Two Weeks with Mazda's Wonderful Miata

By Christian Wardlaw

Many people claim to love inanimate objects. They say they love clothing from a particular store or a type of sandwich served at a specific restaurant or that restored Victorian over on Elm Street, the one with the porch swing. I've always thought that a statement like that was slightly dishonest, and that the more objects a person claimed to love, the less you could believe anything they said, whether it had to do with your new haircut or the latest release by R.E.M.

Certainly, I understand that people say they love certain things when they actually mean that they like them a whole lot, or are just trying to be nice and not hurt your feelings. Love, in the pure sense of the word, involves passion, intimacy and commitment, and it is difficult to feel any of these things for a pair of faded blue jeans or a desert sunset casting pink shadows from puffy clouds. Personally, I've always claimed to love cars, but I really mean that I just like them a whole lot.

Admittedly, I was a bit upset when I traded the little blue Ford Festiva I had driven during college in on a different car last year, but I think it was the memories associated with the Smurf Turd that caused my melancholy state, rather than the metal, plastic, rubber and glass that had taken me 120,000 trouble-free miles from Kalamazoo to Tampa to Hyannis to San Diego. I didn't actually love the car, but I did love several of the people who rode in it for part of those many miles.

My job requires a good deal of automotive knowledge, and I've driven countless makes and models since I received my driver's license just over a decade ago. Every opportunity I get, I drive something different, whether it's a red and white 1956 Oldsmobile cleverly named Christine or a 1995 Eddie Bauer Explorer. Sometimes a car impresses me enough to recommend it, like the Toyota Corolla I recently rented in California and went on and on about to anybody who would listen. I think I even said I loved it, despite its four-door frumpiness and plain vanilla styling.

Since I travel to Los Angeles often, I try to rent a different car each time. Generally, the rental agents are patient with me when I ask "What have you got available?" and mull the decision over for a bit, explaining that I'm particular about what I drive. Most people consider a car to be an appliance used to get from Point A to Point B, or as an adornment that screams "LOOK AT ME!" I want something fun. Rental agents don't understand why I refuse the keys to such cars as the Mazda 323 and the Mercury Topaz, which are about as tasty as burnt toast with non-fat butter smeared on it. Once I waited half an hour for a decent car, dumbfounding the agent behind the Hertz desk at Burbank airport. The wait resulted in the Corolla, and was worth it.

Recently, I had occasion to visit the San Fernando Valley and needed a car for four days. I called Hertz, and reserved a compact at Burbank. When I arrived to pick the car up, the Hertz lot was overflowing with vehicles; a good sign that the pickings would be good. Smiling through three days worth of beard, I strolled up to the Hertz desk. A guy about my age, a dead ringer for Sinbad, smiled back and we began the routine. "What have you got available?" I asked, after he pulled my reservation for a compact car out of his omnipotent computer.

Sinbad checked out my dark blue polo, jean shorts, Arizona State baseball hat over a frat boy haircut, scraggly countenance, and Eastpack knapsack. After a moment he said with a smile, "I got a Mustang Coupe." Even though my reservation was for a car considerably lower in the food chain, I didn't flinch. Sinbad tried again.

"I got a Probe SE." No comment, as I decided to mine for further gold. Sinbad clicked away on his keyboard, and then said, as if it was no big deal, "Oh, I got a white Miata convertible." I chose not to inform him that `Miata convertible' is redundant, and couldn't help but break a smile and chuckle.

I had inquired about the rate for Mustang convertibles when I made my reservation the night before. The nice lady on the other end of the phone said something like $85 per day. When Sinbad told me he had a Miata, I chuckled because I thought he was teasing me.

"What's the rate on the Miata?" I asked, knowing full well I'd be spending the next four days cruising around L.A. in a Nissan Sentra or something.

Sinbad smiled slyly, and this is where it gets weird. He must have dropped acid before heading off to work, or fired up his crack pipe on break, because what he said next was amazingly altruistic; unusual for a denizen of Lost Angeles. "I'll give it to you for $31.95 per day." The nice lady on the phone reservation line had told me an Escort would be $35 per day.

