On Track with the '99 Miata
The '99 Miata sat there in an obscure corner near the registration area. From a distance the white '99 was indistinguishable from its older siblings...but something was different as one approached for a closer inspection.
The car appeared smoother and more refined...but not so much that the connection to its older siblings would not be noticeable....but underneath all of the beautiful sheet metal there was a definite change, and a change for the better! All of the current automotive magazines have reviewed the styling changes so I won't rehash an old story here, but what has not been done is to drive the car to the limits, and that's what I had the opportunity to do.
From the Passenger's Seat
We were supposed to be paying attention to the driver's meeting. After all, we were here to drive our cars to the limit, and there were rules to be followed if we were to do that safely. He tried to sneak in, unnoticed. But there was something different about this car. More muscular, more imposing. Fixed headlights. The '99 was here. I had said publicly that I'd have to wait for sheet metal to make a decision about the exterior. I'm still not sure, but I think I like it. The new car has lots of gratuitous curves, and extra sculpting here and there. It certainly isn't the clean, simple design of the Mk.I. But it has its own character to it. It's a little less retro, and a little more modern. And above all, it's still a Miata.
I was prepared not to like the Stage III Miata. I'd seen the pictures, and they didn't do much for me. The new version was, well, new, and I felt a fierce loyalty to my '90 and the similarly-bodied Stage II cars. For instance, the "barn door" headlights may get in the way of my almost-5'3" vision, but any integrated headlights made me think of Neons and Tauruses (OK, and Jaguars). I also wondered how they could possibly improve on the nimble handling and inherent "Miataness" of the original and current models.
I was soon to find out. At Laguna Seca several of us were invited to drive the new car and write an article on our impressions. Aaron Tachibana has eloquently and thoroughly covered the technical aspects, so I'm here to provide the Sunday driver's perspective. At first glance, the new Miata looks like a Miata, but different. The mouth is still there, but the integrated headlights do give the front end a vaguely cross-eyed look. The curved doors are graceful, but the extra bulge in the trunk lid will take some getting used to. The overall impression I had was of an adorable toddler who had grown into a slightly awkward adolescent. The debutante is in there somewhere; it just hasn't shown up yet.
The Mazda representatives were concerned enough about a couple of aspects to hand out questionnaires asking our opinions. What a nice change from the car companies who assume that they know what's best for you! I voted to change the position of the trunk lock (it was too close to the bumper) and cupholder (the prototype makes you keep the center console open if there's a cup there). Parts of the interior worried me because they looked plasticky and cheap, but it was only because it was a prototype...the final version will be much nicer. I thought the integrated door sill protectors were a great idea, and the spare-beneath-the-trunk-floor has finally made it to production. I was also glad to see the car in plain white and not some strange "designer" color. All in all, I was relieved that they hadn't "messed" with it too much, but I wasn't particularly impressed.
Then I drove it around the track.
Wow. Wowee. If I could get my '90 Miata's skin around this car, I'd mortgage the farm if I had to. The power was great, handling was great, the car is still very tossable, and the brakes! The brakes are absolutely awe-inspiring. In short, it's still a Miata, but even more so. The fully adjustable cockpit is comfortable for both short and tall drivers--a neat trick in itself. The aftermarket will still have plenty to do; firmer sway bars are needed so the car can corner flatter, and I foresee a big market for new roll bars (to accommodate the glass rear window) and other racing equipment. In spite of this, though, anyone who buys a '99 Miata off the lot and never makes any changes to it will still be blissfully happy. Congratulations, Mazda, you've done it again!
Special thanks go to Mazda's Alan Childress and SCI's Randy Riggs for their phenomenal trust in someone who simply said, "Aaron sent us to drive the car. Where are the keys, please?"
Alan Childress from Mazda America drove the car up from Los Angeles the night before the Laguna Seca Event. After giving me a personal tour of the '99's refinements he introduced me to Randy Riggs, the Editor of Sports Car International, and tossed me the keys. My first thoughts of excitement were suddenly dampened by thoughts of "what if I wad this thing up in the Corkscrew!"...but unless I turned the key and headed out onto the track, I'd never find out. Throwing caution to the wind..the excitement, and the enviable position of being the first to drive the '99 on a racetrack took over. Grinning ear to ear I proceeded to head out on the the access road then onto the famous Laguna Seca Raceway.
