It would appear as if my earlier thread, which asked whether or not a little white Mazda Miata would require me, a vaguely homophobic man, to start wearing a skirt, has been devoured. Thanks for all your input, though. Here’s an update, and sort of a review.
I picked the thing up last week, went more broke than I’ve been in six years to buy it, and didn’t finish the insurance work until Thursday. There isn’t anywere I can park the damned thing near my apartment, so a wonderful friend of mine is putting it up at her house until I move. Aside from parking it, today was the first time I drove it. I put two hundred miles on it this afternoon.
First of all, let me say that somehow, the traffic problems in the Northern Virginia area have somehow sunk below the Iron Maiden concert parking lot levels that they were at six years ago, when I last drove regularly. Route 66, a major highway, came to a complete, random halt several times before I got out of the rat race and into the… rain.
No big deal. The convertible top on this little puppy can be sealed in one minute without leaving the driver’s seat, I kid you not. It’s manual, it has two simple latches to hold it in place, and yet somehow it does not leak. I pulled to a halt under a bridge and zipped things up in a flash, even though I had to remove the vinyl convertible cover. I quickly discovered that while that little cover looks cool, it’s not really all that necessary, for the top will stay down and secure without vibrating even at ninety miles an hour. I suspect it will reside in the miniature trunk for evermore.
A neat thing happens when the top is up. The distance from the rearview mirror to the back window is so short that visibility is not decreased at all. Furthermore, the side windows extend back far enough that a quick look over the shoulder is enough to ensure that there isn’t someone in your blind spot when the top is up. I expected those to be annoying problems, but they aren’t at all.
The seats are interesting. They’re obviously based on the Recaro design, with enormous lateral support which allows this driver to shift his seating position to accomodate high-speed turns. The controls are so close and logically placed that I felt instantly familiar with it.
And did I mention the gearbox? It has just a nub of a shifter which unmistakably snicks into place and acts almost as if there is a Ferrari-style lockout gate hiding underneath the chumpy vinyl fabric cover, which is beginning to deteriorate. It’s got four honest gears for real driving, and a fifth for highway driving which is sensibly placed far to the right and above reverse so that I never got close to mis-shifting. It’s very reminiscent of the Porsche 928 S4’s gearbox, except that first is where one expects it to be. I wonder if it’s possible to reorganize the synchros so that first is at the bottom…
Another wonderful surprise was the power of the vehicle. This is both a blessing and a minor disappointment. I was rather expecting something along the lines of an MG Midget, wheezy and slow. This perceived liability can actually be quite fun, as you have to literally “race” just to keep up with traffic in many of the older, small sports cars. It turns out that this particular version, a '92, already had 115 horsepower, and probably because of its light weight, acceleration off the line is quite spritely. I found myself having to keep my carnal urges in check, as it would quite literally carve up traffic as I wished, except when a guy in an M3 put me in my place on the way home.
That having been said, it’s still not fast, like “trouble” fast. Just “fun” fast. Furthermore, it the low-RPM pull is good enough that I never had to go above about 4200 RPMs, even when I was flogging it, and flog it I did, for hours. That’s great, because when your peak horsepower comes at very high RPMs it is difficult to maintain, and a rasping, overexerting four-banger isn’t audibly pleasing to you or anyone else. (Keep in mind that “flogging” for a guy who has been in a lot of bad accidents and hasn’t driven much in six years is probably pretty tame for a lot of you.)
The route I chose to take today took me out the highway to Front Royal, Virginia, where it stopped raining and the top dropped faster than a bead collector at Mardi Gras. Then I shot through the Passage Creek Valley (rte. 676), which runs parallel to the Skyline Drive through the headlands of the Massanuttens, but without the park police, low speed limits, and gawking tourists which prevent the Skyline from being a truly enjoyable driver’s drive. Mine was a moderately challenging drive that combines short straightaways with plenty of sweeping turns, a few unexpected switchbacks, one or two nasty fadeaways, and the occasional loose goat.
Once you ascend the valley past the growing rural residential district which rests in the floodplain, there is the most beautiful sight a new driver can behold, the rare and diminishing “End 45 MPH Speed Limit” sign. I choose to interpret this as, “go as fast as you consider safe,” which is what I did. The road passes through the Washington National Forest, offers five miles or so of truly challenging climbing switchbacks as it climbs the range, affords a nice view of the Luray Valley and the South Fork of the Shennandoah at the top, and then drops precipitously and snakelike to the river below.
This is where I noticed the most unusual and pleasing thing. The Miata’s handling is honestly, unequivocably neutral in every way. When it is unable to hold the road, it tells you by making the usually precise steering a little mushy, and you’re so low to the ground that six inches of drift is instantly noticeable. The inexperienced (or rusty) driver’s first (and in many cars, such at the Porsche 911, last) reaction is to let off the gas. Unbelievably, the damned thing responds to such stimulus by keeping its line though the turn. Front wheel drive cars will often respond to such a reaction by cutting too deeply into the turn or shooting off in the first direction in which it gets traction, while some rear wheel drive cars will kick the back end out and take you for a spin. With its near-perfect 50-50 front/back weight ratio and very short wheelbase, his little thing does neither. The only other car I’ve ever driven which responds similarly is the original Audi Quattro, and while I’m not impartial, I think this car handles better.
The roads were wet, which kept my awareness high and my speeds under seventy-five the whole way through that portion of the drive. The handling was completely honest the whole way, although I had an uncomfortable moment when this normally predictable road suddenly dropped into a fade-away, decreasing radius turn just before it re-crossed the creek. This is bad news for motorcycles, but my new toy car and I negotiated it just fine.
Once beyond the rather unremarkable town of Luray, with a freshly lit cigar, I took rte. 211 back toward home. When 211 climbs the Blue Ridge, it is magical. Well paved and far too wide for its own good, with a panoramic, blossoming view out the sides and rear, it’s easy to push the limits. The damned car stuck like glue, and I was required to pull over and take in the sights several times, as I continually caught up to other drivers who obviously didn’t have a new glove to break in, as I did. I also discovered that it does this remarkably flashy fishtail if you pull the emergency brake in gravel, again because of its completlely neutral center of gravity.
It was at this point that I realized that there is an entirely different envelope of performance which I had not even begun to explore, where the RPMs are high, the shift points squeeze out fourth gear, the tiny disc brakes are actually taxed, and the gods of the road lose their forgiveness for a tin can which I can nearly lift off the ground myself, all 150 pounds of me. I’m not even interested in going there, but it is there, should I ever wish to tap into it. That, in a word, is awesome.
On the far side of the Ridge heading east, just before Sperryville, there is a place called “Cooter’s,” complete with an orange '72 Charger parked out front with the “01” number on the side. I so desperately wanted to slide into that gravel lot in a perfect 270 parking job, right next to that burly and garish musclecar. That’s the really dangerous thing about my new ride. It’s so eminently predictable and maneuverable that after all those years of not driving at all and only a few short hours of driving this car I already knew just how to do it.
Instead I just cruised by and puffed at 'em. Hey, man, my days of raising hell are nearly over; I don’t have much left to prove. So what if my car looks like a girl car? Hell, I’m pretty sure it is a girl, because I’ve just fallen in love with it.