1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata Reviews and Ratings

Convertible Anniversary

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1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Tony Swan

What could possibly be more fun than a Mazda Miata? OK, you could say a BMW Z3, Mercedes-Benz SLK, or Porsche Boxster. But when you say that, the discussion gets to be a lot more expensive--$10,000 or so more.

So here's a better answer to the question: a redesigned Miata. It's lighter, more powerful, more refined and boasts a stiffer chassis than the previous model. And it is still the only true sports car that can be called affordable. Sounds like fun to us. Walkaround
At a glance, it's easy to conclude that Mazda's stylists didn't see much need for radical changes. The only visible clues to the redesign are projector-type headlamps in place of the old pop-up units, a little more sculpturing along the sides, and a little raised bump at the rear of the trunk lid, reminiscent of Mazda's late and much lamented RX-7.

The truth, however, is that Mazda--which is now controlled by the Ford Motor Co.--looked long and hard at taking the Miata upscale, closer to the realm of the Z3, SLK and Boxster. But in the end, good sense prevailed, and the design team concentrated on preserving the charming character of the original car with a broad range of subtle refinements.

Just as sensibly, Mazda is taking pains to preserve the Miata's affordability. Although final pricing hadn't been fixed at press time, look for the base price to be right around $20,000, including destination. That's almost $10,000 less than the basic Z3, a car the new Miata can outperform.

Chassis and body dimensions are virtually identical to the original, though the new Miata rides on a slightly wider track--the lateral distance between the wheels. Mazda claims that the new body shell is 10% stiffer than the previous generation, thanks to a number of subtle reinforcing measures, and the suspension system has been extensively retuned for even sharper response and more stability.

A sports suspension package will be offered with Bilstein shock absorbers and bigger P195/50VR tires on 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels; the standard Miata has 14-inch wheels. The sport package lends more authority to the Miata's performance on an autocross course; the base suspension is more comfortable for everyday driving.

Our test car had the sport package, along with just about everything else you can pack onto a Miata.

Mazda has also tweaked the rack-and-pinion steering system to make its initial response a little less abrupt, and shift precision of the five-speed manual transmission, a strong point in the original car, is even better.

A four-speed automatic is once again available as an option, though in our opinion this erodes the sports car driving experience considerably. Mazda will also offer a six-speed manual transmission on Miatas destined for other parts of the planet, but doesn't plan to make it available in the U.S., at least initially, due to cost considerations. This is too bad, because having an extra gear would give the Miata longer legs for freeway cruising. As it is, the engine still sounds a bit busy on the interstate.

The engine is basically the same 1.8-liter four-cylinder that propelled the '97 Miata--dual overhead cams, 16 valves--but Mazda has coaxed a little more horsepower (140 vs. 133) and torque (119 pound-feet vs. 114) from it, and also improved its mid-range response, which is a neat trick.

More power and reduced curb weight--the new car is 45 pounds lighter--invariably add up to better acceleration. Mazda expects to see 0-to-60 mph times of about eight seconds. Based on our brief drive in a pre-production car, we think it will be even quicker.

Better yet, the exhaust system has been retuned to deliver a spirited tenor bark to go with the engine's increased bite. It's a high-tech echo of the '50s, and, in our opinion, it's exactly what sports cars are supposed to sound like. Interior
Like its all-new exterior, the Miata's cockpit looks familiar even though almost everything has been subtly altered. The switches, for example, have been relocated, the instrument panel has been redesigned, rotary knobs replace the old climate control sliders, audio systems are now stacked above the climate controls, and a new three-spoke Nardi steering wheel lends a spiffy appearance, as well as a better view of the tachometer and speedometer.

Mazda has also developed a new and more effective wind-blocker, to keep cabin turbulence to a minimum when the top is down. You still get wind in the hair, but without having your hair standing straight up.

And speaking of the top, Mazda has substituted a glass rear window, complete with an electric defogger, for the old plastic panel. This is a big improvement, because plastic windows inevitably yellow with age and also develop optical distortion when they're folded. Plastic windows on previous models would often crease if the owner forgot to unzip them before dropping the top.

There's also a bit more room in the trunk--about a half a cubic foot--created by stowing the spare tire and battery under the floor. It's still tiny, but you can wedge a couple of golf bags back there, or enough luggage for a weekend excursion.

Interior dimensions have not changed. The cockpit still feels a tad snug to folks over six feet tall. And those who sit tall in the saddle are likely to find the top brushing against their hair.

Our solution: drive with the top down whenever possible. It's still the same easy one-hand operation. Driving Impressions
The classic British definition of a sports car is "a two-seater, preferably open, that can, in a pinch, be raced." You can almost hear someone with a tweed cap making that pronouncement, can't you? His name is something like Smythe-Upton, and when it comes to sporting cars he's keen.

Since its debut in 1989, the Miata has been the contemporary embodiment of that '50s sports car spirit, minus the irritations that went with cars like Triumphs, Austin-Healeys, and MGs. And the same can be said for the new Miata, except more so.

The steering and suspension revisions make the new car more predictable in quick transitions, braking performance is of the right-now variety (with or without the ABS option), acceleration is brisk, and the new exhaust note conjures up visions of Watkins Glen and roots of American sports car racing.

In fact, Miatas have won a number of Sports Car Club of America national championships. And with its keenly honed reflexes, we expect the new Miata to keep right on winning.

It's hard to think of anything the Miata development team missed.

Like all convertibles, the new car is a little noisy inside, although the retuned exhaust improves its quality.

We hope Mazda rethinks the sixth-gear decision, which would make freeway cruising more pleasant, particularly in the decibel department.

But if extended interstate droning is on the menu, the Miata is the wrong car to begin with. Like its British ancestors, this car is designed for driving fun, as distinct from mere transportation. The destination is unimportant; getting there is everything. Viewed from this perspective, the new Miata is just about perfect. Summary
Like all pure sports cars, the Miata is a recreational implement rather than a transportation device. Practicality doesn't apply here.

And there are obviously a good many sports cars that deliver a lot more performance.

But the new Miata is far from slow, and its agility measures up with the best--for far less money.

Like everything else in life, the Miata hasn't gotten any cheaper. Over its first decade, the base price has crept up from about $14,000.

Nevertheless, considered as an automotive recreational value, it just doesn't get any better than the Miata.

We applaud Mazda--and Ford--for their restraint and their focus in this car's first major redesign.

Model as tested
Basic Warranty
3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in
Hofu, Japan
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
ABS, AM/FM/CD stereo, power locks, leather seats, sports suspension, 15-in. aluminum alloy wheels

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
Safety equipment (standard)
Dual airbags
Safety equipment (optional)
1.8-liter dohc 16v 4-cylinder
5-speed manual

Specifications as Tested
Air conditioning, AM/FM radio, rear window defogger, intermittent wipers, power windows, power mirrors, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, anti-theft system, rear-seat pass-through, rear window defogger, intermittent wipers, aluminum alloy wheels

Engine & Transmission
1.8-liter dohc 16v 4-cylinder
Drivetrain type
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
140 @ 6500
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
Suspension, front
Suspension, rear

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

J.D. Power Rating
Overall Quality Not Available
Overall Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Overall Quality - Design
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Design
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Design
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Design
Not Available

Overall Dependability Not Available
Powertrain Dependability
Not Available
Body & Interior Dependability
Not Available
Feature & Accessory Dependability
Not Available

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J.D. Power Rating Legend
Among the Best
5 / 5
Better than Most
4 / 5
About Average
3 / 5
The Rest
2 / 5

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