Laguna Seca is an eleven turn 2.19 mile race course that is the only Grand Prix FIM certified racktrack in America. There are plenty of run-off areas should you require extra room due to inadvertent "four wheelin" and the surface is the smoothest of any race course I have ever driven. Not wanting to rush onto the course I took my time to adjust to the '99 and gently feel her controls.
The power steering was light and quick, too light for my personal taste as feedback from the steering response was hampered, but the quick turning ratio was appreciated. Gentle inputs would definitely be required. Brakes on the other hand were absolutely wonderful. Modulation was superb and stopping power was excellent. I did not experience any fading at all, and the consistent ability to haul the car down from triple digit speeds proved confidence inspiring. Shifting the gear box was fantastic. Each shift produce a snick and precise engagement. The best I've ever felt in a Miata. Gear ratios were superbly matched and the ease of engagement was second to none. The suspension I was told, was the standard offering (not the "R" Bilsteins that will be available) with the 15" wheels shod with excellent Michelin Pilot SX radials in 195-50-15 size. Grip was outstanding and very predictable when sliding at the limit, yet the overall ride characteristic was very compliant. Very little tire noise was noted. Well enough of the technical jargon...how does it handle?....absolutely superb!!!!
With Randy Riggs as my co-pilot I took two laps at moderate speeds to get myself acquainted with the '99, then it was time to see if I could make Randy beg me to let him off, or encourage me to circulate faster...and due to the superb handling...Randy gave me the thumbs up! Entering the front straight (approximately 3/4 of a mile) I was able to accelerate from second gear through fourth as I crested turn one. I was amazed at the power that the '99 had. Even though the specs say it has only seven more horsepower, you definitely can tell the the variable intake produces more usable torque throughout the rev range. Shifting at an indicated 7,300 RPM I crested turn one at 114MPH, approaching the descending decreasing radius hairpin of turn two in rapid fashion.
A quick touch of the excellent brakes brought my speed down to 55MPH as I downshifted from fourth to second and pitched the '99 deep into the turn, to single apex the hairpin. Turn two is a tricky decreasing radius turn, that can be taken in two specific lines, one the slow double apex safe line, and two the slow in fast out single apex line that requires precise control and excellent transitional characteristic. This is the line I chose...and the '99 handled it like a race car. Running deep and flicking the car across the turn produce little body roll with excellent tire and chassis communication. The chassis components reacted so well, that I was able to apply a judicious amount of throttle a lot earlier in the apex. The engines torque did the rest, rocketing me out of the exit. Grabbing third gear at 7,000RPM and pointing me down the short chute to turn three.
Turn three is a flat (no camber changes) right hand turn. The turn's early apex and a wide exit that must be taken with precise control or you will be forced to the outside of the track and onto the run-off area (not a good technique for quick lap times). Entering the turn and simultaneously apply power produced a wonderful controlled slide. The suspension compressed and gently unloaded without even twitching its tail. The quick ratio of the power steering unit was helpful in making very small corrections. What it lacked in feeling, was made up in its ability to modulate steering inputs with very miniscule steering wheel inputs. Turn three is a tricky turn to get through quickly and a vehicles lack of composure will show up fast in this turn when pushed to the limit, but this is the best description of how the '99 handles things...composure. The suspension is very well thought out with remarkable balance. It seemed like no matter what you asked the suspension to do, its composure never got ruffled. I was now headed down the short straight to the entrance to turn four.
Turn four is a slightly positive cambered right hand turn that has a narrow entrance and a flat wide sweeping exit. Fast entrances and exits are the best way to negotiate it. Still in third gear at 5,800RPM I rushed into the turn and immediate applied power. The torque pulling strongly through the exit and down the straight to turn five.
The speedometer indicated 86MPH as I approached the brake markers for turn five. It was time for the wonderful brakes to slow the car down for the entrance. Again a quick tap hauled the car down from speed and I entered the flat left hand turn to begin the uphill elevation change of the track. Still in third gear WOT produced 90MPH at the top of the straight. I was in awe of the power being produced here. The application of torque was truly amazing. It felt like the '99 had a V-8 as it pulled up the hill. I quickly became unexcited as a very technical and difficult blind left hand turn six was waiting.
I spoke earlier about composure, and at the entrance to turn six it was going to take a lot of composure to take it at speed. Turn six is a blind left hander with a narrow entrance and a wide opening upon exit. It is important to take this turn as fast as you can because you are again entering the second uphill elevation change and you need to carry as much momentum as possible to reach the top of the hill. The brakes I knew worked so well that I continued to brake deeper into the brake markers. Finally tapping the brake at marker one and flicking the '99 under increasing throttle through the turn. You have three different forces working on the suspension all at once here. Using the quick steering response, you begin thrusting the car from a straight position to an immediate left, then simultaneously apply heavy throttle. All actions done in harmony should make for a hand full of corrections to implement properly. The '99 handled these transactions flawlessly. Beautifully sliding minutely throughout the turn and using the wide torque band to climb the hill to the rapidly approaching turn seven.
Turn seven is a challenging kink. Not only does it signify the end of the uphill elevation, but it does so in very dramatic fashion. it's a quick jog right, at the same time it dips like a roller coaster. It dips so far down, that you cannot see the entrance into the " Corkscrew" which is only an approximate 20 yards away. This turn will unload the suspension on entrance, load it in the middle and unload it again on exit in a space of a second! If the suspension of you car is not in tune, heavy wallowing occurs. The '99 entered at full throttle approaching 100mph as I hit the crested entrance. The suspension compressed, rebounded, compressed and rebounded again through the exit, without even batting an eyelash. So under composure as to say "Well..why didn't you take that faster!" Again the superb balance kept things in control, without the feeling of being thrashed about. Matter of fact, to the '99, this was like a Sunday drive....but here comes the "Corkscrew!"
The famous "Corkscrew" is a beautiful piece of track artistry. Dropping seven stories from the entrance to the bottom of its exit in just a fifty yards or so. This turn will test the transitional, turn in, compression and rebound actions as well as entrance hard breaking and quick throttle response. All of which the '99 did extremely well. Applying easy pressure to the brake pedal reduced my entrance speed tremendously. Snicking down to second gear from third was as easy as a thought, and the beautiful transmission reacted positively and precisely. Quickly flicking the '99 left then right produced flat transitional responses even though the suspension was also being taxed by the simultaneous compression and rebounding forces required for quick left to right transitions. The '99 never even suggested an off line maneuver. its response was quick and clean and never complained. Dare I say composure again, but it best describes the nature of the suspension...yeah...boring composure...all cars should be so boring! Setting up now for Rainey's Corner (turn 9) I was about to find out how the '99 would react to a sustained high "G" slide down the hill.
Upshifting to third gear just before the entrance to Rainey's corner I took a deep entrance into the turn and a close to a full throttle entrance with an early apex. Doing this will push the car to the outer right hand edge of the track from the inside entrance at over 100MPH. The '99 did all that I asked of it. Quickly and precisely turning in where I wanted to, and sliding toward the right edge of the track under control. Slight modulations of the throttle would induce more or less sliding. The fantastic grip of the Michelin Pilot SX's and the balance suspension allowed me to pitch the '99 anyway I wanted to. It really didn't care. It did what you wanted, never complained and asked for more. (Hmmmm...I could marry someone like that...ahhhhh...well that's another long story...I can see the flame wars already.) During this wide arcing downhill sweeper the suspension is compressed to the max. The tires were predictably telegraphing the limits of adhesion, and the suspension seemed to be saying to you that you are pushing me pretty hard but I won't fail you now. This expressed itself in the confident tactile feel (which would have been even better if the steering were a manual) you received through the steering input, transitional forces and tire communication. The '99 kept taking all the abuse I could dish out without a complaint. This made you drive faster and faster on each lap, yet still leave you wondering where the outer limits were. Now that's confidence!
Turn ten is a right hand slightly positive cambered turn. Coming off the downhill at full throttle, a quick tap of the brake slowed you enough to ease the '99 into the sweeping turn and immediately get on the throttle hard. The power of the '99 makes quick haste of the short straight between the exit of ten and the approaching entrance to turn eleven. The wonderful tractability of the engine quickly thrust the '99 toward the heavy braking markers of turn eleven, and knowing that it has excellent brakes gave you confidence to brake hard at the last moment under control.
