Playmate of the year

With his social life seriously needing a shot in the arm, Vernon B. Sarne drives a compact roadster and literally throws caution to the wind
Feb 1, 2009
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A LITTLE over a decade ago, when Mazda was still represented in the Philippines by Columbian Autocar Corporation, I managed to take a unit of the first-generation Miata out for a spin. I absolutely loved it, which is why I had to scratch my head when Columbian later launched a "buy a Mazda MPV, get a Miata free" promo. I kid you not: This marketing campaign did happen. Imagine how many people scooted to the nearest Mazda showroom to snap up a family vehicle that came with a free sports car.

 

Now that I think about it, as good and as cute as the original Miata was, perhaps there were not too many takers for a compact two-seat convertible in a country where car buyers loved taking family members along and where air was so polluted you'd choke if you got exposed to bus emissions for five seconds. Filipinos were simply not yet ready for a Japanese version of the Lotus Elan.

 

After local distributorship of the Mazda brand was officially transferred to Ford Group Philippines, I expected the second-generation Miata - sold globally from 1998 to 2005 - to be subsequently launched. Fat chance. Fully aware of the not-so-successful sales performance of the roadster here, Ford played it safe and stacked the local Mazda stable with two sedans and one compact SUV. The company needed to be convinced there was a market here for weekend toys. It would even bring in a unit of the RX-8 just to see if there was enough clamor for a Mazda sports car.

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Well, we didn't get the RX-8, but at least Mazda decided to bring back the Miata - now in its third iteration and now simply called "MX-5". But even this took a long time coming. This model was already available in other markets in 2006, and we even ran a story about it in May last year. And so we felt like celebrating when Mazda finally unveiled the car at this year's Manila International Auto Show and declared it to be an official offering. It's safe to say that Ford deemed the market conditions to be ideal for the MX-5 introduction. Although it should be noted that Ford did so before fuel prices started surging wildly.

 

Time to check, then, how the car has evolved.

 

This new model has many traces of the old one. Of course, when I say the old model, I refer to the first generation as the second edition was never sold in our market. The basic shape is virtually the same, the only difference being the modernization of certain curves and the presence of fender flares. Gone are the flip-up headlights, but their disappearance already took place in the intermediate model. The size is about the same, with this version only 50 millimeters longer and wider.

 

Perhaps the biggest difference is found under the hood. While the first-gen MX-5 came with a 1.6-liter engine that produced a decent 120 horsepower, the new one now boasts a bigger 2.0-liter powerplant that makes things so much peppier with 46 more horses.

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The manual gearbox, too, has advanced in the technological spectrum, now featuring six forward gears. You do reverse by pushing the shift knob down and putting the lever in first-gear position. This takes some getting used to, but you won't complain about this minor inconvenience once you experience the short-throw operation of the shifter.

 

The car's weight is a meager 1,168 kilograms. It would have been lighter were it not for the additional 35 kilograms brought onboard by the new retractable hardtop (we'll get to this later). To give you a proper perspective, let me point out that the MX-5 is about a hundred kilograms lighter than a Honda Civic, which has significantly less engine power. As a result, the slightest prodding of the accelerator violently sends the car darting forward. The sensation is not unlike a galloping steed, especially when your right foot hasn't gotten the hang of managing the throttle. Once you master the gas pedal, you're in for an immensely enjoyable drive. And with gear ratios closely stacked together, you can launch yourself faster than all the other cars sitting with you in traffic. The stock 205/45 R17 Michelin Pilot Precedas will make sure you have the traction to do so.

 

If the speedometer seems to indicate you're running slowly when you're actually stepping on the gas already, that's because the gauge displays the car's speed in miles per hour (a kilometer-per-hour reading is also shown, but is much smaller.)

 

Aside from having a trunk the size of a medium Samsonite suitcase, this car is a little short on elbow room. Definitely not for claustrophobics. You can't grip the handbrake without brushing the leg of your passenger. Which can be awkward if your companion is a guy. Just getting in takes a bit of work and patience. Then again, think of how much harder a Formula One driver gets inside his cockpit just for the chance to drive fast.

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And the MX-5 is certainly fast, with top speed purportedly set at 215kph. I wasn't able to confirm this as I had the sanity to back off at 200kph on the highway. I did so because the car already felt jittery at this speed. In fact, the car was already starting to feel uneasy even at 170kph. I suppose I could hit 215kph, but you would have had to let me use a long and clear runway. I attribute the car's high-speed nervousness to the power-folding hardtop. Cars without a fixed roof generally tend to be shakier at scene-blurring speeds.

 

The retractable hardtop is probably the tour de force of Mazda engineers in the MX-5. All in a span of 11 seconds, you go from a coupe to a top-down roadster. You simply unlock the roof latch overhead and push a button on the dashboard, and you have the moon shining on you and whoever it is you're trying to impress. Folding the top is a show in itself. Try parking by the curb to do this, and see if people won't gawk in amazement. The attention is perfect for men suffering from midlife crisis.

 

You might think that just because the MX-5 is technically a sports car, it must drink a lot of gas. Surprisingly, this car does a combined city/highway fuel mileage of some 10 kilometers to a liter. Not bad, considering my supposedly economical subcompact hatchback does 12km/L.

 

Likes? Easily reachable seatbelts attached to the seats themselves. Front and side airbags for both driver and passenger. Antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution. Sturdy-looking (and I hope tried-and-tested) rollover bars. Bose speakers.

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Dislikes? A boring interior (even the horn button looks and feels like a Mattel toy part). Lack of iPod connectivity. The P1.999-million price tag.

 

It's good to know there's a car waiting for me when I turn 40.
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