It is the chilliest day of fall so far, yet I find myself driving down a country road at 80 mph with the top down. The bleak gray sky foreshadows a dreary day, but not this Saturday morning. I have been waiting patiently for the Michigan autumn I love and know so well.[maze]
The past few weeks have given Michiganders an extended summer, bonus time no one is complaining about, but we do enjoy that transitional period before winter. This time is key for apple orchard-goers like myself.
The weekend of my drive marks MSU’s sesquicentennial celebration, but I will not be in East Lansing – I’m journeying to see a special attraction in Romeo is making big news. The drive is over an hour long, but driving is pure enjoyment for me, and with two new Japanese sports cars, what could be better?
The new 2006 Mazda Miata and Mitsubishi Eclipse are two exciting, styled vehicles that return to their roots. The Mazda embraces the simplicity of the first generation; the second generation’s design was cluttered with various add-on style components. The Eclipse looks back to its second generation that became iconic in “The Fast and the Furious.”
In the early 1990s, Japanese automakers started to diversify their product portfolio with more exciting vehicles. Toyota came out with the Ferrari-esque MR2 and Supra. Nissan revitalized the 300ZX and Honda had their affordable yet micro Civic CRX Si. Unfortunately, these sports cars were either impractical, had high price tags and/or were not striking enough to the consumers still largely buying American cars. By the middle of the decade, all were phased out.
Mazda and Mitsubishi, on the other hand, were able to find a niche by using a formula incorporating decent handling and performance, a unique design for the era and most of all, reliability and affordability.
The Miata made it to the American market 16 years ago, reincarnating the vehicle the British offered in the 1960s and ’70s. Simple and compact, with fun in the sun as a no-cost option, it was an instant success.
I can recall the first time my dad brought home the original 1990 Miata in red. Not only was it exciting to be so low to the ground, the four-banger was energetic. The roadster’s light curb weight allowed Dad and I to have a fun afternoon. I guess at the time, anything was better than a ride in the wood-grained caravan.
Mitsubishi’s Eclipse also became a car to which younger Americans seemed to gravitate. A car that, like the Miata, is compact, but offered a turbocharged engine driven to an available all-wheel-drive system. Not only could this car handle well and perform in undesirable weather, it too was affordable.
The Eclipse was also offered in two other Chrysler brand forms, which gave people looking to buy American a similar, if not identical, car to the Eagle Talon and short-lived Plymouth Laser. Only the Mitsubishi’s coupe survived, as DaimlerChrysler believes a small sports coupe market is dead.
MSU students disagree. Earlier in the week I questioned a group of students who replied to an Internet post to be auto critics. Although mostly men responded, the cars proved to be a hit with the college crowd.
Lyman Briggs senior Todd Chawansky would definitely consider the new design: “The front has a nice stance, the grill could be meaner and the clear taillights give the sports coupe a modern appeal,” he said. He also felt the rear seemed “bubbly,” and the GT model, with its 268 horsepower V6, would really be an impressive ride compared to the test car’s 162 4-cylinder. Chawansky most notably liked the interior styling and the seats. “The seat bolsters make me feel in control, while the gauges, knobs and interior handles are very appealing contributing to the overall vehicle design.”
“I really liked the power the 4-cylinder provided. In comparison to my Volkswagen Jetta, the Eclipse seemed quite fast,” said journalism junior Meredith Questel. “I really like the exterior styling as well, but what annoyed me most was the bottom covering of the dash under the steering wheel. My knees would hit the plastic, making for an uncomfortable ride at times.”
[hicks]English senior Brandon Hicks prefers the Eclipse over the Miata. “I barely can fit in the Miata and my knees feel attached to the steering wheel”, said English senior Brandon Hicks. “I do like the interior better of the Mazda, those gauges look sweet and the steering wheel with the shifts look very aggressive.”
Accounting sophomore John Mabry really liked the Miata, boasting the 17-inch aluminum wheels and the clean body lines accentuated by sharp fender flares. “I really wouldn’t change anything, the exterior flows together well. I especially like the high quality materials featured throughout, and the gloss black dashboard with silver vent rings is a smooth touch.”
“I like the front, but the back could be changed to look less like the older Miatas”, said general business pre-law sophomore Brett Zigila. “Everything appears to be really up-to-date, from the neat-looking gauges to the dual exhaust, and when sitting in the cockpit I feel like I’m in the Indy 500.”
Cruising around campus in either car did create onlookers, about an even number with both vehicles. I noticed many students observe the Eclipse’s unusual clear lamps in the front and the rear. Both sets of lamps feature a chrome-reflecting lens with three arms holding it that look somewhat like art deco. Another thing that seemed to attract students was the clear placed across the rear as a design element that could actually produce added down force. I did receive a thumbs-up from another student driving a second-generation model, a good indication current owners embrace the new style.
The Miata looks like an upscale edition of the original. More metallic accents and more dramatic styling which push the new Miata in the direction of its larger brother the RX-8. The styling makes the two-seater look more serious and more distinct in a time when a stylish new rival, the Pontiac Solstice, attempts to steal market share. The day of the Michigan versus Michigan State game had many tailgaters checking out the new bodylines and proportions. The large 17-inch wheels on such a small body create almost a cartoon effect, like dubs on Dodge Neon, an effect that many designers are pushing for.
Leaving East Lansing in the Eclipse, with my girlfriend driving the paddle-shift Miata, the ride toward the metro suburbs was smooth. The Eclipse offers a comfortable ride with its not-too harsh suspension and race styled seats. Leg room is plentiful while visibility is enormous, thanks to an abundance of large side glass. Steering is crisp and responsive, but torque steer creeps in while driving in lower gears. The coupe’s independent suspension allows for better handling and confidence in quick lane changes or curvy back roads.
