When it comes to affordable track day cars, everyone knows Miata Is Always the Answer.
But what if it isn’t?
Fans of computer-geek recursive acronyms like GNU (GNU’s Not Unix) will appreciate how “Miata is always the answer” becomes MIATA. There’s more than a little truth to the saying. Novices quickly come to appreciate just how much fun the little car that could is on a road course. More importantly, the Miata serves as a sort of club-racing lingua franca, meaning you can get everything from a spare clutch to a World Challenge-spec 2.5-liter “monster motor” simply by opening a Web browser.
Yet some people consider that ubiquity a bug, not a feature. I was once among them. I vowed to forge my own path when I started racing, and campaigned a series of Mustangs, Porsches, Hondas, Thunderbirds, and even a baby-blue 1994 Ford Tempo out of sheer stubbornness. It proved pointless. My wife hopped on the Miata bandwagon almost immediately, and we now own three of them. The first time I drove her MX-5 Cup in an endurance race, I saw the folly of my ways. Short of running something unattainable like a 997 GT3 Cup or a full-bore NASA American Iron Xtreme Mustang, you won’t experience anything so fun as a Miata dancing at the edge of its limits.
And yet doubters remain. Take for example Christopher, who seems determined to resist assimilation into the Hiroshima hivemind. He pinged me last week with an email to say he is considering a 2006 E90 325i and a 2006 NC Miata. “The E90 is $4500, ~110k miles, looks clean, and with a potentially good maintenance history but a rear-aspect accident a few years ago,” he wrote. “The NC is $6400, ~100k miles, looks clean, but I don't know about maintenance and accidents.”
Then he started crunching numbers, spinning out “what-ifs.” I respect him for being logical in noting, for example, that “even if both cars were perfect and had track appropriate tires and brakes on them right now, I'd have to install a roll bar on the Miata to get it on track—the roll bar by itself is ~$500. So the Miata starting off is ~$2400 more expensive.”
He continued down that rhetorical path, saying he’d have to replace all the fluids and his experience wrenching on his 325i give him an advantage in such areas. He notes, correctly, that the E90 is far heavier than the NC, but then, so are most cars lapping a track these days. Just when I thought he’d reached a decision, he decided he … hadn’t.
“I'm fine with any of the three, NC, E46 or E90,” he wrote. “I just want to maximize my dollars. Also, I'm not really all that caught up in the competition aspect of the SCCA Time Trials. I like being out there. I like learning.”
Clearly Christopher spent far more time than I did pondering something so important. My decision to start running in “arrive and drive” events with a Spec Focus came down to the simple, yet essential, fact that I could wear an impossibly cool NASCAR-style Impact carbon-fiber helmet in the Ford and not the Mazda. But I wanted to spare him the time, trouble, and, frankly, money that I’d so foolishly wasted on my journey to enlightenment. And so I almost responded with, Listen, friendo, you are setting yourself up for heartbreak if you think you can beat on a late-model BMW the same way you can beat on an NC-generation Miata. Get the Miata, because it’s better to track a Miata than fix a BMW.
That’s the soundest advice I can offer anyone. Not that it matters. No one pursuing this hobby wants sound advice. They want fun. It’s not for nothing that the SCCA Time Trials chose the hashtag #FunWithCars. So if Christopher thinks he’ll get more grins in an E90, he should buy an E90.
Yes, the Bimmer will cause more hassle and heartbreak, and he’s lying to himself if he believes otherwise. It will break, and parts will be harder to find. (Good luck tracking down a lower control arm or a VANOS solenoid in the small towns around Summit Point or Watkins Glen or Buttonwillow.) It’ll cost more to run, too, and the difference won’t be trivial. Does your local AutoZone have $19 rear rotors for an E90 325i? How about a clutch master cylinder for $29?
Such things make perfect sense when choosing a commuter car. But Christopher is buying a track rat, and the normal rules do not apply. A popular show on Netflix encourages people to consider whether the things in their lives spark joy. That’s the only rule that applies here. If an E90 325i sparks joy, Christopher, go for it. Although it is far better to track a Miata than fix a BMW, it’s also better to fix a BMW than park a Miata you can’t muster the excitement to flog.
As I said last week, we want to save the art and joy of driving. Doing that means sparking joy. And if an E90 does that for you, Christopher, godspeed. But let me say this: The first time you get passed by a Miata or you’re fixing your Bimmer while my wife is lapping her NC, don’t blame me. It’s not my fault if you can’t remember Miata is always the answer.