Remember the original Miata? How it provided all of the sensual and performance cues of an old British roadster with none of the reliability vices—right down to its specially-tuned exhaust note? Mazda’s “one horse, one rider” theme provided nostalgia without tears, and a legend was born.
Twelve years into its record-setting production run (Guinness now lists it as the best-selling roadster of all time), the Miata continues to tip its unlined convertible top in the direction of its English influences. Success, however, has made this Japanese import an even more cosmopolitan proposition, particularly when seen in 2001’s Special Edition model.
The Special Edition, this year in British Racing Green, starts with the Miata’s LS package and adds polished 16-inch alloy wheels, a lovely wood steering wheel and shift knob from Nardi, a wood hand brake grip and center console trim, a snickety six-speed manual tranny, a beautifully textured nylon beige top and boot cover, tan leather seats (which are taller this year and have improved shoulder and lumbar support) and shifter boot, and tan carpeting. The instruments now have white faces with chrome trim rings, the center-console cup holders now have hinged covers, the door handles are finished in chrome, the scuff plates are stainless steel, and the gas door is chrome-plated aluminum.
The add-ons bring Internationalism to the fore. The tan and wood driving environment feels distinctly Italian. (Thank you, Nardi.) But the polished alloy wheels and chrome exhaust tips look cheesy and far removed from the original nostalgia exercise the Miata represented.
Great hopes dashed
Mazda had great hopes for the 1.8-liter DOHC four fitted into the 2001 Miata, as the variable valve timing added to the intake side was alleged to have boosted horsepower from last year’s 140 to 155. Then the big car magazines made some embarrassing dyno readings, leading Mazda to restate output at a conservative 142 hp at 7000 rpm (the tach’s redline), with torque peaking at 125 lb-ft at 5000 rpm. With a 10.0:1 compression ratio and 3.27-inch pistons pushing a 3.35-inch stroke, this is a block that revs quickly, no matter what the stated output may be.
The six-speed manual has also been a source of controversy, with some journalists labeling it unnecessary — given the excellent five-speed unit available — and confusing. We loved the ratios through the first four gears, which gave linear acceleration when shifting at a modest 5000 rpm (the broad power band lets you shift almost anywhere); on banshee runs to a 6500-rpm shift point, things get quite busy indeed.
Essentially, this gives the car a split personality. With the variable valve timing providing more power and torque throughout the rev range, the Miata becomes even more friendly and flexible as a daily driver. Or stomp on it, and there are thrills to spare.
Quibbles: the shift from fourth to fifth is a tad vague; and we hardly had any reason to use the 0.83 ratio sixth gear at all.
Weight on the six-speed has moderately blossomed to 2447 lb. Redesigning the front bumper to accommodate Mazda’s corporate five-point appearance, now-standard fog lamps, and new, spectacularly effective headlamps, is one reason, as is the inclusion of power windows as standard equipment. The six-speed tranny weighs 60 pounds more than the five-speed as well. But the added weight is best justified in chassis enhancements. A wider gusset at the rear of the transmission tunnel, added reinforcements beneath the cockpit and strengthened side sills sharpen turn-in response, and together with the front strut tower brace give the Miata a more secure feel. With the boy-racer 16-inch wheels, the chassis mods improve bending stiffness 16 percent and torsional rigidity 22 percent. Cowl shake has not quite been eliminated, however.
Brake performance has been upgraded to cope with the added weight. All Miatas get bigger brake master cylinders, vacuum boosters, and boast higher-friction brake pads. Vehicles with 16-inch wheels (the Special Edition and the LS) have bigger brakes (10.6-inch ventilated discs in front, 10.9-inch solid discs in the rear). ABS is optional; it includes Electronic Brake-force Distribution, which automatically varies front-to-rear brake bias depending on vehicle load.
The whole package works exceedingly well. The basic instincts of the original Miata have grown up a bit. The car is more refined but has not lost any of its sense of fun—Neat Trick of the Year. The power and handling is so progressive and balanced, and the chassis upgrades, when packaged with the 16-inch wheels, the 205/45R16
Bridgestones, provide near-instantaneous maneuverability. Just grab the burly Nardi rim in your hands, think, and the car responds with eerie sensitivity and immediacy, as though there were a neural link between your brain and the road.
The Miata is a wonderful toy, and one worries about its future. Engineers at the troubled company have succeeded in keeping the car technically up to date and have continued to upgrade its performance, while maintaining its relative affordability. Its emotional legacy stretches back nearly four decades, when a Lotus Elan seemed the quintessential sports car package, but the market that appreciates the legacy of the Miata’s retro sensuality and styling is diminishing. Whether future customers truly appreciate the significance of the Miata remains unclear, but the fact that it remains one of the best cars in the world is anything but.
2001 Mazda Miata Special Edition
Price as tested: $25,715
Engine: 1.8-liter, DOHC, 16-valve, inline four with variable valve intake timing
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 155.7 x 66.0 x 48.4
Wheelbase: 89.2 inches
Curb weight: 2447 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 23/28 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual depowered airbags, passenger-side airbag on/off switch, safety belt pretensioners and force limiters
Major standard equipment (Special Edition): Engine immobilizer, meter rings, 16-inch alloy wheels with locks, fog lights, power windows, strut tower brace, keyless entry system, Nardi steering wheel rim and shift knob, stainless scuff plates, Windblocker, polished aluminum fuel filler door, floor mats, tweeter speakers, power door locks, cruise control, Torsen limited-slip differential, sports suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers
Warranty: Three years/50,000 miles