I walked through the parking lot quickly, anxious to find the Miata. I had never driven one before. I'd actually dismissed them because of their size, and had deemed the Honda Civic del Sol the more user friendly of the two after spending some time analyzing the differences between the tiny roadsters at the Arizona Auto Show. I had even begun to think of the Miata as a `chick car'. Silly me.

Getting into the Miata was a chore. I'm a big guy, and with the top up, the Miata's meager height makes getting in or out an exercise in contortionism. The lack of a tilt wheel doesn't help matters. After a bit of trouble, I dropped the top, settled into the snug seat, powered up the stereo, gripped the thick steering wheel, and was on my way. Before I left the airport, I knew I loved the Miata as surely as soulmates do when they first meet.

I drove the Miata every minute I wasn't working. I drove to Malibu via Topanga Canyon. I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to Ventura as the sun doused itself in the sea. I drove through green farm fields to Santa Paula in a lifting fog, down the Dennison Grade into an arid valley and artsy Ojai, over mountains and past lakes to the sleepy seaside village of Carpenteria while sipping Yoo-Hoo, and along the shore to lushly beautiful Santa Barbara. I drove fast and I drove slow.

In a Miata it doesn't matter how fast you go. After two days of driving, my arms, face and upper legs were painfully sunburned, but that didn't matter either. I wasn't about to put that top up. The next morning I headed southeast into the sunrise, top down, heater singeing the hair on my legs, Cowboy Junkies on the stereo, and did it all over again...for the next two weeks.

Hertz provided me with a weekly rate of $121 for the Miata. I convinced my employer that it would be more cost effective to let me keep the car and drive back and forth between L.A. and Phoenix than it would be to fly Southwest to and fro. And so I drove...across the desert at 90 mph under cover of starlight, up to Flagstaff with the scent of pine trees from the Coconino National Forest swirling around my windblown head, and back down to Phoenix via two-lane twisties that passed through Oak Creek Canyon, mystical red-rock Sedona, ghost-town Jerome, and the best place in America to retire (according to Money magazine), Prescott, where anti-abortion protesters had taken over the historic town square. I even detailed it in my brother's driveway, wiping the muck of L.A. off of its brilliant finish.

When I tell people I love this car, I mean it. Whenever I wasn't driving it, I thought about driving it, and couldn't wait to get back behind the wheel. Whenever I was driving it, I felt as though the Miata was an extension of myself as I accelerated and steered and braked over miles of curvy, tree-shadowed road. It fit like a glove, communicated every undulation in the pavement with clarity and without discomfort, and handled with impeccable grace. I photographed it in picturesque locales, as though I were on a honeymoon and my new bride drank gasoline and ate macadam.

The Miata never made me feel ashamed of the image it projected to other drivers, the way boy-racer Mustang GT's and macho, bespoilered Trans Ams do. Its relatively underpowered four cylinder never let me get too cocky behind the wheel. If I cornered near the car's limit, it forgave me and kept me out of trouble. If Helen Hunt were to enter Calvin's transmogrifier, I'm positive a white Mazda Miata would roll out of the box.

After 14 days and 3,000 blissful, top-down miles, I regretfully gave the white Miata back to Hertz. Before I returned it to the rental car lot, I knew that one day I would buy one, either new or used, for many more weekends traversing pastures, streams, and one-lane bridges. The experience was unforgettable. I hope Mazda resists the temptation to alter it until I can afford to buy one.

Perhaps those people who claim to love a pair of ratty Air Nike's or a set of green and terracotta dishes with matching placemats really do love them, but I doubt it. They just think they do. Love involves passion, intimacy and commitment. I found them in a white Mazda Miata with a dented fender, hair blowing in the salty California breeze, "Sweet Jane" in the passenger seat headrest speakers, and an empty Yoo-Hoo bottle rolling around on the black carpet.