Ask the Best and Brightest: Miata, MINI or Civic Si?
A TTAC reader writes:
So I’m down to considering three cars for my next purchase. As my soon-to-be commute is something like 7 minutes, I’m not overly concerned with putting an ape-load of miles on whatever I buy. My heart is focusing in on three cars: 1) pre-2006 Mazda Miata, 2) 2005 or so MINI (although I’m slightly considering a lease of a new one, just because I don’t intend on driving the wheels off of one), and 3) a 2006 Civic Si. I’ve driven three Miatas and while I desperately want to love this car, each test drive (two Mazdaspeeds and one LS) has left me disappointed. They are so very jittery and nervous. I have driven two MINI Cooper S and am head over heals as to how they felt driving them, but I’m truly concerned regarding reported reliability. The Civic Si would seem the best compromise in terms of performance and reliability. Head says Civic Si, heart is leading towards MINI (I have yet to drive the “base” Cooper. I don’t really need 168 HP for a five minute commute). What say the B&B?
I'm talking stock NB here. The NC is softer, yes, but I would take that as a starting point any day of the week over the NB. Mazda nailed the Speed3 and RX8 so squarely that I don't know why the Miata can't get a decent setup out of the box! It's like this: when you take a bump, go over uneven pavement, or cruise over 65mph, it doesn't give you that reassuring firm damping that a properly tuned suspension does, but it also doesn't give you a floaty/bouncy feeling of a boat, either. There's just this strange feeling of long travel while still being harsh on the NBs (I didn't drive a MS Miata, but I've been in a spectrum from stock to wild). You can grow to trust the car, but I still haven't shaken the unsettled feeling after 5 years of driving mine for commuting, road trips, around town, and just for fun. On anything where you're going balls-out, you forget all about it though :) I think it was a suspension tuning compromise that got botched somewhere along the line because a properly set-up Miata (whether with just upgraded dampers or going all the way to coilovers - I've driven the spectrum) feels absolutely incredible - planted, confident, yet still very light and agile. I know exactly where threeer is coming from, and if that's a concern about it now, I was there and said "Oh, I'll get used to it" yet never did. If you put aside some cash for upgrades, you can take it to an absolutely magical place where you get better handling and a better ride, but that's a whole can of worms on its own. Also, I concur with the comments about the Miata community being among the best on the net. I think because it keeps the idiots/jerks/bigots out due to the gay stigma, you end up with people who have the cars for their purpose: driving. Helpful folks, good aftermarket support, lots of good local groups, and best of all, tons and tons of documentation on everything about every nut, bolt, and wire in the vehicle. If I was standing where you are (I was only a few feet away :P), threeer, I'd see this as a complicated choice as between the 3 as well - so I think the S2000 is really the answer. A bit heavier than the Miata, just as reliable, faster than all 3 in a straight line, and likely keeps up in all but the tightest autoX courses with the MINI and Miata, outruns the Si on a road course, and still manages to be rather efficient overall. Plus that engine! It has its quirks, but it's truly a magnificent car, and if Mazda doesn't do a new Mazdaspeed Miata, I may just be forced to get one :)
I owned a stock NA, I had it up to a hundred MPH and it didn't feel out of sorts or darty to me on good pavement. But if I hit bad pavement, it would get crashy and unsettling. This isn't a carved from granite, two ton Mercedes with solid roof. This is an ultra light weight ( ~2100 lbs) open top car, chassis flex is VERY evident. I don't think any amount of suspension tuning will make this car fun on bad roads. The NB is essentially the same car under this skin. If you need a solid feeling chassis in a Miata, you would have to go with at least an NC (2006+). You might also try an S2000 or Solstice/Sky. These 3 all have much stiffer suspensions and more solid feel. If I had a garage and money for a second car, I would get a newer Miata with the RHT.
Well, as I said, it's great at full blast, but I'm not even going as far as bad pavement, just the sorts of things that are encountered in any city: bumps, uneven pavement, seams in the road, expansion joints, a single but not insignificant crack in pavement, whatever it may be. If it's less than optimal, the stock suspension doesn't soak it up confidently while still letting your butt know what's going on. The technology and knowledge to do that has existed for a long time - and it's not expensive (see: contemporary BMW 3 series, which sold for not much more in base forms in some markets around the world), nor out of place for the Miata. For example, on a car with Bilstein PSS9 coilovers, I felt everything, the ride was not any more stiff, but it was much, much, much, MUCH preferable to the stock ride in terms of confidence, predictability, and general stability. Yeah, they cost some coin, but they're the bottom of the line when it comes to coilovers, and replacing stock with a fixed setup wouldn't have cost Mazda that much. I'm not sure where the trade-off when the stock configuration was landed upon - they could have used more aggressive dampers with slightly stiffer springs, and the ride would have actually been better both objectively and subjectively, even in terms of comfort. I've ridden in Miatas with Konis under stock springs, stiffer springs over Bilstein non-adjustables, and preferred it as a passenger even. There is plenty of travel, but I just think they toned down the dampers way, way too far, and the springs weren't tuned to work with them. And don't get me wrong (I believe most of the folks with Miata qualms will agree with me here) - I think a car SHOULD demand attention. It shouldn't lie to you about what's under the tires, either. And yes, there were plenty of cars that had setups that were far worse than the Miata - I just didn't expect it from the Miata to the degree I get it in stock form. The chassis is so good that twice the power and a crazy suspension is easily managed by the geometry and stiffness of the stock chassis. You can go plenty fast in it, but I just think selling it as a great daily driver is going a little too far. It's fine, but if it feels unsettled to you now, it will continue to do so. If it doesn't feel unsettled to you, more power to you, but after driving one for 5 years, having seasoned friends go test drive them new and used, and driving several on my own in various levels of modification, there's something about the stock NB that grates on certain people. It might be the same with the NA, but I don't have equivalent experience with it.
Just picked up my 2002 LS Miata a few weeks back. I wish I could have found a standard-suspension car with the ABS I needed. The sport suspension and 16-inch wheels are great when I can open the taps and enjoy driving. However it's IMPOSSIBLE to drive softly. When riding with the wife, who is still adjusting to the sports car ride, I keep trying to reduce the crashing and jerking, but cannot. So the car actually drives better when driven hard. The ride smooths out when you push it.