become redundant, while Schumi has been demoted to test driver. Rumors have it that Rossi will be partnered by Max Biaggi in 2006, giving the prancing horse two Italians in the jockey seats.

GM slashes workforce and to shut plants

Over the past few weeks it has been obvious that GM is in more trouble than Flash Gordon, with Automotive News showing the drastic cuts that CEO Rick Wagoner has had to announce for the ailing automaker.

It reports that General Motors plans to cut 30,000 jobs, shut down four assembly plants and another four stamping and powertrain plants and trim production at several other plants by the end of 2008, said CEO Rick Wagoner. This will save about USD 7 billion according to financial analysts.

The assembly plants to close are: Oklahoma City, which will close in early 2006. Lansing Craft Center in Lansing, Michigan. It will close in mid-2006. The Doraville, Ga., minivan plant will close in 2008. The Oshawa, Ontario, car plant No. 2 will close in 2008.

The stamping and powertrain plants are: The Lansing, Michigan, stamping plant will be closed in 2006. The Pittsburgh stamping plant will be closed in 2007. The St. Catharines, Ontario, Street West powertrain parts plant will be closed in 2008. The Flint North plant in Flint, Michigan, which builds the 3.8 liter V6 engines, will close in 2008.

In addition to the closures, some plants that have been spared the axe, will however have their workforce trimmed. These will include Line No. 1 of the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, which will be shut down at the end of next year. The third shift at the Oshawa, Ontario, car plant No. 1 will be dropped in the middle of next year. The third shift at the Moraine, Ohio, truck plant will be cut in 2006.

GM also will close a parts distribution center in Portland, Oregon, in 2006, while the parts distribution center in St. Louis will be converted to a crash parts warehouse. In 2007, GM will close a parts processing center in Ypsilanti, Michigan. It will close another parts processing center that year, GM said, but the site has not yet been determined.

All in all, the auto workers in Michigan do not look as if they have much to look forward to. Sources are saying that although the North American GM is downsizing, GM in Asia is going ahead, and it would not surprise me to see GM’s Asian business being the mainstay.

However, in the short term (i.e. 2006) I expect to see Toyota take over that top spot for world production.

Veritable Bargains!

How does a 1985 Alfa Romeo Spider with 170,000 kays and a small amount of rust in the quarter panel for 200,000 baht sound? How do I get to the head of the queue? If I then told you that for the 200,000 baht you also get another 1982 Spider free, what would you say? Too good to be true. Well, they are (were) for sale in Antique Automobiles September/October issue. The only problem was that the pair of Alfa’s were in Minneapolis, USA!

Other bargains were a 2004 BMW 330i going for 1.2 million, six or seven year old Chevrolet Corvettes for around 400,000 baht, or for 100,000 baht just drive away in a 1976 MGB!

Second-hand cars, over there, are just so cheap, it is a crying shame that the impost of duty in importing these cars is so great. You are literally at the mercy of the Customs Department, and some of the horrific stories regarding the assessed duty would make you weep.

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I asked who drove 24 hours at Bonneville and on the last lap shaved his chin, so that he could get out looking presentable? The answer was a redoubtable American gent by the name of Ab Jenkins who was a great promoter of Bonneville, and in fact was the mayor at some time.

So to this week. The first roadside petrol pump was installed in the UK in 1913, but another country had installed them long before. This week’s question is which country, and when?

For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email [email protected]

Good luck!