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MX-5/Miata Magnificence - Part Two

Part Two of our look at one of the most successful sportscars in modern motoring...

By Michael Knowling

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This article was first published in 2003.

In Part One of this MX-5/Miata special we looked at the first generation of the Mazda's open-top world-beater. This time around, we'll delve into the second generation MX-5 - the car that can still be bought new from a Mazda showroom.

The Second Generation MX-5/Miata

In 1998 - nearly ten years and 420,000 sales after the release of the original MX-5 - Mazda felt they had delayed a revamp long enough. The 'don't fix it unless it's broken' principle can be justified for only so long.

Surprisingly, Toshihiko Hirai (the original MX-5 creator) was not at the helm of the second-generation MX-5 development. Takao Kijima - who had been heavily involved in both RX-7 and the original MX-5 - was charged with maintaining the same 'fun to drive' philosophy and steering the replacement model down the same path as its predecessor. There were new challenges, though - like tougher crash test, fuel consumption and emission standards and a requirement to reduce R&D costs...

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One way of satisfying the cost requirement was to retain as much of the original MX-5 as possible. Some forty percent of the second generation MX-5 is carried over from the first - the floorpan, brakes, windscreen, engine block and more. Parked side-by-side the similarities are obvious - the windscreen, header rail and part of the cowl section are identical to that of the original MX-5. The front, rear and sides, though, have all been re-done, with one of the biggest changes being the deletion of pop-up headlights. The door handles were also swapped to those used in Mazda's larger MX-6.

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In addition to these body changes, an underside front bib also served in reducing aerodynamic lift and drag - a Cd of 0.36 was achieved (down from 0.38).

As part of the second-generation vehicle's crash test development, double side intrusion bars were added to the doors and the rear suspension tower bar had to be omitted; revised bodywork was instead used to improve rigidity. Overall, torsional rigidity and bending strength were increased by 1.3 and 7.6 percent respectively over the original MX-5. The aforementioned pop-up lights were found to be a hindrance when it came to crash safety and twin airbags also became standard fitment - despite their inevitable weight penalty.

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Suspension - while similar in layout to the original - was heavily revised. Several pick-up points were relocated - caster was increased by two degrees and front roll-centre lowered - and the springs and dampers were revised to suit (including having more travel). Interestingly, concerns of steering kickback caused by increased castor were addressed by re-bushing the steering rack - it was made relatively soft in vertical compliance to reduce transmitted shock. Both front and rear tracks were widened and 15 x 6-inch 5-spoke alloys with 195/50 rubber were also introduced as standard fitment.

Brakes were a carry-over from the 1.8-litre first generation MX-5.

Inside, the pedal, steering, gearknob and seating arrangement were left untouched from the original MX-5. The seats were, however, re-contoured to provide greater legroom and the dashboard was redesigned. The gearshift was also revised to be smoother in its action and reverse gear was repositioned for easier engagement. Like the original, though, the steering column remained fixed and only just suitable for a variety of different frame drivers. A glass rear window - offering improved durability over the plastic window used previously - was a welcome change.

A larger capacity boot was also a significant improvement; furthermore, the space-saver spare wheel and battery were moved beneath the cargo floor for better space utilisation.

Despite all this, the second-generation MX-5's overall weight rose just over 40kg over the first generation 1.8 - it now had a mass of 1026kg. Certainly, one of the design goals was not to allow weight to creep up too much - like it had in the RX-7...

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The B-series 1.8-litre, DOHC, 16-valve engine was carried over, but with a slightly higher compression ratio (9.5:1), larger ports and valves, a twin-tract inlet manifold (whereby a shorter runner length is switched in at 5500 rpm), a new exhaust and an ECU remap now incorporating a knock sensor. It is suggested cam timing and/or cam profile was also altered.

At last power cracked three-digit barrier, climbing from 98kW to 106kW at 6500 rpm and from 155Nm to 165Nm at 4500 rpm.

The driveline remained as previously, with a slick - though revised - 5-speed 'box and a 4.1:1 open-centre differential. 0 - 100 km/h performance was now dipping into the high 8-second range and the quarter mile was a low-to-mid 16-second journey. Auto versions were, of course, slower.

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Perhaps more important than the small increase in acceleration was the fact that none of the original MX-5's on-road and on-track handling and feel had been lost. In fact, the second generation MX-5 achieved the unthinkable; it was actually better. With weight distribution still virtually 50:50 front-to-rear, the new MX-5 turned into corners much more sharply - primarily thanks to extra castor, more body rigidity and wider, lo-pro rubber. Cornering speeds were ultimately higher due to extra tyre grip, but a small amount of corner entry understeer remained and mid-corner oversteer could easily be encouraged.

