Tag Archives: Miata

Cars in the Wild

It’s fascinating how automobiles can embody human emotions and ideas. For example, if you wanted to define “finesse” in the automotive realm, cars like the Lotus Elise or Mazda Miata would fit the bill perfectly. Both are lightweight, nimble, and give a sense of connection and fluidity like few others can. When describing the essence of those cars, Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s famous philosophy, “Simplify, then add lightness” couldn’t ring more true. The car featured in this edition of Cars in the Wild, the Dodge Viper R/T 10, is exactly none of those things.

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If the Elise is a scapel, the Viper is a rusty sledgehammer; if the Miata is a happy Terrier who’s eager to frolic and play, the Viper is an irritated pit viper who’s thinking about making a lunge at your face. The early Dodge Vipers contributed greatly to the stereotype that America’s supercars are really only good for going in straight line. Refined? An exquisite handler? A predictable gentleman’s racer? These things the Viper is not. But, IMG_2202what it may lack in traditional measurements of performance, it more than makes up for in character and excitement. I mean, just look at it – that hood! Those steamroller tires! The center exit exhaust! You get the impression that Dodge just kind of slid some money across the table to a group of wild eyed engineers and said, “Well, it needs to say Dodge on the car somewhere, and having it actually work would be great, but other than that, have fun.”

This particular car is a second generation model, produced between 1996 and 2002. Under that endless hood lies a colossal 8.0-liter V10, which can trace its roots back to the first-generation Viper’s Lamborghini-designed engine. Despite its monstrous size, the engine actually only develops 415 horsepower. Still, these second-gen Vipers were a marked improvement in every way over the original car. It’s faster and lighter, and while it looks similar, there were enough changes to warrant calling it a new generation model. The Viper mauls its way to 60 mph in about four seconds (which is properly quick, even by today’s standards), and runs onto a 185 mph top speed. And, while crisp handling dynamics are not this car’s forte, cornering and performance limits are high enough to make it worthy of the supercar mantle.

IMG_2201As the Viper has evolved, not only has it finally become more refined, but the performance threshold has continued to climb. Much of this is due to the car’s success in a variety of racing series. The current-generation Viper comes packing an even larger engine (8.4-liters!) and makes 640 horsepower and 600 lb-ft of torque. With the help of carbon fiber and aluminum, it is lighter and sharper than any versions before it, and with dollops of leather and plenty of Fiat money, it’s now more comfortable and upscale than any other Viper as well. While time and development have improved it’s maturity, it’s core DNA still reflects the original car’s recipe of intensity and brute force over delicacy and finesse.

There is no shortage of supercars that are superior to the Viper – some accelerate faster, others are better on a racetrack or have a more prestigious pedigree – with nearly all costing many times more. But, few can pull off the level of panache and intensity of this legendary all-American bruiser. The Dodge Viper, like the Chevrolet Corvette, brings a unique brand of performance to the table at a price that people other than oil tycoons and Crown Princes can afford. Flaws and all, the world would be a far duller place without the Viper, and that’s why we love it. *cue billowing American flags and fireworks*

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Cars in the Wild

In my feeble brain, the general rule of thumb has always been that the more expensive and powerful a car is, the more I want it. Doesn’t matter if it’s new age or old school, if it makes a ton of power, looks the business, and causes my wallet to wilt in fear, that’s the car I have to own. Take Ferraris for example. Sure, you can tune your GT-R or Audi or Evo to make more power than, say, the Ferrari 458 – there will always be people with a faster car than you, no matter what you drive – but there is something about that emblem, that power, that noise, and that name that makes me want to mash the loud pedal to the floor and ride its sonic waves all the way to Valhalla. Its a strange thing then, that there is a small, inexpensive, and comparatively slow car being featured on this edition of Cars in the Wild. Welcome, everyone, to the car that defies my own status quo – the Subaru BRZ.

