After about two months of ownership, I think it’s time to record some initial driving impressions for the 2001 Mazda Miata SE. Thanks to a mixture of rainy days, work travel, and teething problems (more on that later), I haven’t put on many miles, but I’ve definitely learned some things.
To start with, this isn’t a fast car. I knew that going into this arrangement, so I’m not disappointed with the performance of this car by any stretch. But one does need to keep in mind that we live in a world where you can go from 0-60 in in under 6 seconds if you drive a Honda Accord with a V-6, so performance has definitely come a long way in the past 15 years. The difference is that, while the 8.1-second time for the 2001 Miata is technically slower, the person pulling off that run to 60 will be having a lot more fun doing it than the person in the Accord.
And that’s where the real joy of the Miata comes in. Performance is cheap in 2016. A contemporary Ford Mustang Ecoboost will hit 60 mph in 5.7 seconds and starts at about $30,000. My 2013 Ford Focus with a dual-clutch transmission will do it in about 7.6 seconds (as long as the transmission isn’t broken), half a second quicker than the Miata. Speed and power are easily attainable, but on the roads that I usually drive, more power just means that you can do 0-to-the car in front of you more quickly.
The Miata is about taking your time and enjoying the experience. Compared with a lifetime of practical cars and a modern subcompact hatchback, the driving experience of the Miata is so much more involving. It starts with the steering, which predates the now ubiquitous electric steering rack. Everything that is happening with the front tires goes right through the hydraulic rack, into the Nardi steering wheel, and right to your fingertips. I ran over a penny once and I can tell you that it was heads up. Turn the wheel and it just goes where you want thanks to the combination of responsive steering, lightness, and short wheelbase. There’s a feeling of being in complete control of the car, with no computers or other assists between you and road. There’s also a feeling like if you sneeze three times in a row on the highway you might find yourself in a different lane when you open your eyes.
Of course, this doesn’t come without sacrifices. The flip side of “involving” is “busy,” and that describing this little car perfectly. The 6-speed transmission means a lot shifting gears. The engine is usually buzzing (60 mph is about 3,500 rpm in sixth gear) and there is a fair bit of road noise. Putting the top down adds even more random noises. The car only has room for one passenger, but you will take noise, vibration, and harshness with you everywhere you go. I imagine that could get fatiguing after a while, but so far I haven’t driven more than about an hour or so in the Miata so it hasn’t hit me yet.
A quick note on the top: the car is surprisingly quiet at highway speed with the top down and the windows up. I realize that this might seem to contradict the previous paragraph, but really what I’m talking about here is expectations. I expected driving down the highway with the top down to feel like I was in a wind tunnel. It’s really not that bad at all. You can easily converse with the person in the seat next to you. In fact, driving at highway speed with the top down and the windows up in the Miata is actually quieter than driving in my wife’s 2011 Honda Fit at the same speed with the window’s down (at least, subjectively - I haven’t tried to measure the sound levels).
And now, those teething problems. I purchased the car with about 64,000 miles on it, which is great for a 15-year-old car but it also meant it was due for a timing belt/water pump replacement. I had that service done at a local mechanic ($729.74) and drove off, confident that my car would be rock solid for the next 60,000 miles. The next day it made a very strange noise, so I took it back to the mechanic, who could find nothing wrong. The noise went away and hasn’t come back again (Hurrah! The car that fixes itself!). A couple of days later the check engine light came on, indicating the need for a new oxygen sensor behind the catalytic converter ($337.05). There was also a nail in the tire ($15).
Then I set out to change the brake pads at all four corners. The brake job went pretty well except for an emergency trip to the auto parts store because I had the wrong size pads. Turns out I have the optional big brake kit. Who knew?
And I loosened the wrong bolt on one of the rear calipers, accidentally loosening the brake line. The result was that I needed to take it to a shop to bleed the brake system. (Side note: in my shop manual, they put the car on a lift and took pictures of the brakes, which means all the pictures are upside down to what I’m seeing since I’m not blessed enough to have a lift in the garage of my house.)
While I had the rear end jacked up, I thought I would also change the differential oil. Unfortunately I could not get either plug out of the diff housing, so that had to be handled by the garage at the same time they bled the brakes. Total cost for both procedures: $75. Everything has been fine since, but what this means is that I’ve to the mechanic four times but only filled the gas tank twice. Hopefully this will balance out soon.
I want to close by saying that if everyone drove a convertible we would all be a lot nicer to each other on the road. Driving the Miata puts you right there with everyone in traffic, instead of behind layers of tinted glass and air conditioning. It’s hard to drive to aggressively when everyone can look you right in the eye. This visibility also paid off when an elderly gentleman decided to tailgate me on the highway. Knowing that his 1990-something Oldsmobile wouldn’t exactly stop on a dime, I decided to employ the universal gesture for “Pass me, please” by slowing down a bit. When that didn’t work, I reached up with my right arm over my head and pointed several times at the left lane, creating a new gesture (“Really, pass me now, please”). It worked: he went by and disappeared over the horizon (with no hard feelings, I’m hoping)
So what does the future hold? I’ve joined the Delaware Valley Miata Club and already taken one club ride that was mostly focused on eating good hamburgers. I’ll be at another in the end of August. Mostly I am just looking forward to Fall, when the weather should cool off enough to really enjoy putting the top down. I may even “daily” it for week if I find myself in the mood to feel like a World War I fighter pilot on my way to work.
Posted August 20, 2016
Click here for part I of the Miata Diaries.