Stylish Japanese Sports Car Aims to be Affordable

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ITS name is German, its heritage British, and it's designed for the United States market. But the RX-5 Miata is the newest Japanese sports car. With a name that translates into ``pride,'' the 2-seat Mazda Motors Miata evokes the heritage of such British sports car legends as the Triumph Spitfire and TR-3 and the MGB. A ``simple'' car offering just one 4-cylinder engine and a single body style - a convertible - it is, at ``under $14,000,'' aimed at young, first-time sports-car buyers.

These customers, ``who really wanted a sports car, couldn't find one he or she can afford,'' says Mazda Group vice-president George McCabe. Mazda's own RX-7 is a good example. Originally introduced a decade ago at well below $10,000, the typically equipped RX-7 now costs more than twice as much.

The Miata is one of three new Japanese sports cars introduced at the Chicago Auto Show this month. According to auto analyst William Pochiluk of Autofacts Inc., the new Mazda ``should be a big hit, and the main reason is [its] price.''

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There are several negatives, however. High insurance rates on this class of car could price the Miata out of the reach of many young buyers, despite the relatively modest price tag. And for those who plan on hauling a lot of cargo, the Miata isn't the most roomy car. The emphasis here is on style and performance.

That is more than enough, Mazda officials believe, and they expect to sell about 40,000 Miatas a year.

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of both price and sales goals is the new NSX, the code name for a 2-seater that the Acura luxury division of Honda will put on the market late next year.

In contrast to the Miata, the mid-engined NSX evinces a distinctly Italian flair. Its sleek body, with the sculpted intakes along its sides, is clearly influenced by Ferrari. Also in sharp contrast to Mazda's Miata is the estimated price of the NSX, somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000, making it the most expensive Japanese auto ever introduced in America.

The NSX forgoes the ``bells and whistles,'' such as digital dashboard displays, that have typified many of Japan's previous sports and sporty products. With a lightweight aluminum body and many aluminum components, the NSX weighs in at barely 2,800 pounds. It is all muscle and performance: Its newly designed 3-liter V-6 can reach speeds in excess of 155 miles an hour.

Honda has been a major player in the worldwide racing circuit in recent years. Although none of the components from Honda's racing cars were used in the NSX, one company official said, ``We did use the expertise we gained from racing.''

There will be a more direct link to the track for the Nissan 300ZX, a complete redesign of the sports car introduced in the US in 1970 as the Datsun 240Z.

The new 300ZX has a far sleeker exterior, with a low-sloping hood line and a graceful tail. Though the wheelbase is longer, the vehicle is shorter, lower, and wider. The interior is cockpit-like, with most controls in finger-tip reach of the steering wheel. Under the hood, the new 24-valve normally aspirated V-6 delivers 17 more horsepower than last year's turbocharged model.

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