Here’s the deal – The BRZ makes 200 horsepower, does the 0-60 mph shuffle in a shade over six seconds, and costs around $26,000. Those figures don’t exactly make me tingly all over, if I’m honest. So if that’s the case, why is this car being featured in the most honorable segment of the most prestigious automotive website in all the land? Because the BRZ does something many high-end sports cars and the great majority of inexpensive cars don’t – it drives. The BRZ was never meant to compete with Chevrolet Corvettes or BMW M3s or Porsche 911s. The premise on which it was built is the same as the one that underpins the legendary Mazda MX-5 (Miata) and the nimble offerings from Lotus – low weight, sublime handling, and the tactile driving experience over bloated belt lines and prodigious horsepower.

200 horsepower may not seem like much (and it isn’t), but when it’s responsible for motivating a relatively svelte 2600 pounds and the whole package has a balanced and progressive chassis, you’re left with a controllable and enjoyable driving experience that focuses on mastering the craft of driving. The BRZ was born from a most unlikely corporate marriage between Subaru and Toyota which actually resulted in the creation of two sister cars to the BRZ – the Scion FR-S and the Toyota GT-86. Here in the US, we only receive the Scion and Subaru versions, while the Toyota badged model is relegated to the European market. The Subaru-sourced 2.0-liter four-cylinder boxer engine sits deep in the BRZ, giving it a terrifically low center of gravity. The fastidious attention paid to balance, weight, and handling by the car’s engineers makes the BRZ a unique and compelling rival to cars like the the Nissan 370Z, Ford Mustang, and the V-6 Chevrolet Camaro. Need proof? Check out this fantastic comparison from Drive on the BRZ and the Mustang HERE.

When perusing the interwebs in search of car reviews and videos (which happens probably more than it should), I naturally default to Googling stuff like “Lamborghini” or “drag racing” or “epic burnouts”. It’s a rare day that I take the time to read or watch something about a car that costs less than several houses and makes fewer than a whole kingdom’s worth of horse-power. That changed, however, with the BRZ. I appreciate it in a different way than I appreciate cars like the Ferrari 458 – it’s a compelling, exciting and inexpensive sports car born out of an inspiration rather than from a marketing team or a budget committee. Thank you, Subaru/Toyota/Scion for making this car. I. Must. Own. It.

Autumn leaves and hairpin turns: Discovering NH’s back roads in the Mazda Miata

There isn’t anything quite like autumn in New Hampshire. When the maples begin their explosive journey from green to red to yellow, and falling leaves catch the wind and look like the whirling snow that you can feel is only a few weeks away, it’s time to go for a drive. And the best vehicle for the job? On a day like today when the temperature is in the mid-seventies with nary a cloud in the sky, there’s nothing better than a nimble convertible sports car. Enter, the Mazda Miata.

To drive the Mazda Miata (technically called the MX-5), is to know what a small lightweight sports car should be: crisp, engaging and above all, smile inducing. I’ve always told people that it’s like driving a leather clad go-kart, and if you read any review written about the Miata, you’ll probably see the go-kart reference made several times. This car, purchased brand new by my father in 2008, was spec’d out with the optional Grand Touring package which features leather, traction control, 17-inch wheels, cruise control, keyless entry, and a strut tower brace among a host of other features. He also opted for Mazda’s Suspension Package which adds Bilstein shocks and a limited-slip differential.

As this is my father’s car, I’ve been fortunate enough to drive it on many occasions and each time I drive it, I’m struck all over again by what a blast it is to drive a car who’s focus isn’t outright power. What the Miata lacks in brute force, it makes up for in tractable and linear horsepower and torque (166 hp and 140 lb.-ft), and terrifically crisp steering. Far and away my favorite part of the Miata is the shifter. It has a six-speed manual with short and satisfyingly precise throws, and rowing up and down the gears on a winding back road is one of the real true joys in life.

When I was considering what route to take on this journey, I was reminded of an autumn drive I had taken a few years ago in western New Hampshire. The western part of the state often feels like the neglected child of the family when compared to other parts of NH: the well traveled lakes region, the oft-visited North Country, and the easy accessible and popular seacoast. The small towns and twisting roads around Keene and Lake Sunapee would make the perfect place to take the Miata for a drive.