About halfway through the drive, I really start to appreciate the distinctly styled dashboard and instrument panel. The Eclipse has a refreshing “layered look,” first seen on the ultra exotic Mercedes SLR super car. Silver accents and use of different texture grains set the new Eclipse apart from its predecessors. Its gauges look amazing, thanks to their conically-shaped depth and individual layout. At night, the interior glows in a blue haze not only in the gauges but also over the center instrument panel and floor console, creating an unusual but exciting techno club atmosphere.
Approaching the off ramp on I-75, I really admire what a great value the $19,994 Eclipse GS is. The only option my test car has is the Sun and Sound Package, adding a power sunroof, Rockford Fosgate radio with in-dash six-disc CD/MP3 changer, steering wheel radio controls, automatic day/night rearview mirror, compass and outside temperature indicator for an additional $1,500. Factor in the five-year, 60,000-mile warranty and the sports coupe gives you peace of mind as well.
Before reaching our destination, we drive through my hometown of Rochester Hills to pick up a couple friends. Switching cars, I bundle up and retract the roof of the Winning Blue roadster. With the heat on and a smile on my face, we proceeded to Saturday morning’s destination, some 10 to 15 miles away.
North Oakland and Macomb County roads offer some of the hilliest and curvaceous roads in the metro area, allowing the Miata’s great handling characteristics to emerge. The 170 horsepower four-cylinder has eight more than the Eclipse and weighs in at 2,473 lbs., around 1,000 lbs. less, making the Miata extremely responsive and quick. With the combination of firm precision steering and rear-wheel drive, the Mazda loves to corner. The six-speed Activematic transmission is simply amazing, especially with paddle shifting on the steering wheel.
Power can constantly be found through the array of gears when needed, and when cruising, torque is abundant without delay, yet revs are low enough to make the Miata easily achieve over 23 mpg. The dual exhaust pitch a slow, low-pitch whine as I press my thumb into the downshift button and pass my friends gawking in the Eclipse.
With the heat blowing hotter than any ragtop I can remember, the cool autumn air does not seem so bad. Although onlookers may think I’m a fool for riding top-down, the small cabin fits my body like a warm sleeping bag and the cold wind is barely felt.
As I cruise down the last few miles before reaching downtown Romeo, I compare the $22,935 Miata to a BMW Z4 twice as expensive I had driven two days before. The Miata’s steering feels better, the gearbox is more responsive and while driving the car fits like a glove. Although the Japanese import does not have the panache of a twice-as-expensive German roadster, the tan you’ll receive can be achieved at half the price![donut]
As we start to head south down Van Dyke towards 30 Mile Rd., my stomach begins to get more excited for donuts than driving these new cars. Warm cinnamon sugar donuts and fresh apple cider to start the day – yum!
We approach a large hay barrel with a painted Michigan State “S” and I feel as if I never left Spartan territory. As we park the cars, a thick cloud blankets the orchard with the aroma of fresh donuts and sweet apple cider.
Of course the first of any cider mill-goer’s duties should be to get the cider and donuts. As we walk into K’s Kitchen Bakery, an array of fresh donuts, pies and fruit flips drown out the line of excited and hungry orchard-goers.
The real reason we trekked out to Westview Orchards is to see Sparty! Not just the mascot we all love at MSU games, but a five-acre, two-mile cornfield rendition of the mascot we love.
“We were looking for a new design, we looked in to a Soo Locks design, but after coming across MSU’s 150th birthday, it just seemed perfect,” said Katrina Schumacher, the co-owner of Westview Orchards and Cider Mill of Romeo.
Schumacher read about MSU’s sesquicentennial through the Farm Bureau News and asked the school for a design of Sparty to cut into their 188 acres. She adds that although she went to the University of Michigan and received her master’s degree in Medical Surgical Nursing, she often attends agricultural extension programs through MSU. Schumacher said her grandfather received a business degree from MSU and worked with the New York Central Railroad before having to return to take care of the farm.
“It was fun to cut the mascot into the field, and [it] looks amazing from above”, said Schumacher. Like crop circles, Sparty’s body is cut into the corn and stands above candles and text which say, “MSU HAPPY 150TH,” in large, bold letters.
The specially laid corn for the maze is extremely dense, unlike corn planted in rows, making it easier for farm equipment to cut and clear the field. Using GPS and computer software, Westview Orchard digitally mapped the field, and within six hours, the corn maze was cut with great precision.
As we prepared to do the maze, a large John Deere with a trailer came to pick up the 40 or so people anxious to get lost in walls of corn. From little children to grandparents, the maze is a welcoming seasonal event for all. The five-minute ride allowed me to chomp on another hot donut we had in our community bag. After arriving at the maze’s entrance, a punch card is given to all participants. There are six uniquely shaped paper punches, which correspond to six locations hidden throughout the maze. Having all six punches completed upon finishing the maze will enter each participant in a drawing for a DVD player or a Tailgate Party Gift Basket.
While Westview Orchard employees suggest a good hour or so to complete the maze, within 20 minutes I make my way out. Unfortunately, my quickness meant I was only able to get three of the six punch stations. No tailgate basket for me. That’s OK, hand me another donut!
As we excitedly prepared to tackle the back roads home in the glossy red Eclipse and topless Miata, my best friend Nick said, “They should have these places open all year.” I couldn’t agree more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *