[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]
The Mazda MX-5 Miata: It’s really the gift that keeps on giving, isn’t it?
Those of us who were around in 1989 knew that Mazda had delivered something truly special in the 1990 Miata–and yes, we know Mazda might prefer that we call them MX-5s, but …
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When we said “Mazda’s race-minded public relations staff,” we meant it, as the aforementioned Jeremy Barnes owns and regularly races the cute (sorry, but it was) yellow NA racer. He competes in the Spec Miata class, which allows NA and NB cars.
With just 115 horsepower from the 1.6-liter four-cylinder, Barnes’s No. 14 showed all the characteristics that make the Miata a perfect car for both beginners and experienced racers. Steering was light but not twitchy, and the nominal horsepower made it vitally important to maintain momentum. Instead of seeking the fastest line through the corners, we looked for the line that allowed for the most exit speed.
As with any race car, you can get into trouble with this one. In this case, that might be from the modest brakes, which no one would confuse with carbon. But keeping costs down was and is critical, and if you decide you want to spend enough to make an NA into a killer track day car, you might as well just buy something that’s already faster.
Sadly, we didn’t get to see Barnes’s car in the optimum light, as several of the journalists before us had leaned way too hard on its already-taxed clutch. We had to be even more patient leaving corners than usual as we waited for the clutch to catch up.
Barnes told us to go for it anyway, but true grassroots racers who have actually had to pay for their own repairs are reluctant to thrash a hurting car, especially when it belongs to a friend.
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Owned by Mazda designer Ken Saward, No. 16 was a happy little car that we found very comfortable, both ergonomically and at speed. The extra power from the 1.8-liter engine didn’t mean we could now ignore momentum, only that a bad corner might lose us just one position instead of two or three. Like the NA, this one was also prepared for the extremely popular Spec Miata ranks.
The NB carried more than a hundred extra pounds over the NA, but we didn’t really notice it, perhaps due to an unfortunate life experience that had us carrying a few extra pounds, too. The NB still seemed very light on its feet, and we were surprised that it was only a half-second faster than the NA–although we wondered how the NA did so well with a wonky clutch.
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Tom Long, who pilots the Mazda SkyActiv Prototype in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series, may be the world’s best Miata driver. That’s appropriate, since he and his father, Glenn–owner of Long Road Racing in North Carolina–are building several dozen MX-5 Cup cars for the 2016 season. Like, all of the cars in the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich will come from their shop. So Long is a good one to ask when it comes to these cars.
When he didn’t seem to like the NC as much as the other chassis, we wanted to know why. Like the rest, this car was also prepped to a spec, more or less–it was basically an outgoing MX-5 Cup car fitted with a passenger seat. Long said that he preferred a little bit of body roll, and this particular NC didn’t have any, set up as it was for duty as a pace car at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Yeah, maybe that was part of it. But you had to add in a particularly uncomfortable driving position, along with a front alignment that allowed for a very fast turn-in but zero natural unwinding. Say we went into a right-hand corner; unless we decisively steered back to the left, we’d be doing right-hand doughnuts until we ran out of gas. It was okay when we got used to it, but it wasn’t that much fun.
Still, the 170 horsepower and very planted rear end finally delivered the Miata from the strict momentum requirement, allowing for a little point-and-shoot action. Had it been the only Miata race car we drove all day, we would have liked it a lot better. Under the circumstances, though, it was the only one we weren’t wishing to take for more laps.
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Yes, of course you’d assume that the newest car was the best one. Still, we were a little surprised by how much better the ND felt, especially since it’s down 15 horses over the NC. But it’s up on torque–to 148 ft.-lbs.–and lighter by about 150 pounds. And we’re pretty sure every journalist at Streets of Willow that day logged the fastest laps in the ND. We certainly did.
The engine, as you’d suspect, was silky smooth, though by the end of the day there was some evidence of a head gasket issue. This was the example, and the engine, that had been thrashed mercilessly as Mazda’s main development mule.
The six-speed transmission was as close to telepathic as it gets–we could think “fourth gear” and magically it was there. On the very low-mileage 2016 street cars we’d driven, the shifter was a bit stiffer. If more relaxed shifts are what owners have to look forward to after logging some miles, bring them on. Clutch engagement was light and sure, too. Miata manual transmissions have been textbook-good since the first 1990 model rolled off the boat, but you just couldn’t ask for more than this ND delivered.
The Brembo brakes were right there, linear all the way into the near-perfect, unobtrusive ABS. Mazda isn’t quite ready to announce the brands of the suspension bits, brake pads or eventual tires, but trust us, “lowest bidder” is not a factor unless it happens to describe the best option.
There was some surprising understeer in two corners, but we were told that was more a function of setup than anything inherent. We would have liked to play with the tire pressures, but there wasn’t time.
Tom and Glenn Long aren’t really doing anything to the ND that you couldn’t do yourself. In fact, they’ll be happy to point out what they’ve done, but much of it, like the beautifully welded cage, is pretty evident.
Also, this is the car (in left- and right-hand drive) that Mazda plans to race globally for years, and they’re working toward a major world championship. In 2016, the fledgling global finale will be at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The winner gets a one-day test in the SkyActiv Prototype race car–which will, thankfully, be powered in 2016 by a gasoline engine.
This is the point in the story where, if we were the Motor Trend of 1990, we’d say, “We’d like to pick a winner, but they are all so good! And have you driven the new Lincoln Town Car?”
But this is the Grassroots Motorsports of 2016, and we’re calling it: While there has never been a bad Miata or a resulting bad Miata race car, the new ND model is an improvement in every area, both on the street and on the track. Did we expect anything less?