Although I don’t like to admit it, I occasionally get a little jaded reviewing cars. On a ho-hum day, one midsize sedan just blurs into the next one; one sporty roadster seems a carbon-copy of its arch-rival, which in turn duplicates its chief challenger, which itself is indistinguishable from its own nemesis. Pity the poor test-driver, embarrassed by such riches as these.
Just then, at the nadir of despair, there sounds the trumpet-call of a finely tuned exhaust note as yet another new roadster backs down the drive. The clouds part, and a rainbow appears over the sparkling, new 1999 Mazda Miata that has just arrived. The following week, a new Dodge Intrepid ES takes its place and further abets my escape from the doldrums. These two models, by now ubiquitous fixtures after years of successful sales, are dramatically reborn in their latest incarnations. Driving them, my automotive enthusiasms are too.
1999 Mazda Miata
Unless you were paying especially close attention, you probably didn’t notice that the previous Miata roadster was a 1997-1/2 model. By the arcane calculus employed by automakers, 1998 never even had a chance to turn the corner beforewhoops!it’s 1999 already in Miata-ville.
Equally subtle is the dramatic “freshening” Mazda has accomplished with a car that represents the veritable heart and soul of this ambitious, albeit struggling Japanese automaker. After all, this is the car that launched a decade-long (so far) homage to the dear, departed British roadsters of yore. The roadster revival dates precisely to the Miata’s introduction back in 1990, so it is easy to imagine Mazda engineers’ hesitance to tinker too much with their one-and-only golden egg.
You’ll have to look twice to detect what has hatched of their efforts: The car is but 3 millimeters wider and the same noodge shorter. It weighs some 44 pounds less and retains its delightful 50/50 weight distribution. New headlights are frenched into the body work in place of units that formerly popped up out of the hood. This change is obvious. What isn’t obvious is the fact that every single piece of sheetmetal on this car has also changed.
So have nearly two dozen suspension settings, but you’ll notice them the moment you glide the car into a turn. By a subtle combination of lowered center of gravity, slight overall weight reduction, and a 5-percent increase in both torque and horsepower, the new Miata actually feels as if it surges forward into corners. Steering is remarkably reactive; body roll is flat; throttle response is instantaneous. Like a spirited colt, this car begs to have its headto trace the road the way it knows best. During ambitious cornering, the former Miata had a nerve-wracking tendency to pitch abruptly into oversteer when the driver suddenly let up on the throttle. There will be no more eyes bugged nor jaws clenched as the new Miata pitches deep into back-road switchbacks.
But there will be sweet music from a retuned exhaust system. And the ride will be substantially more organized and less cluttered inside the cockpit. Over 40 percent more trunk space (to 5.1 cubic ft.) is a veritable invitation to overnight grand tours of scenic byways. A new glass rear window far outclasses the zip-down plastic porthole it replaces, but it does tend to catch in the folds of the collapsing top, requiring two or three tries to nest it properly. Undoubtedly, the pleats of canopy fabric will eventually “remember” where the glass should fit as a new top sees increasing use.
Most subtle of all the re-birthmarks distinguishing this new Miata is its sticker price: At $19,770 base ($23,400 as tested), it costs a mere $195 more than the model it replaces. Miata was first to convince drivers and automakers that serious roadsters deserved reconsideration. Nearly a decade later, this car’s smile-per-dollar factor remains the best value of the entire roadster renaissance.
1998 Dodge Intrepid ES
Since 1993, Chrysler Corporation has sought boldly to go cab-forward where no one else has gone before. Since then, the world has come to know, love, and eventually take for granted the vaunted “LH cars,” comprising Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde, and the now departed Eagle Vision. For ’98, marketing executives have apparently concluded, “Enough already. Time to kick these chicks out of the nest and let ’em fly on their own.” Any official vestige of LH terminology is now strictly taboo. Concorde has been groomed over for the gray-hair crowd, and Eagle’s Vision has not only landed but been consigned to the hangarpermanently. Dodge Intrepid, meanwhile, soars ever upward, attracting value-hungry sport-sedan partisans along the way.
Happily, the things that made LH revolutionary still remain in this born-again Intrepid. In a word, they can be summarized as “space.” There is lots of it, both inside the voluminous five-passenger interior and within the cavernous, 18-and-a-half-cubic-foot trunk. The car’s distinctive wide stance, with wheels placed at the four extreme corners and the cab moved noticeably forward, makes all this interior real estate possible. It also gives Intrepid an intrinsically well-balanced platform for comfortable ride and competent handling. To exploit the fact, the car’s frame has been stiffened dramatically by 20 percent.
Indeed, the thirtysomething drivers whom Chrysler has targeted will want to exploit the car’s handling characteristics. An all-new 3.2-liter single-overhead-cam V6 muscles out 225 horsepower and the same number of foot-pounds of torque. An AutoStick semiautomatic feature transforms the traditional PRNDL auto transmission into a darn decent facsimile of a sporty manual four-speed. Mileage of 19/29 city/highway is in fact quite an accomplishment for so potent a powertrain.
To a base price of $22,465 for the up-level ES model, my tester added $1,000 leather seats and a $1,130 “preferred equipment” package, notable especially for the auto-thermostat climate control. The total, as tested, reached $26,360not exactly a bargain, but very competitive among comparably sized sedans, and a virtual steal versus SUVs. What’s more, Chrysler launched an especially aggressive lease program for Intrepid last month, dropping payments on a base model by almost 9 percent over 36 months, effective until early June.
Chrysler is crowing about the computer-aided design system that served as midwife at Intrepid’s rebirth. Well, she got all of the big things right. Some minor details were missed in the postpartum, however: The threaded stud holding the spare tire in place pokes out of the trunk floor just enough to rip the skin off any nice suitcase you care to slide over it. Wind-whistles over the front driver’s-side window suggest ineffective weather-stripping, and the plastic lid of the ash tray makes a sloppy fit that annoyed even this nonsmoker.
But would I let these kvetches get in the way of a good time behind the wheel of a new Dodge Intrepid? Not a chance. It’s a sedan value to be reckoned with, and a worthy, welcome successor to its precedent-setting forebear.
Move over, Rover
If you feel the earth tremble this weekend, it’s probably just a bunch of Land Rover SUVs parading into their stunning new home at Land Rover Nashville in Brentwood’s Maryland Farms. Located next door to (and continuing its affiliation with) Andrews Cadillac, the stand-alone center features a dramatic departure in vehicle retailing. With its resort-style ambiance, it represents a cross between a mountain lodge, a sporting goods shop, and a state-of-the-art vehicle sales and service facility. Canoes and snowshoes are littered gracefully about the great room, where Land Rovers repose amidst racks of snooty Barbour clothing and hard-core off-road accessories. Under construction is a torturous test-driving track that allows shoppers to master precarious poses in Land Rovers (or perhaps embarrass themselves in competing vehicles). “It’s a Land Rover Center, sure,” says manager Mike Mykeloff. “But we’re really selling sport/utility vehiclesand we like to think there’s only one model line that merits that description.” Mykeloff predicts a transition period of several weeks before his Land Rovers are fully snuggled into their new home.
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