Turn eleven is the slowest turn on the track. You must brake hard and and enter slowly to be able to exit the turn fast (the famous slow in fast out term applies here) which under the extreme flatness of the turn is a challenging mix of braking, suspension control and throttle management. All of which the '99 did precisely. So well did the '99 cruise through the turn at speed, it was almost boring. So to spice things up a little, I once forced a four wheel slide through the turn to see how the reaction controls would act to the corrections needed to recover. No surprises here...very boring again....beautiful feedback, precise small controlled corrections point the car straight and happily on its way!
At last the long 3/4 of a mile straight. It was time to really let the '99 release those seven extra horsepower. The engine pulled without a hiccup. Power build up was smooth and quick. Each upper gear change quickly snapped you back into your seat with authority. The '99 only has seven horsepower more?....I was able to reach way over a 100MPH cresting turn one. (Can't really be too accurate here as looking at the speedo and looking for the turn can't happen at the same time on a quick lap.) The '99 is definitely fast...deceivingly so. It's so smooth you hardly realize how fast you are going..oh you know you are going fast, but didn't realize you were going "that fast"..kind of feeling.
I ended up driving the '99 for the most of the day. I loved the subtle look changes and the suspension in the standard configuration was better than the current "R's". Excellent transitional responses with great roll control. Yet the suspension was very compliant. I kept wondering if Bill Cardell snuck under the car and installed a set of FM sways! Forgiving isn't a term that I would associate with the handling characteristics of the '99. It forgave nothing, it just does what you want it to do under full composure at all times, no matter how rough your inputs may be. Smooth inputs reward you with quick fast lap times, rough inputs give you the tail out happy sliding yahoo's...but that's not the ultimate way to go fast around the track. The tires that were on the car were Michelin Pilot SX's in 195-50-15's. They really enhanced the handling of the car without sacrificing the compliant ride. Fantastic grip with predictable communication at the edge.
The power out-put is excellent. By far the fastest stocker I've ever driven. Torque is everywhere, and extremely tractable. On several occasions I purposely shifted up to a higher gear than required to test the power reactions. The '99 pulled no matter what! Now that's torque. I traversed the turn five to six uphill section in fourth gear (which should have been too tall) and the '99 just torqued its way up the hill. I was impressed...I was even able to keep the '99 ahead of Bill Cardell's Red for a long while....just think what a CAI, and CAT back would do!
The brakes are one of the best I've ever tried period! Nowhere on the track did I experience any fading. Initial bite of the brakes felt soft when cold, but in less than 30 seconds feel was excellent. Response was fantastic with great modulation. Usually a quick tap was all that was needed to haul you down from triple digits speed to the low two digits.
Overall I give the '99 a thumbs up! I'd seriously think about replacing my 94' "R" with a '99 "R". I was told by the Mazda representative that the "R" version will have the rear lip spoiler, deck spoiler and chin spoiler like the current versions. Manual steering will be optional on the "R" and the shocks will be Bilsteins, but with new valving to reduce the harsh ride characteristics of the current ones, but maintaining the high performance. This is my review of the '99 as it pertained to Laguna Seca racetrack. How the '99 performs in an everyday driving experience I wasn't allowed to find out...something about them being worried that I wouldn't come back!!!! May be I should have set up a rally on the day before the track event then I would have been able to give a better real world review. I guess I'm just going to have to buy one and find out....I bet a lot of others will be doing that as well!
As soon as the driver's meeting broke, the car was swarming with people. Alan Childress of Mazda answered our questions about the car, and asked a few of his own. We were obviously rabid Miataholics, so he collected our thoughts about little details like the cupholder, the trunk lock, and even whether we hit our elbows shifting from first to second. His questionnaire said "Stage III" at the top. Could this be Mazda's designation for the new car?
The new car will be available in three trim levels: Popular equipment package, leather package, and the "R." Six colors will be offered: Red, White, and Black will be carried over from the '97's, along with the STO's Twilight Blue. Two new colors are coming, a Silver with just a touch of blue that is "much brighter than SilverStone," according to Alan, and the Forest Green that we've seen in the official photos. The car that came to Laguna was a White Leather Package car.
