QDear Tom and Ray:
I have a 1992 Mazda Miata. I'm the original owner and have driven 80,000-plus miles without a repair, if you don't count the electronic antenna getting stuck. I love my Miata. However, out here in Southern California, I figure I am living on borrowed time and will soon get squished by one of the many Hummers, Expeditions and oversize Ford trucks that everyone seems to drive around here (clearly necessary to navigate the daily commute on the freeways!). My family and friends say: Get a safer car! I think they've finally worn me down -- but I'm completely stuck, as the Miata is still my idea of the ideal car. Can you suggest a car that's sporty and has good gas mileage, but is much safer? And is it possible to have a safe sports car/convertible? Thanks -- I bet I'm not the only one out there with this question. -- Vanessa
ATOM: The Miata is a wonderful car. It's great fun to drive, and it puts a smile on your face every time you toss back the convertible top. But because it's so small and close to the ground, it is scary on the highway.
RAY: Whenever I drive one on the highway, and I look to my left and see the wheel hubs of an 18-wheeler at my eye level, I try to remember whether all of my affairs are in order.
TOM: It's a great "second" car, or a car for around town or the countryside. But we agree with your friends and relatives -- it's too easy to get squashed in a Miata if you're doing a regular highway commute amid SUVs and trucks.
RAY: So, what are the alternatives? Well, anything meaningfully safer is going to be bigger. Therefore, it won't have the same driving dynamics as the Miata. But as they say in the car business, tough. You're going to have to go up a couple of sizes.
TOM: If you go up one size, you get to the Mini Cooper convertible. That's taller than a Miata, so it probably doesn't feel quite as vulnerable, but I don't think it's enough of a step up if your primary goal is safety.
RAY: The next step up would probably be the Volkswagen Beetle convertible. That's a reasonably safe car, with more mass around it than either the Miata or a Mini. You can get it with a stick shift, and a 1.8-liter, turbocharged engine, which makes it kind of fun to drive. It's also a playful-looking car. So that's a decent option.
TOM: At the next level up in size and price, you'll find a couple of American or American-style convertibles. There's the Chrysler Sebring convertible and the Toyota Solara convertible. They're both midsize, reasonably safe cars. But you'll find them both bland and boring to drive if you like the way your Miata handles.
RAY: So, if you want both "fun to drive" and "really safe," you have to move up to something like the BMW 325i convertible, the Saab 900 convertible or the Audi A4 convertible. All are extremely nice cars, all handle like sports cars (albeit bigger sports cars), and all are priced in the $30,000-to-$40,000 range. I know -- that's a lot more than a Miata!
TOM: But if your friends and family are so concerned about your safety, hey, tell 'em to pony up!
Dear Tom and Ray:
I have three tire gauges, each of which gives me a different readings. They are all the old-style "pencil type" gauges, and all are made in China, if that makes a difference. How do I find one that can be trusted? -- Jerry
RAY: Well, the pencil-type tire gauges, with the pop-up plastic readouts, are notoriously inaccurate. You could buy five more of them, and you'd probably get eight different readings.
TOM: And the dial-up gauges used on air pumps at gas stations are even worse. You set it for 32 psi, you hear "ding-ding, ding-ding, ding-ding," and you drive away with 80 pounds of air in your tires, with your head bouncing off the ceiling.
RAY: We use a very precise dial gauge at the garage that cost us about 100 bucks, and it's a beautiful instrument. We keep it under lock and key, because if we didn't, my brother would use it as a hammer to free up stuck brake calipers, or to crack chestnuts.
TOM: But I'll tell you what. We got some samples of some inexpensive, battery-powered plastic gauges with digital readouts. Surprisingly, they were extremely accurate. You can get them at almost any auto-parts store now. They cost 15 or 20 bucks, and they use replaceable batteries.
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(c)2005 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi
and Doug Berman