AS I pull to a stop along the curbside, I hear a sudden screech of tires. ``Not again,'' my wife groans.
On the opposite side of the road, another driver has slammed to a halt - in the middle of the fast lane. Behind him, a line of cars is forming. But he's oblivious to their beeping horns.
``What is it?'' he calls out, even before he's gotten his window rolled all the way down. ``Never mind. Whatever it is, I want one.''
So it goes when you're driving the new Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Motor Trend magazine has called it ``addictive.'' Other automotive ``buff books'' rate it among the best new cars on the road.
One might find some fault with those raves. The MX-5 is by no means perfect. It has a relatively tame, 1.6-liter engine, generating a fraction of the horsepower of many other small, sporty cars on the market. It won't come close in a race with Ford's turbocharged Probe.
The Mazda does make up for its lack of straight-line acceleration with its incredible handling, however. With its 50/50 weight distribution - its 2,182 pounds are evenly balanced over front and rear wheels - it turns even the tightest corners with utter indifference and barely a squeal from the tires.
But it is the look of the Miata that melts the heart of muscle-car maniacs and wins over even the stodgiest sedan owners.
As one auto buff puts it, ``The Miata is the best British sports car the Japanese have ever made.''
It is an irresistible magnet for anyone who grew up in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s dreaming of owning an MG, Triumph, or Austin-Healy. Indeed, perhaps no automobile has ever succeeded so well in lifting the styling ``cues'' that so strongly appealed to fans of those British sports cars.
Study the Miata from up front and you'll recognize the long, low, oval air scoop of the Jaguar XK-E. From the side, there are hints of Triumph, MG, and Austin, with the unmistakable flavor of the legendary Lotus Elan. There are also hints of Porsche, especially the wrap-around tail lights.
Making the package even more appealing is the fact that Mazda, like most of the Japanese, has a good reputation when it comes to quality and reliability. The same can't be said for the old British sportsters. As aficionados may recall, more than a few Triumph and MG owners kept a second car as a back up for when their main car broke down.
The Miata seems to know no gender boundary. Sports and sporty cars typically appeal to one sex or the other. But the Miata stops everyone cold. Or perhaps hot is more appropriate.
As I drove down I-75 in Detroit recently, one car after another fell in line, pulling ahead, slowing down, looping around to study the Miata from every angle.
One driver kept looking at me quizzically until I gave him a thumbs-up sign. Clapping his hands, he shot the same sign back, and pealed off at the next exit - probably one or two past where he wanted to get off the freeway.
Of course, all that attention doesn't mean a thing if it doesn't translate into sales. But worry not for Mazda. If initial sales trends hold true, the Japanese automaker will have no trouble selling out the 20,000 Miatas it had planned to bring into the country by the end of this year.
Mike Kearney, manager of Autobahn Motors in Detroit, says he already has 30 orders in hand - before he's received his first shipment of vehicles.
Pete Pappas, sales manager at Alex Satin Oldsmobile-Mazda in Hollywood, got his first shipment of five Miatas last Friday ``at 7:30 in the morning. By 3 p.m., they were gone.''
``I'm in the market to get whatever I can get,'' says Mr. Pappas, adding that Miata buyers are forking over a lot more than the $13,800 the base model lists for. ``Everybody sells the car for $2,000 to $3,000 over sticker.''
Add in a full line of options - which most models will likely be saddled with - and that could mean a price tag topping $20,000 for someone in a hurry to get a Miata out the door.
With a relatively limited supply of vehicles likely to command a stiff premium, many potential buyers may find themselves waiting until 1990, when Mazda hopes to double volume to about 40,000 vehicles.
The question is: Will the magic hold?
The Pontiac Fiero is an example of how a hot new design can overwhelm the market one year, and soon after go as cold as an Edsel.
Indeed, many a Miata buyer will likely stick their car in their garage and pull it out only on those perfect spring and summer days ripe for riding around in a convertible. But for at least a year or so, the Miata is likely to continue turning heads and creating traffic jams.