The US won't get the six-speed right away,
but it sounded like it wasn't an impossibility. The bottom five
gears are a little closer on the six-speed, but the big
difference is a much taller top gear for highway cruising. Adding
the six-speed would add about $500 to the cost of the car, and
Mazda has worked very hard to avoid pricing the new Miata out of
the market. Too
many great Japanese sports cars have disappeared because they got bigger and more expensive with time. Mazda has not made that mistake with the '99. Some packages will come with the 15x6 alloys, some with 14x6 wheels. The car that came to Laguna was wearing Michelin Pilot SX's in 195/50-15. These new alloys look very light, and offer a great view of perhaps the most significant upgrade on the car. The '99 has serious brakes. At first I thought it was an illusion, but both the front and rear rotors are significantly larger than the classics.
The hardtop from the classics will fit, but there is a new hardtop with more stiffening in the B-pillar. The new softtop has a glass rear window, with a defroster on some models. Even though the top still has the flaps like the zip-out window, there is no zipper. Designing a four-point roll bar will be a challenge with this top. The handle in the center of the header bow is still there, so raising and lowering the top is still a one-handed operation.
Inside, the changes are all for the better. The new steering wheel is a nice, fat Nardi three-spoke, which manages to be a really nice wheel despite the airbag in the center. The new gauges are very easy to read, and there is a blue cast to the gauge faces. What caught me by surprise is that the blue is slightly flourescent. In full sun, the blue gets brighter, making the gauges much easier to read.
Later in the day, Aaron Tachibana took the car out on the track. We were all a little surprised to see it go out there. After all, there are only four of these things in the States right now. We all watched in awe, trying not to drool visibly, as Aaron put the car through its paces.
"Go drive it!"
It was Aaron, and he was talking about the '99. Unfortunately, he wasn't talking to me. Jeannie Hobbs started walking toward it. "You want a passenger?" I asked, grabbing my camera and helmet.
Jeannie took the car around the track twice. Even from the passenger seat, it was obvious that there was a lot more car here than my '90, which isn't exactly stock. It was smoother, quicker, and she was spending a lot more time in fourth than I could in my car.
We pulled into the pit lane and traded drivers. As soon as I put my foot in it, it became obvious that this was a different animal. There's a little more power than the current 1.8, but there is a lot more torque. This car pulled, and pulled hard. The Pilots are great tires, and I was able to carry a fair bit of speed through turns two and three. What struck me right away was how easy it was to drive fast. The car is still very tossable, without being even the least bit twitchy. Make a mistake, and the car will rotate a little, but it won't come around on you. The car just feels more solid, more predictable. We were out with the novice drivers, and without even pushing the car, we were passing quite a few classic Miatae. This car didn't have the "R" suspension, and it still really needs bigger sway bars. The power steering isn't nearly as light as the earlier cars, but I think I'd still like the manual steering.
In most cars, once you're out of turn 3, you can keep your foot in it all the way to the entrance of turn 5. I was having a little too much fun with the right foot, and was coming into 5 way too fast. 'Great,' I thought, 'I'm going to be the one who spins the '99 into the weeds.' 'Stay calm, brake in a straight line, try to keep control of the car,' I kept telling myself. I got into the brakes, and things got slow fast. The brakes on this car are fantastic! Once I got through turn 5, I got a chance to feel how much this car can really pull. From turn 5 to turn 6, I was running third gear up to the redline in my '90, but didn't have room to make shifting into fourth worthwhile. In the '99, I was only two-thirds of the way up the hill before I ran out of third.
The corkscrew is exciting in my '90. Second gear, crank it over and aim for the oak tree, then hang on as you steer the car around 8a. In the '99, It was more like a rollercoaster. Lots of speed and lots of side-load, but no sensation of hanging onto the car. Just smooth, quick driving. The new car manages to give the smooth, stable feel of a high-buck GT, without sacrificing the nimble, tossable character of the classic Miata. It's a difficult balance, but Mazda has done it again. Mazda has learned a lot over the last decade, and it shows in the '99. They had a lot to lose by messing with success, but they took the chance and it paid off. The new car is very different from the old in a lot of ways. But above all, it's still a Miata.
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