Money can't buy happiness, but it can buy an off-roadster, and that's the same thing.
Emme HallFormer editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
But I've never owned a truck. Instead, Miatas are my thing. And I'm happy to report that the latest addition to my stable combines the best of both worlds. Y'all, meet my off-road Miata.
I have a long history with Miatas. I got my first one in 1994 -- a little 1.6-liter used roadster with steel wheels, a five-speed manual (fancy!) and 116 horsepower. I sold it years later with over 250,000 miles on the clock as I headed off to grad school. I got my next Miata, a 2001 LS, after I graduated. Fast-forward to 2014 and I upgraded to a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata, which is currently my daily driver.
My off-roadster is a 2001 MX-5 Miata with 130,000 miles on a stock engine and a five-speed manual transmission. An upgraded radiator helps with cooling as the factory radiators are pretty wimpy, but by and large the power plant is stock. A 3-inch lift gives around 8 inches of ground clearance, while a custom skid plate protects the undercarriage. The 27-inch General Grabber AT2 tires are wrapped around 14-inch BMW bottle-cap wheels, and I am here for them. The front clip is gone, replaced with a steel bumper and some giant rally lights, only two of which are wired up correctly. Around back, the trunk has been cut and fabricated to hold two spare tires, and the muffler has been eliminated because when you look this good, you want them to hear you coming.
Inside, the door panels have been replaced with smooth sheetmetal -- ask me how hot they can get in the sun and I'll show you my elbow -- and the stock steering wheel has been swapped out for a DnD performance ring, nicely finished in suede for grip. Topping it off is a custom roll bar with gussets.
When I bought the Miata over Memorial Day weekend, I immediately hit the trails. The first thing I did was drop into an uphill wash with plenty of soft sand that got progressively narrower the farther I went. With first gear engaged and the throttle pinned, revving almost to the 7,000-rpm limit, the Miata got through it, but it probably wasn't the best way to introduce myself to a vehicle I'd never driven off-road.
The car's suspension doesn't have any more travel than a stock Miata, despite the lift, so whoop-running is still pretty slow. It's very similar to the Class 11 Volkswagen I raced in the Baja 1000. I just have to find a rhythm and keep it steady.
A steep hill climb proved easy for my new best friend, especially when aided by a bit of momentum. When new, the motor only produced 142 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque, so you have to commit to throttle inputs or you'll be dead in the water.
What will I upgrade first? Well, the 4.3 rear differential is still stock, so it's pretty slow off the line with those huge tires. I can get a 5.38 ring-and-pinion set from Paco Motorsports, but that might be too much for 27-inch tires. I may opt for a 4.5 or 4.7 differential, but I have some researching to do. The shocks aren't great, with the passenger-side rear having little to no compression, so those will be on the list, as well. The aftermarket steering wheel means I don't have a driver's side airbag, so a five-point harness is probably a good idea.
At some point I'll need mounts to carry my Maxtrax recovery boards and DMOS shovel, since I imagine I'll be getting stuck a fair amount, and I'd also like to swap out the rally lights, which stick out over the tube bumper, for a smaller-profile LED bar. Then again, those rally lights look pretty dope, so maybe I'll leave them until I smash them. Speaking of lighting, she'll also need a dust light in the rear. A small winch would also be nice.
Components like control arms, shock mounts and ball joints will be upgraded as needed, but for now I have my very own Japanese Baja Bug. I couldn't be happier.