Mazda Miata 2004 : Mazdaspeed MX5

ESSAIS ROUTIERS par Sylvie Rainville, August 22, 2004

In my line of work, I’m always being asked what the “best” car is. And my answer is always the same: the one without a roof. They’re not always the most practical, but they sure are the most fun. And it gets even better when you add some muscle to the mix, as Mazda does with the Madzaspeed version of the Miata MX5. Introduced for 1990, Mazda’s venerable little sportscar rapidly gained legions of die-hard fans (I quickly discovered you’re expected to wave to other Miata drivers on the road). Part of it is price: currently, base Miata starts at $27,895, a reasonable tag for a drop-top.

For 2004, Miata got handed to the company’s performance Madzaspeed division. That means such modifications as a turbocharger on the 1.8-litre, DOHC inline 4-cylinder, increased radiator and oil cooling capacity, sport-tuned and lowered suspension with Bilstein gas-filled shocks at the four corners, Bosch torque-sensing limited-slip differential, heftier engine and differential mounts, high-performance Toyo Proxes 17-inch tires wrapped around handsome Racing Hart alloy wheels, short-throw 6-speed manual transmission, deck lid spoiler and unique interior accents.

Horsepower jumps to 178 at 6,000rpm (versus naturally-aspirated Miata’s 142hp at 7,000rpm) and 166 ft-lbs of torque at 4,500rpm (versus 125 at 5,000). Yet it all happens for $34,395. Sure, it’s no 240hp Honda S2000, but you’ll need to cough up another $14,605 to move into that category.

For all its extra oompf, though, this beefier Miata is relatively and elegantly understated, with only a few – okay, several – Mazdaspeed badges (on the rearview mirror, pedals, floor mats, tach, trunk lid and on the exhaust tip, where fumes depart with a throaty and sexy note that never becomes an annoying drone, as they often do). Mazda reports 0-100km (0-60mph) at 6.9 seconds.

Built for medium-sized drivers – very tall folks tend to look through the windshield frame – Miata fits like a glove, with low-slung, supportive seats. Aluminum racing-style pedals are attractive but too slippery with wet shoes, and big feet won’t fit between the clutch and deadman’s pedal.

The interior is perfectly proportioned – this two-seater is a very small car – with miniaturized heater and radio controls, and small spinning air vents. Fuel and trunk release buttons are tucked into a lockable storage bin that keeps them out of the way of drivers, and those who like poking around unattended top-down convertibles. Oddly, although you get power windows, mirrors and locks with keyless entry, fog lights, leather-wrapped wheel and shifter, dual air bags and Bose 6-speaker AM/FM/CD as standard equipment, air conditioning is a pricey dealer-installed option.

Miata feels like an extension of your hands and feet. Handling is nimble and direct: think about where you want to go, and it follows, thanks to a tighter steering ratio over the regular version. Power – albeit with the inevitable turbo lag – moves swiftly and smoothly through the six-speed to the rear wheels (the 4-speed automatic optional on other Miatas isn’t available on Mazdaspeed). Four 10-inch-plus discs with ABS bring speeds down quickly and surely. The ride is pleasantly sportscar-firm; front bracing eliminates almost all cowl shake. My week with it saw a return of 9.7L/100km – premium octane, please.

As with all Miatas, the soft top is manually operated, although it isn’t difficult; unlock two latches and lift it, and it drops easily into its storage area. Its vinyl tonneau cover isn’t quite as easy to attach and remove, what with its tricky snaps and rubber edge, but an automatic system would boost the price considerably. The rear window is glass, with an electric defroster, but regular Miata’s optional hardtop can’t be ordered on Mazdaspeed. That’s not the only restriction; there are but 300 Madzaspeeds coming to Canada, and they’re all red.

If you’ve never owned a convertible, be aware that while they don’t need to be coddled in bubble-wrap, they do require more care than a steel roof. They should be hand-washed, without a high-pressure washer; the top shouldn’t be stowed when it’s wet and should be regularly dressed with vinyl conditioner; and if you’re planning on keeping the car for a long time, you’ll be looking at eventually replacing the tonneau for sure, and possibly the top, due to age and shrinkage.

Sure, it’s small (my husband dubbed it my “Barbie car”), it’s not for big drivers, you won’t be taking much luggage on trips, and c’mon, any red convertible is automatically dubbed a “mid-life crisis car”. Well, if this is a crisis, I’m ready to handle it. Bring on the sunshine and drop the top; when you’re out cruising with the wind in your hair, life just doesn’t get any better.