Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Proper Sports Car

Regular readers and those of you who know me in meatspace---probably the same 7 people---are aware that I've been pondering replacing or supplementing my near-antique 1991 CRX. The Rex is still going strong at 145,000 miles and 17 years, but I knew a new vehicle might be needed soon. I've gone back and forth between planning to get something fun, like the MX-5 Miata,* something practical, like the Fit, or something intermediate, like the upcoming production model based on Honda's CR-Z concept.

I finally realized that this is probably my last opportunity to acquire a true sports car until any hypothetical Grondulspawn have grown up and left home. So, with Alison's encouragement, I began shopping on the interwebs.

Ideally, I wanted a small, rear-wheel-drive automobile, with only 2 seats, an emphasis on handling, and a fixed roof.** Why a hard-top? All things being equal, a coupe will be cheaper, lighter, stiffer, lower-drag, and more durable than the convertible version of the same car. Unfortunately, such a car isn't available on my budget: There is no Miata or S2000 coupe, I wasn't about to pony up the dough for an Exige, and most other performance cars on the market are both more expensive and larger than I wanted. Thus, I gave up the coupe criterion and began looking at gently used Miatas and S2000s.

I soon realized that the S2000 is simply a more expensive car, which it commands due to the considerably higher power output---240 brake horsepower from 2.0 liters, normally aspirated!---and Honda's reputation for reliability. To buy one of them for about what I wanted to spend, I would have to sacrifice some age and mileage, compared to the MX-5. I also found that the insurance rates for the S2000 were considerably higher, due, I can only guess, to all that power. Thus, I focused my search on the Miata, which my one-time overlord Masta has endorsed.

This week, I found a 2004 Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata with only 16,250 miles on the odometer. When I inspected the car, I found that it was in excellent shape, barring some cosmetic defects on the doors and bumpers. We talked the dealer down to a couple thousand dollars below blue-book value and got him to agree, in writing, to fix the aesthetic issues. Thus I am now the proud owner of a dark silver*** roadster.

I should explain what this "Mazdaspeed" notation is all about and why I was so interested in this version of the car. Mazdaspeed is Mazda's racing and performance-parts house. Several Mazda models are available in high-performance Mazdaspeed versions. The Mazdaspeed Miata, or MSM, as it's known on the forum, was only offered during the 2004 and 2005 model years, the last 2 years of the second-generation (NB) Miata. There are about 1000 differences between the standard Miata and the Mazdaspeed version, but here is a brief summary:
  • The engine is turbocharged to the tune of about 8 psi, boosting the output from 142 brake horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque to 178 bhp and 166 lb-ft. A small air-to-air intercooler cools the turbo's output before it reaches the cylinders.
  • A close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission, with gears hardened by shot-peening, is the only tranny available; there is no automatic option.
  • The drivetrain is uprated to cope with all the power and torque.
  • A torque-sensing (Torsen) limited-slip differential is included.
  • Unique dampers and springs stiffen the suspension and lower the car by 7 mm (about 1/4 inch). Thicker anti-roll bars (swaybars) fight body roll.
  • The wheels are huge-but-light Racing Hart 17-inch hoops, and they are shod with very low-profile 205/40R17 tires.
  • Front and rear air dams are fitted, as is a small spoiler.
  • The standard sound system includes a 6-disc CD changer and (I think) 6 Bose speakers. I'm a little overwhelmed by it, since the radio in my Rex has a tape deck and only reliably drives 1 speaker.
  • The word "Mazdaspeed" appears 9 times---!---on the exterior and interior of the car.
Reviews of the MSM were universally positive, and most cited the low price premium associated with the Mazdaspeed model, given the number of high-performance parts included. One test measured the 0-to-60 time, quarter-mile time and cornering at 6.2 seconds, 14.59 seconds, and 0.86 g, respectively. In short, the MSM is the most powerful, quickest, and best-handling factory Miata ever sold in America. And only 5,428 were built. Neat, eh?

I haven't taken any photos myself yet, but here are some I pulled down from the internet advert for the car:

I must admit that I've taken every opportunity to put the top down, even when the weather has been marginal. Open-top motoring feels almost as much like being outside as cycling does. That's enough from me for now. I have to go for a drive. Zoom-zoom.

* Mazda has decided to phase out the use of the name "Miata," leaving only "MX-5." The name no longer appears on the vehicle, but it is still used in the marketing text. Eventually, "Miata" will disappear even from the brochures and web pages. I believe this move is a mistake. Not only is the name easier to say than the alphanumeric designation, but all the non-car-enthusiast I've spoken to only know the vehicle as a Miata; "MX-5" means nothing to them.

** My ideal car is actually a roofless, tiny, bare-bones sports car, like a
Caterham CSR or Ariel Atom. Unfortunately, not only are these cars rather outside my budget, but, due to their lack of safety features, they have to be registered in the US as kit cars, which is quite time-consuming and inconvenient. The KTM X-Bow is even more interesting, but is only legal for track use.

*** Officially, the color is Titanium Gray Metallic.


  1. As I've probably mentioned, my dad has one of the earliest Miatas (a 1990). It's a fabulous car in many ways, and it corners like a startled chipmunk. Its only drawbacks, in my mind, are the convertible roof (because I hate wind) and the unbelievably short cabin. Neither of those are a problem for either you or my dad (indeed, the convertibility is a huge asset for folks of a certain mindset), so it seems perfect! Congrats!

  2. The cabin is sufficiently roomy for me. That's no surprise, given my stature and diet. It's noticeably tighter in the cabin than the CRX, but it feels more snug than claustrophobic.

    I'm starting to enjoy the covertability of the car. Perhaps the car has adjusted my mindset.

    You are certainly welcome to go for a ride---even a drive---in the car. I guess you'll have to choose between negative headroom and a forehead full of wind.

  3. Anonymous10:12 AM

    congratulations!! the car sounds pretty close to perfect for you and it looks completely adorable!

    i am really excited for you guys... and i'm hoping when i'm out there next week, you'll take me for a ride :)

  4. Certainly! Prepare to have your hair tousled.

  5. My question: will year-round convertible usage become a complement to Michael's year-round short wearing, or a substitute for? Given the shorts thing, I can actually totally imagine him cruising up and down the BW parkway in mid-February with the top down...

  6. I must admit that, though I wasn't originally interested in a roadster, I've been enjoying top-down motoring quite a lot. I recently graduated form open-top driving in marginal conditions to doing so in what Alison assured me was certainly not convertible weather.

    So, in summary, I might indeed find myself driving with the roof lowered during much of the year.

  7. I found that driving was a much more "interactive" experience with the top down ... you hear a lot more, notice a lot more, etc. Kinda like riding a bike ... minus the safety challenges and, um, exercise...