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Nashville Scene Mass Conversions

Miata and Sebring convert commute to adventure

By Marc Stengel

JUNE 21, 1999:  You've been good. You've kept your head while others about you were losing theirs. You've mowed your lawn with nary a green glance at the Joneses, whose deep-hocked day-trade riches are overbuilding the neighborhood. Give yourself a break. Buy a convertible.

Especially if you've still got all your hair. Aside from a toothy grin, nothing goes better behind the wheel of a drop-top sporter than a full head of windswept hair. Or just wear a cap, and tool around with a conspicuous insouciance to chill, mist, or noonday sun. It's your convertible, after all--your special gadget for converting every commute into an adventure, for converting a general prudence in the way you handle your affairs into a manageable, constrained exhibitionism.

Where, though, to begin shopping in that great topless realm out there? Perhaps it may help to examine two convertible candidates that are truly poles apart. In a very clear way, the Mazda Miata and Chrysler Sebring Convertible represent the opposite extremes of contemporary rooflessness. Everything else drops its top somewhere in the middle.

Mazda Miata 10th-Anniversary Edition

Now come on: You don't think I'm unaware of the implicit controversy in parking Mazda's storied Miata at one extreme of the convertible spectrum. Do you? There are faster, more powerful, more expensive, and less expensive roadsters all over the marketplace. But none, I humbly submit, so faithfully harken back to the halcyon days of postwar British ragtops that first glorified open-air velocity for the masses. Mazda, as we all know, basically plagiarized the shop manual for Britain's eccentric Lotus Elan of the '60s. Mazda's special little accomplishment, however, was to leave the oil puddles and electrical gremlins behind in the U.K. The result? Miatas have been cantering over North American roads with near flawless reliability since their debut precisely 10 model years ago.

For '99, Mazda ever so skillfully reinvented the Miata without appearing to accomplish more than a mild curry-combing. Externally, the most conspicuous changes are a solid Plexiglas rear window (with defroster) and "frenched-in" headlights in place of pop-ups. Less obvious is the 42-percent increase in trunk space; no, your mother-in-law still won't fit in there, but 5.1 cubic feet sure holds a lot more than 3.6.

It's in the business office--the driver's seat--where the Mazda feels most dramatically new. Horsepower in '99 is 140, a dramatic improvement over the 128 horses of just five years ago. The little twin-cam, fuel-injected straight-four is a perfect example of the old sporting style. The blip-blip throttle delivers a trademark trumpet note at the exhaust tips, with just a touch of the Carol Channing rasp that boils the blood of old Triumph, MG, and Austin-Healey buffs.

But that's not the new Miata's tour de force. For that, one must bend down below the aft section and behold Mazda's Power Plant Frame design, which marries the powertrain to the differential. This technique solidly reinforces the car's entire structure, eliminates driveline lash, and contributes mightily both to throttle response and to pinpoint handling precision, particularly during hard cornering with a trailing throttle. A nifty five-speed manual rounds out the package, yet it will bow out gracefully if you have to muss things up with an available four-speed auto.

For a base price of $19,770, the newest Miata remains--barely--below the psychological teeter-line of 20 grand. Until the issue of birthdays comes up, that is. A striking 10th-Anniversary edition this year is the latest in Mazda's long-standing tradition of specialty Miatas. This birthday baby preens a stunning Sapphire Blue paint scheme and matching blue topper. Gleaming 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels wear 50-series tires. The tranny gains a sexy sixth gear, features even shorter quick-throws, and sports a little leather knoblet from Nardi. The Torsen limited-slip differential conspires with the Bilstein-tuned suspension to render Miata's already legendary tossability ever further transcendent.

When you wake up from your dream ride in this 10th-Anniversary car, you're suddenly $28,225 poorer (as tested, with A/C). But that's OK. You've got a numbered-edition car with certificate suitable for framing; his-'n'-hers Miata Seiko watches; and a 1:43-scale die-cast model to play with on rainy days. Decide for yourself whether you think Miata deserves a $7,105 birthday present for turning 10. Anniversary edition or not, however, this much is certain: Miata is the roadster that a true enthusiast buys for him- or herself only. Everything and everyone else is just an annoying distraction. And that's why Miata stands unchallenged at its end of the convertible spectrum.

Chrysler Sebring JX Convertible

The Miata driver aside, seeing and being seen with the top down is one of a convertible car's more powerful inducements. Chrysler figured this out even as far back as the lackluster days of its lumbering Le Baron convertibles. But for the last four years, the little-car-company-that-could (and did) has served up a People's Pop-Top that caters to the world's automotive Dagwoods.

This characterization is hardly meant to slight. Just the opposite: The Sebring JX and JXi convertibles are a sales and marketing home run for Chrysler, and the feat is well deserved. The styling is unapologetically "country club"; seating for four is sedan-like in both comfort and space. Power roof operation is nifty and quick; it takes no more time to drop or raise the top than it does to lower a power window. There is, therefore, no valid excuse not to motor al fresco every chance you get.

Is this all it takes to stand at the opposite pole from Miata? Aren't there spiffier, sexier cabrios for four from Volvo and Mercedes-Benz, just to name two? Not for a base price of 24 grand, there aren't. I drove a pleasantly well-equipped JX model, whose as-tested sticker of $25,435 included a 168-horsepower, single-overhead-cam V6. (A 150-horse four-cylinder is a questionable alternative.) Performance is ho-hum. Handling is a little noodly, with detectable cowl shake over especially uneven surfaces.

Face it: The Sebring Convertible is a commuter car, like the Cirrus model that spawned it. But it's a commuter car with a grinning, topless attitude that lets you share the fun with three other people--and flaunt it before countless envious bystanders. If Miata is pure sports for masses of aficionados, this model is pure fun for masses of "just folks." And that's why all of the other convertibles out there--be they more or less powerful, more or less luxurious, more or less expensive--aren't beyond the accomplishments of these two. They're just somewhere in between.

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