My journey started on Route 13 through Dunbarton, and then to Route 77 towards Weare. Large sections of 77 aren’t terribly interesting, they have that clinical/basic highway feel to them with wide shoulders, guardrails and the trees cleared wide on either side, but as 77 closes in on Weare, it starts to relax a little and the section before it connects with 114 is a genuinely nice place to be. At the intersection of 77 and 114, there’s a brown State Park sign for Lake Horace that I’ve seen about a hundred times, but never followed. I looked left, then right, grabbed first gear, and scooted ahead towards Lake Horace. On a day like today, why not go exploring?

I’m embarrassed to say that I never actually found Lake Horace. Later when I looked on a map to find it, I legitimately missed it by several miles. How you miss an entire lake escapes even me. What I did find, however, was a divine piece of tarmac about two miles long that made my useless wandering totally worth it. Dips, blind crests, slightly banked turns, and a blemish-free covering a fresh asphalt. It ended at Deering Center Road, and I immediately turned around to run the section again. I arrived back at the 77/114 intersection with a big smile on my face, all thoughts of Lake Horace gone, and took a right to head south on 114.

Route 149 darts off 114, snakes through the rolling hills surrounding Deering and Hillsborough, and reaffirms in my mind that this is a truly great road. While pavement quality left something to be desired, like a lot of the roads I drove, the Miata still stayed relatively planted even through tight off-camber corners with rough pavement.

In the center of Hillsborough where 149 ends, my route took a brief stint on Route 9 and then an eventual left onto Route 31 towards Washington. Both the road and the town of Washington were completely unfamiliar to me, but as soon as I turned onto 31, I knew I was in for a treat. The road was flowing and fast, and with the exception of Windsor and Washington, there weren’t any other towns near it for miles. One thing 31 does have plenty of are protected parks and forests: The Pillsbury State Park, Long Pond Town Forest, and the Washington Town Forest all located between Washington and East Lempster, which is where I left Route 31 and picked up Route 10.

When my father was considering buying a sports car, I implored him to get the best possible variation of whatever car he bought. It made no sense (in my gearhead mind) to buy a sports car and get the base model when a few more grand would get you a far superior driving experience. Because he knows what’s good for him, he listened to me.  And for Christmas last year, we added to the experience by getting him a Racing Beat axle-back exhaust system. Called the Power Pulse Muffler, it adds some significant exhaust noise and manages to sound fantastic without being overpowering. You can check out all of Racing Beat’s products HERE.

One of the more unexpected gems on the journey was Route 123 which I picked up after Route 10. While the quality of the pavement isn’t so hot, someone clearly had a day like today and a car like the Miata in mind when they made it. Scenic straights separated by fantastic lefts and rights, walls of green pines and red leafed maples perched on the edge of the road, and not a single car in front of me or behind me. My grin stretched from ear to ear as the Miata revealed it’s magic to me on this amazing road: Blip the throttle, grab third gear, steadily feed the power through the turn, upshift to fourth, hard on the brakes, blip to third, blip to second, on the power again, then smile and laugh as a carpet of fallen leaves crackle and whoosh beneath the car.

After taking 123 through the town of Hancock, which might be the most quintessential New England town I’d ever seen, I picked up Route 202 to Route 47 towards Crotched Mountain. As I hustled the Miata over 47’s writhing pavement onto an equally excellent Route 136, and across River Road through New Boston, I was thoroughly convinced of two things: that New Hampshire is an incredible place for an autumn drive, and the Mazda Miata is the perfect car for this kind of journey. In terms of driving dynamics and driver feedback, it has few rivals. It’s also comfortable, affordable, economical, built with quality, and reminds you what a joy it can be to drive a great car on great roads like these. I’d say it’s about time to grab the keys and find yourself a good stretch of road.