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Behind the Wheel

Miata Revs Up Lost Glory

June 30, 1989|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

With the Mazda Miata comes a re-entry to those wonder years when motoring was more feistiness and exhilaration than drudgery and indolent passage.

Mechanically, Mazda insists, the new, bonsai sports car with its 16-valve engine and disc brakes and thoughtful suspension certainly is no retrospective.

Viscerally, though, this puckish two-seater is Lotus Elan by Triumph Spitfire out of MGB and an undeniable retrieval of the very best of some rather grand old days.

That's when it was safe and even a civic responsibility to pick up hitchhikers. Tops were removable because each dawn seemed to scrub the day clean, fresh air didn't come in lumps, and breakers weren't 43% crude oil. We waved and flashed our lights at fellow purists. A driver's jollies came from quiet zip and discreet nimbleness, not the ponderous thunder and tugging of cast-iron horsepower.

In those yesteryears, we drove sports cars, from PCH to the Adirondacks, stiff-armed like Stirling Moss and wearing funny cloth caps like Innes Ireland. MG Midgets were converted to Weber carburetors, and so was everything else on wire wheels. There was no sound sweeter than the exhaust of an Austin-Healey--and no pain greater than leaving its twin pipes and the rear license plate on anything higher than a speed bump.

Debuts This Weekend

In the Miata, which goes on sale Saturday, Mazda's pursuit of those precise moments and tiny details has been infinite. Even its $13,800 base price may be seen as a small shadow of yesterday.

At the company's product planning and research division in Irvine--where much of the Miata's early concept and styling studies were done--manager Bob Hall drove a Lotus Elan for months to dissect its heft and concept.

At company headquarters in Hiroshima, research engineer and project manager Toshihiko Hirai taped a 30-minute selection of exhaust notes in search of just the right pitch for the Miata's rasping alto.

Someone remembered to drill holes in the Miata's gas pedal recalling that era when it was known as an accelerator and doubled as a mud scraper.

In the end, by George, they got it.

As Hall said of the Miata he helped birth: "I see it as the first seriously emotional Japanese car. It was built on the minimalist theory . . . as the least number of bits you can get the most fun from."

Or as Hirai has noted: "It is like seeing your former lover 30 years later."

Only he/she isn't bald with stretch marks. Here, indeed, is an old flame burning brighter than yesterday because an automobile is one product where they do build them better than they used to.

Whether today's buyer is in the market for retread lovers remains to be seen. Even if Mazda has built a better MG, industry statistics do not imply that a path will be beaten to its door.

The sports cars' share of the total U.S. market has dropped from 2.4% in 1986 to an estimated 1.2% for this year. In the more financially accessible leagues of sport driving, the fun Fiero has gone. Mazda's RX-7 is expensive and the Alfa-Romeo is underpowered, overpriced and a 20-year-old design.

Demand Increasing

On the other hand, said George McCabe, deputy general manager of Mazda Motor of America, as car prices and insurance premiums climb, the demand for peppier, inexpensive sport coupes has been increasing.

"It is our belief that many of these sporty car buyers would prefer a sports car if one was offered in their price range," he said. "But until today, no such animal existed."

Today is upon us--and we grow back into an era we should never have grown out of in the first place.

Here's a car that is as conventional as black-and-white television. It is old-fashioned rear-wheel drive and the engine is mounted traditionally, north to south. The transmission is five-speed and manual.

The Miata comes in basic red, plain white and ordinary blue, and there's talk of pursuing habit (and the Lotus Elan) even harder with a version in near antediluvian British Racing Green.

The Miata (archaic German for "prize") weighs about one ton--light enough to be responsive. The engine (purloined from Mazda's 323) is comparatively pint-sized at 1.6 liters and 116 horsepower--but quick enough to be good clean fun without being hairy. The overall design is elemental by contrivance--and that's a very high form of sophistication.

One Mazda designer has seen the car as "rhythm with highlights, not the sharp edges of today . . . an animalistic form with a lot of light and shade controlled by highlights."

To us lesser poets, well, it's cuter than puppy breath and the largest source of sensory fun since Pirates of the Caribbean.

All the fittings and fixtures on the aluminum-steel-plastic Miata--from headroom and seating support for 6-foot-plussers to arm rests and hand brake--are exactly where they should be.

The rack-and-pinion steering is light, the wheel small enough for feeding through the hands, and the ratio simply perfect for the warm reward of tight, quick roadwork.

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