Much to enthusiast's delight, the original MX-5's strengths had only been built upon. What's more, the sticker price (in Australia, at least) was less than the last of the first generation 1.8s...

The Limited Editions

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In 1999, the MX-5's tenth anniversary was celebrated with the release of a limited production version named just that - the MX-5 10th Anniversary. With only 150 examples sold in Australia, the 10th Anniversary scored Bilstein dampers, a front suspension tower brace, a shorter 3.636:1 Torsen rear and an brilliant new 6-speed gearbox (based on the design used in the Japanese-market Lexus IS200 and Nissan's S15 200SX/Silvia). There was no more power from the 1.8 mill, though.

'Innocent Blue Mica' paint, blue/black interior trim, special badges and polished rims remain visual give-aways to the car's limited production. Cost was $45,250.

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Then, during early 2000, a limited second-generation Heritage Series was released, with just 100 examples available in Australia. Draped in distinctive 'Art Vin' metallic burgundy and wearing polished rims, the MX looked particularly classy.

Inside, woodgrain was applied to the Nardi wheel and gearknob, centre console and handbrake lever. Instruments got a chrome-ringed, whiteface treatment, while the interior door handles and park brake release button got chromed as well. The Heritage Series sold for $44,475.

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And then came a terrific milestone. By the end of June 2000, the Guinness World Records of the U.K had certified the Mazda MX-5 as the world's top selling lightweight open two-seater sports car; cumulative production had reached 565,779 units at the end of June 2000!

S-VT Power

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For 2001, S-VT made its debut on Australian MX-5s; the S-VT (Sequential Valve Timing) system alters the inlet camshaft angle to improve emissions, fuel economy and acceleration performance. Aside from a compression ratio increase to 10.0:1, SV-T brought maxima of 113kW and 181Nm (a very tidy 10 percent power and torque increase). Note, though, peak power was now achieved at 7000 rpm and peak torque was achieved at 5000 rpm - both 500 rpm higher than previously.

For the first time in an MX-5, the use of premium unleaded fuel also become mandatory.

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Big news was also the standard fitment of that wonderful 6-speed 'box; the shorter and closer-stacked ratios helped the S-VT MX-5 accelerate to 100 km/h in around 8.5-seconds and cover the quarter mile in low 16s. The auto transmission option temporarily got the boot.

Note that new Bilstein dampers now became standard fitment and body strength was again increased (22 percent extra torsional rigidity and 16 percent more bending rigidity) with some thanks owing to a front suspension tower bar. Wheel size was beefed to 16-inch with 205/45 rubber and the front brakes too were increased 15mm in diameter. ABS also became a standard feature.

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Styling wise - aside from the restyled 16-inch wheels - the S-VT model was distinguished by minor changes to the front cooling aperture, slimmer headlights (with multi-reflector high beam and projector low beam), fog lights and revised taillight clusters.

Inside, the seats were slightly revised and there was new trim, keyless entry and an upgraded single CD audio system (with a CD rack now built into the centre console). Weight inevitably edged up to 1085 kilograms - although still only around 100kg heavier than the original 1.6 MX-5.

After some price fluctuations associated with the Australian introduction of GST, the MX-5 S-VT's price stabilized to $41,190 - comfortably cheaper than the newly introduced Toyota MR-2 (aka MR-S).

The Ultimate Factory-Backed MX-5

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Without question, the hottest factory-backed Mazda MX-5 has been the Australian market SP (Special Performance) Turbo. This monster was the child of Allan Horsley - one of the principal heads behind the Eunos 800 SP and RX-7 twin-turbo SP.

Using the standard S-VT 1.8-litre as the base (retaining its 10.0:1 static compression ratio), various Australian aftermarket go-fast companies were handed the job of developing the kit under direction of the local Mazda Motorsport Division.

In its final guise, the SP featured a nickel-alloy cast iron exhaust manifold with a ball-bearing Garrett turbocharger blowing through a front-mount air-to-air intercooler. A carbon-fibre airbox, Bosch blow-off valve, large diameter exhaust, bigger injectors, different spark plugs and an upgraded coolant radiator round out the mechanical mods. The factory ECU has been re-mapped to suit.

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With around 0.5 Bar of boost, the SP Turbo cracked an exciting 150kW at 6800 rpm and a massive 280Nm of torque at 4600 rpm. That's a tremendous 39 percent more power and 60 percent more torque than the standard MX-5!

Driving through a standard 6-speed 'box and 3.64:1 Torsen LSD, the 1119 kilogram SP Turbo offered - not surprisingly - awesome straight-line performance. 0 - 100 km/h sprints took mid 6-seconds and the quarter mile a scant 14.6-seconds!

At last - a MX-5 with supercar handling finesse and speed!

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And, yes, all of this came backed by the same 3-year/unlimited kilometre warranty as the rest of the Australian Mazda range...

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