- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2000

It’s still cute, affordable and fun to drive. And now it’s in the Guinness Book of Records.

In its 11th year, the Mazda Miata MX-5 — the world’s best-selling roadster with a record-breaking more than 560,000 sold around the globe, according to the famous book of oddities — also continues to improve.

For 2001, this two-seater gets its largest horsepower boost — up 15 from 140 horsepower to 155.

It’s not as if the little, 2,300-plus-pound Miata was sluggish before. I’ve always enjoyed the way this small car readily scoots and scampers.

But the Miata is facing more competition in the small roadster segment. This year, Toyota introduced its 138-horsepower MR2 Spyder, while Honda’s S2000, with a 240-horsepower, 2-liter, four-cylinder, is entering its second model year.

The Miata’s new power is plain on all-out highway runs in mountainous terrain as well as on suburban drives.

Mazda officials note that while the Miata’s four-cylinder engine remains at 1.8 liters, it now has a double overhead cam cylinder head with variable valve timing on the intake cam. That provides more power and torque across a wider range of revolutions. Peak torque in the new Miata is 125 foot-pounds at 5,500 rpm, compared to 119 foot-pounds last year.

Yet, fuel economy remains noteworthy. The Miata is rated at 23 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway with either manual transmission.

Engine noise is considerable, as you would expect in this convertible. Mazda said it worked to tune the engine sounds this year to better match the expectations of Miata drivers.

There’s also road noise from the tires, especially the 16-inchers that were on the test Miata LS with suspension package. Last year, the biggest tires offered by Mazda were 15 inches.

Prices are up for 2001. The base Miata starts at $21,660, including manufacturer’s suggested retail price and destination charge. This compares with $20,995 for a 2000 model.

The Toyota MR2 Spyder starts at $24,040. The 2001 Honda S2000 starts at $32,740. Both are for manufacturer’s suggested prices plus destination charge.

For the first time, a six-speed, manual transmission is available, although only on the top Miata, the LS, and as a $650 option. Previous six-speeds were offered only on limited-edition Miatas.

The test car’s six-speed quickly earned a spot in my book as one of the most satisfying shifters around. Not only does this shifter have a short throw, there’s an easily understandable progression in the gears that fits and feels just right as a driver gains speed.

The Miata’s handling is upgraded this year, too.

Brake discs are larger for better braking.

This already stiff, low-riding sports car is made stiffer with new reinforcements under the cockpit and stronger side sills.

Add the optional LS suspension package that includes a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers, limited slip differential, a strut tower brace and those 16-inch tires, and you can start to appreciate the truly sporty feel — dare I say zoom zoom? — the test car conveyed.

I didn’t hesitate to dodge around debris in my lane. The rear-wheel drive Miata whipped around it and resumed its place in the lane in a flash and with composure.

In a slalom, back-to-back test drives of last year’s Miata and this year’s LS model with suspension package showed how much tauter and confidence-inspiring the 2001 model is. The car darts where you point it, as always, but remains more settled now while doing so.

Inside, all 2001 Miatas get new gauges with white backgrounds and decorative chrome surround rings.

Sportier high-back seats provide more lumbar and shoulder support, which I appreciate. I also like the new, covered cup holders.

The dead pedal for the driver’s left foot is improved, and inside door handles are chrome now for a richer look.

But Mazda does not offer side airbags.

A key-operated airbag turnoff switch for the passenger-side front airbag remains. The switch is easily reachable on the dashboard, at the base of the center console.

Outside are subtle changes, but casual observers are unlikely to take much notice of the new grille work and taillights. The styling change most likely to draw attention is the larger, reflector headlamps.

Company spokesman Fred Aikins said Miata sales have averaged 20,000 in the past few years and are expected to stay in that range.

Miata buyers are one of Mazda’s most affluent buyer groups, with annual household income of $80,000 and more, he said.

Mr. Aikins pointed out the Miata attracts two distinct buyer groups. Younger, 25- to 35-year-olds buy the Miata as their primary vehicle. The 50- to 65-year-old empty nesters buy Miatas as a second, third or fourth vehicle for their households.

Mr. Aikins also said the Miata engenders great loyalty among buyers.

“It has a fairly high level of repeat buyers,” he said. “And we have families where they have multiple Miatas.”

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