The 1974 Mustang II, by nearly any standard, was a pathetic shadow of the original. It was also a terrific sales success, its 384,000 units sold far outstripping the 134,267 of the 1973, final-year, "Big Mustang."
The reason Mustang IIs flew out of the showroom was simple. Gas prices zoomed as a result of the 1973 fuel crises, and the Mustang II was, compared to the car it replaced, a small, fuel-efficient vehicle.
Fuel prices are again on the increase, and there are many daring, innovative economical autos being introduced. Unfortunately, few of them will ever be sold in the U.S.
I've just returned from my first Geneva Motor Show, in Switzerland. I was the guest of Mazda as it unveiled its all-new Miata (more about that below). Now, being a sporty-car guy, it was natural that I was drawn to the many types of small cars on display that we simply don't have available in the U.S.
Yes, European driving patterns and expectations are different than ours. First of all, as a rule Europeans are simply smaller than Americans, although statistics show that as our fast-food outlets pervade their continent, they are beginning to supersize themselves as well.
Second, European cities are far more congested than their American counterparts, so vehicle size is a critical issue. A BMW X5, one of the smaller mid-size sport-utes, is about as a large a car that can comfortably navigate the narrow streets of Europe, as well as have any hope of finding a parking space.
The Suburbans, Excursions, Hummers and the like so prevalent here simply don't work over there. Aside from size, they don't work because gas is well over $5 per gallon, making a truck that gets 12 mpg a very expensive proposition.
So given the constraints of size and economy of use, European car manufacturers have come up with a dazzling array of solutions, ranging from three-cylinder microcars, to four-door Smart cars with a smaller footprint than the new Beetle, to minivans that seat seven while taking up a minimum of space.
The success of the Toyota Prius, despite its relatively high price and the long time it will take an owner to reap any real savings on its improved fuel economy, shows that many consumers are ready to pay a premium for the right kind of thoughtful, environmentally friendly car. And the increase in the cost of fuel, which will only continue, simply provides a more fertile selling ground for those manufacturers agile and clever enough to create good product to put before consumers.
THE MIATA IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE MX-5
While SCM's focus is not primarily on new cars, Mazda thought that as a magazine immersed in the world of sports cars, we would find the debut of the new Miata to be of interest. And it was.
The Miata, introduced in 1989 when the only other affordable convertible option was the sorry, long-in-the-tooth, spoiler-bedecked Alfa Romeo Spider, was a revelation. While all other manufacturers had simply abandoned the low-cost, two-seat convertible market, Mazda attacked it with a vengeance.
The first-generation Mazda, with its 1.6-liter twin-cam motor, and slick-shifting five-speed gearbox, was the Lotus Elan that should have been. In fact, SCM noted at the time that Lotus, rather than build the wildly expensive, Isuzu-engined, front-drive M100 Elan, should
simply have bought every Miata built, put a Lotus nameplate on the nose, marked the car up $5,000 and been done with it.
After 700,000 units and 16 years, the first all-new Miata since 1989 made its bow in Geneva. While we're reluctant to judge a car only by its looks and the proclamations of the PR gang, it certainly appears that Mazda will have a winner on its hands. The car is slightly larger in all directions, partly to accommodate consumer-required items like side airbags. But it still retains a sense of compactness and purposefulness. The 2.0-liter engine will offer 160 hp, up 20, driving the rear wheels through a six-speed manual or automatic gearbox.
While lacking the subtly voluptuous curves of the last iteration of the Miata, nonetheless it has a fresh and muscular appearance. Of special note is the factory hardtop, with an overly large rear window reminiscent of those from the 1967 Alfa Duettos.
Pricing was not released, but the folks at Mazda were keenly aware that Pontiac has pegged
its soon-to-be-released Solstice at $19,995 (albeit at that price
with anachronistic oddities like manual windows and mirrors), so expect the Miata to be priced
WHAT'S IN A NAME
But there's one place where Mazda is going horribly wrong. They are not going to badge this car as a Miata, but as an MX-5, to bring its nomenclature in line with what the car is called in the rest of the world. According to highly placed sources in Mazda, "We'll call the car the Miata in the U.S., but won't have that anywhere on the car, and its official name will be MX-5."
How dumb is that? Here you have the greatest selling roadster of all time, one with huge club membership and large numbers involved in autocrossing and spec racing. All of these enthusiasts don't love their MX-5s, they love their Miatas. In fact, a quick informal survey of a dozen of my carguy buddies revealed that while all of them knew what a Miata was, only two of them had any idea what an MX-5 was.
Further, while the Japanese and Germans have a bizarre attraction to cars with nonsensical combinations of letters and numbers, like Z4, SC300 and C230, Americans have always preferred cars with names, like Mustang, Impala and Charger.
To take away the name of the car that reinvented the roadster is
simply an arrogant slap at the hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts in the U.S. who have helped make the Miata the success it has been.
Mazda should give the gang that has been buying and loving its
roadster for 15 years a break. How difficult can it be to stick a little Miata badge on each car?
If you have feelings about this to share with Mazda, go to mazdausa
.com and click on "contact us." Perhaps it's not too late to get Mazda to recognize what an egregious error it is to make the popular name of the most successful sports car of all time an in-house afterthought and replace it with a cold alphanumeric. At the least, we can demonstrate the affection we have for the little roadster. At the best, they might even listen to their potential customers (I know, a nearly unheard of reaction in the car industry) and do the right thing.