Call it 'Miatatude'

Like most Miata fans, I watched the endless stream of spy photos in car magazines with bated breath. The Miata was, after all, almost sacred to me, a car that I'd started loving even before I'd learned to drive. Getting into one simply confirmed my suspicions&emdash;it was quick, responsive, nimble and sounded wonderful; best of all, its fun was available at speeds that wouldn't lose you your license.

I shouldn't have worried. The new Miata is everything the old one was, and more. The 1.8-litre engine has received another horsepower boost and pumps out 140 compared to the 1990's 116. Its suspension has been revised, significantly improving high-speed stability without sacrificing any of the point-and-shoot fun of the old car. Best of all, the five-speed shifter, already one of the best units on any car, has shorter throws, feels better, and vibrates less. The only downside to all this newfound performance is that at least some of the car's fun now comes at extralegal speeds.

Thankfully, Mazda's resisted the temptation to make the car grow. It's actually shorter and lower than the old car, though front and rear track have been increased. Its styling, though completely revised, is still free of excess adornment. The exposed front headlights, M2's biggest visual change, improve the car's aerodynamics and also its cuteness quotient.

Though most bystanders will notice the changes to the exterior first&emdash;along with the new front lights, there's a glass rear window, more sculpted side sills, an RX-7 like curved door opening, and a more peaky rear end sporting new tail lights, it's the interior that truly sets the new Miata apart from the previous generation.

For one thing, it's larger&emdash;though it's still tight, six-footers can at least fit inside the new cockpit. The facia and center console are more smoothly integrated, and all of the controls are more easily accessible. The stereo, an optional Bose system in my optioned up tester, is excellent, producing a huge sound seemingly bigger than the car itself.

As good as it is, Mazda's messed with some items that I loved on the old car. The chrome bezels surrounding the gauges are gone, as are the jewel-like finger-pull door handles. Moreover, the $4700 leather package fitted to my test car included a set of 15 inch Michelin Pilot tires that were too grippy; you couldn't slide around like you could in the old car with its fourteen-inchers. (They're still standard on the base model, though you'll have to live without ABS, a limited-slip differential, wind blocker, and a wonderful three-spoke Nardi steering wheel.)

More than any other sports car in my abbreviated recent memory, the Miata has spawned amazing club and aftermarket activity, and Mazda has always paid attention to what the car's fans have said. It shows, too: all of the people from the Trillium Miata Club that I spoke to&emdash;with over 280 members, it's one of Canada's largest car clubs&emdash;had nothing but praise for the new car; a few of them have already bought one or are waiting for theirs to arrive.

"It's just better in every way," says Tom Witty, who ordered his blue '99 before he'd even found out how much it would cost. The new car's low-end torque (a small-but useful 119 lb-ft at 5500 rpm) saves him from having to downshift from third to second on most steep hills.

Club president Dave Lean, who drives a supercharged 1991 Miata&emdash;he traded in an Acura NSX for it&emdash;praises the new model's more-solid structure and stability, and also notes that many aftermarket parts that fit the old car will also fit the new one&emdash;the old hardtop, for instance, will fit without modification.

The Trillium Club's membership spans a wide range of ages and backgrounds; it's hard not to fit in to such a diverse group. From flat-broke students driving bone-stock models to people whose modifications to the car have cost more than the car itself, they all love their cars, love to talk about them even more.

They've got a huge number of activities to indulge themselves in, from car-care clinics during monthly meetings to parking-lot autocross events. Several of its members just returned from a three-day weekend road trip to the Pocono mountains, joining in a Miata Club of America event which drew almost three hundred cars.

That the new Miata is a great car is something that I took almost as a given. What surprised me was the sense of community that the Miata and its club activity engendered, and the unfailingly enthusiastic response of the public at large as I tooled around in my green-on-tan tester. Not a day went by when I didn't have another Miata owner wink their car's headlights at me, and not a day went by when I wasn't stopped, interrogated, then complimented, by some Miata-crazed bystander.

No other car I've yet driven home has garnered this kind of reaction. At $26,025, the Miata's not the bargain it once was, but it's still the most fun you can have at the price&emdash;and probably twice the price as well.


Pricing information

Mazda MX-5 Miata $26,025

Leather package $4,700

limited slip differential

tan leather seats

Nardi steering wheel

power mirrors and windows

cruise control

Bose AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo&emdash;4 speakers

wind blocker

15-inch alloy wheels and P195/50 R15 tires

Price as tested $30,725


Trillium Miata Club

c/o Dave Lean 905-472-6211

5 Hallam Road

Markham ON L3P 5Y4

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