The curves and sculpting on the hood, fenders and doors are there to give the car a more aggressive overall theme. The rocker panel and door treatments are reminiscent of RX7 and are purported to visually “link” the driver to the car’s powertrain. The driver/powertrain link is also exploited in the hardware department. Mazda engineers ascertained that the only way to keep Miata’s visceral driving rush intact, in the onrush of technology that virtually cannot prevent itself from netting more and more refinement, was to have the driver hardwired directly as possible to the powertrain. To that end they created the “Power Plant Frame” that ties the engine/transmission unit to the differential. The idea is to have the Miata driver feel the car respond instantly whenever the gas pedal is touched, with no driveline lash or sloppiness. The body’s increased stiffness is also designed to further the “oneness between horse and rider.” Bending and torsional rigidity are up, but not widely. Again, engineers were concerned about the cost and weight of super stiff structures, so instead concentrated on gusseting up areas (both ends of centre tunnel, side sills, base of A-pillars) that would be appreciated most by the driver’s butt cheeks. The DOHC 16-valve 1.8-litre “four” is carried over, but now produces 140 hp at 6,500 rpm and 119 lb.ft. of torque at 5,000 rpm. Last year’s model was rated at 113 hp at 6,500 rpm and 114 lb.ft. of torque at 5,500 rpm. The extra grunt is courtesy of new cylinder heads equipped with larger, straighter intake and exhaust ports, a higher 9.5:1 compression ratio, revised cam profiles, and a knock sensor. A Variable Intake Control System was also added for better breathing and part-throttle drivability. The five-speed stick and four-speed auto both do another tour of duty, but the former was improved slightly by reducing shift knob vibration, and the latter improved by re-programming. Zero-to-60 mph times have improved, but only for five-speed models (7.9 versus 8.7 seconds). The automatic still does the deed in about 11.6 seconds. Four-wheel double wishbone suspension was retained, but now features a lower roll centre at the front, for quicker response, and the front and rear tracks have been increased by 10 and 20 millimeters respectively. Other suspension tweaks are designed to enhance straight-line stability. Steering paraphernalia was also revised and stiffened for better driver feel. The interior is all new. More refined. More stuff. HVAC controls now operated by rotary knobs (but very tiny ones), and there is a new storage box just below them. Another storage box has been added in the new console, which also includes – for a Miata first – two pull-out cupholders. The new three-spoke wheel has a very compacted air bag in its centre hub. The greatest cabin improvement is the new not-plastic rear window. Mazda said even with new defroster-equipped rear glass, the top is lighter than last year’s. In Canada, base models will be priced at $26,025, which includes engine-speed sensitive power steering, 4-wheel disc brakes, 14-inch aluminum wheels with 185/60R14 tires, dual airbags with cut-off switch for passenger, remote trunk and fuel door release, AM/FM radio with CD and two speakers (cassette deck available as option). The only other model will be the $30,725 “Leather Package” Miata that comes with tan leather interior, to four-channel ABS, Torsen limited slip differential, “Nardi” leather-wrapped steering wheel, power windows, power door locks, cruise control, foldable wind blocker with storage pocket, 15-inch aluminum wheels with 195/50R15 tires, and 200-watt BOSE sound system which includes an AM/FM radio, CD, cassette and four speakers (but no speakers in the “headrests” a la last year’s premium stereo). Mazda Canada will also offer an appearance package, available on both models, that includes air dam, spoiler, and side cladding. Mazda is especially proud of the windblocker, which it pioneered originally for the second-generation RX7. According to Mazda it will allow Miata drivers to go top down in quite cool weather without having too much cool air shoot up their shorts and backsides. In our brief test spin in and around Santa Monica, it was difficult to tell how effective was this windblocker – the ambient air was too warm. NVH gains were also hard to gauge on unfamiliar roads and without a 1998 car for comparison. But everything else is discernibly righteous. It feels faster, smoother, tighter, and more stable than its predecessor, without any loss of that heady buzz that only a small, favourable power-to-weight ratio endowed, top-down sports car can deliver. That wondrous short-throw shifter is even more wondrous now – the throw is even shorter making it is the only passenger car I can think of that allows for “wrist only” shifting that is mandatory and so satisfying in racing cars.
Mazda Canada is betting that 1,000 Canadians will buy a 1999 Miata in its first year. Last year about 500 were sold. Mazda Canada president said the company will go to great lengths to ensure dealers don’t take advantage of starry-eyed customers by charging them a premium over retail, as was the case when the original car was launched with CX. He needs the Mazda Miata to keep its nose clean, because the little sports car has a role to play in re-launching the Mazda brand in Canada. It will be a major focal point for Mazda’s effort to re-establish the more irreverent and fun-loving side of its nature.