Home » Miata Is Always The Answer But Also Sometimes Altima: Members’ Rides

Miata Is Always The Answer But Also Sometimes Altima: Members’ Rides

Members Rides Ski Miata Ts
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We always love to talk about the weird stuff in our garages. The project cars. The prized possessions we’ve saved up our whole lives to buy. The new and shiny or old and hopefully not too rusty. Autopian member Daniel Tsvankin has a manual Saab wagon and a project Miata, but there’s one ride in his fleet that’s really put in the work: a Nissan Altima. That’s right: today’s Members’ Rides includes a much-memed car that just won’t quit.

(Welcome to Members’ Rides. This is the weekly feature where we look at people who became members of the site by signing up here and parting with a little of their hard-earned dough to keep The Autopian going. Our plan is to do these every week! Today it’s Daniel’s turn!)

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RMNP Miata
Daniel with his Miata.

When I took on the Members’ Rides column, I knew I wanted to push myself to find nice things to say about cars I might have a grudge against. I know we’re pro-car around these parts, but I think we can all admit there’s a few vehicles we just develop grudges against. My biggest grudge by far is from a Nissan Altima I had that left me stranded early and often, most notoriously in the hottest part of the year. My haterade predates the era where Altimas took the blazing-hot meme-heat off of Mustang drivers. There’s personal experience here that I’d only wish on my worst enemies so that they, too, might grow from the adversity and become better people.

That’s why I did a double-take when I read Tsvankin’s entry in our Members’ Rides survey. His reasons for keeping an Altima with roughly 200,000 miles on it sounded a lot like my reasons for keeping a roughly 200K-mile Mitsubishi Lancer around. They check out. Make sense. There’s logic to it. Goshdarnit, this is finally going to make me print nice things about an Altima. This thing is an unsung hero—the kind of unkillable supporting character that you need in a daily driver.

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Some car people love to dismiss regular cars, but a good daily opens up a whole world of automotive possibilities. In Tsvankin’s case, it’s allowed him to keep going through school and various moves and pick up a project and a couple interesting cars from a dead brand along the way. I’ll let him take it from here as to what makes his specific car combo work so well.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into cars

I live in Denver, Colorado, and starting in February 2024, I am a renewable energy project engineer! I got my Masters earlier this month (it’s called Advanced Energy Systems: essentially sustainable electricity and transportation technologies) and am setting off on a two-month world tour starting on Christmas. One of my best friends is getting married in his hometown in Gujarat, India, and I built a globe-trot around attending his wedding. Literally the only concrete tourist activity I have planned is a visit to the Gedee Car Museum in Coimbatore, India, which bills itself as “the only classic car museum of its kind in South India.”

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Growing up, I was fascinated by zambonis, buses, and garbage trucks, but I was never really into cars until my last year of engineering school. I got onto my university’s SAE Baja team, not because I was interested in vehicle design, but because it seemed like a much cooler mechanical engineering senior project than building a widget for a random aerospace company.

This is where I can genuinely say that Jason Torchinsky is the reason I’m a car enthusiast. I was Googling things like roll centers, uprights and progressive spring rates nonstop that year for my Baja car, and for reasons I can’t quite fathom, the algorithmic gods decided that a 20-year-old male who constantly searches car terms must be interested in Torch’s Jalopnik story about all the types of sex possible in different body styles of car. I read the article, fell in love with Jason’s writing immediately, and proceeded to read Jalopnik religiously, eventually spilling over into other sites and formats of car media.

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Crosscountry Part 3a
Your shipment of Altima has arrived.

Tell us about your cars! What kinds of interesting automotive life choices did that spawn?

We’ll be doing this in chronological order, starting at the first and boringest.

1. 2009 Nissan Altima. Yes, there are card-carrying Autopian members out there who proudly (or at least not-shamefully) own Nissan Altimas. It’s a gray base model with a naturally-aspirated four-cylinder and everyone’s favorite CVT. It was a surprise high school graduation gift from my dad: now that his last son was out of the house, he traded in the family minivan for a four-year-old Altima.

Certified Shitbox
Properly certified!

No, it is not riding on a donut spare. No, I do not tailgate in the right lane. No, the CVT is not shedding shrapnel. This Altima has gotten me through four years of engineering school, three cross-country moves in my professional career, and two years of graduate school. It has asked for nothing but routine maintenance and a tank of regular unleaded every 500 miles. It’s proof that you don’t necessarily need an interesting car (heck, or even a good car) to make lifelong memories—just good friends to share time with.

I think I’m grudgingly destined to keep this car forever. Every time a friend makes fun of me for driving a Nissan Altima that’s trundling toward 200,000 miles, their own car breaks. A friend lovingly sent me a CERTIFIED SHITBOX sticker to put on my Altima, and you can’t just get rid of a properly-certified shitbox.

Dirt Miata 2ed

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2. 1990 Mazda Miata. As a function of growing up in the Soviet Union, neither of my parents had siblings, and everyone in my family is from a white-collar background: engineers, academics, and musicians, mostly. Which is to say, I never really had the stereotypical Car Uncle who let me help tune carburetors and twist wrenches from a young age. A few years ago, I started spending more time with one of my brother’s best friends, who is a doctor by trade but identifies as a mechanic: giant garage, hooptie fleet, genuine restoration skills. As we became better friends, he sort of became my Car Uncle. A lot of our time spent together involved working on his Datsun 280Z.

Now that I had a friend with wrenching space and a lot of expertise to consult if needed, I decided it was time for my own project car. I picked an NA Miata because that would seem to give me the greatest chance of success at learning to wrench: a huge community for support, plentiful and cheap replacement parts, and good enough engineering that repairs would be one-time affairs that went relatively straightforwardly.

Car Uncle's Garage
Working in Car Uncle’s garage.

I bought my Miata in February 2020 with 95,000 miles on the clock and no maintenance history to speak of. It was bought off a high school student who had thankfully left the car stock. Driving the car home from the seller’s house was my first time ever driving a stick. The test drive comprised the seller driving around her neighborhood while I sat in the passenger seat, which means my drive home was also my first experience with the incompatibility of my height with Miata ergonomics. (I have since visor-deleted and foamectomied my way to an acceptable driving position.)

Then I spent the pandemic slowly learning to wrench on my Miata! While my Car Uncle and I still saw each other semi-regularly (he was my designated pandemic friend), I did most of my wrenching out on the street in front of my place.

First Timing Belt Job
Daniel’s first first timing belt job on the Miata.

When something on the Miata broke, I fixed it. If the fix required a certain tool, I bought it. Most of my wrenching firsts have been on the Miata. First oil change. First timing belt job. First fabrication of repair parts (Car Uncle and I dremeled a new rear window out of polycarbonate and Gooped it onto the soft top). First time holding a whole transmission in my arms.

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Enough internet ink has been spilled about the Miata. Just know that if you haven’t driven one, I highly recommend correcting that.

First Fabricated Replacement Parta
The Miata’s first fabricated part: a new rear window.
First 3d Printed Car Parta
The Miata even has custom center caps now! This was its first 3D-printed part.

3. 2000 Saab 9-5 sedan.

Saab was the Weird But Bad to Volvo’s Boxy But Good. I often catch myself looking for Saab projects on Craigslist, only to stop and think, “wait, why am I looking for a Saab?” And I never quite have a good reason. It’s just easy to fall into the trap of Weird = Good (itself a cousin of the equally nonsensical Rare = Desirable). A strangely-shaped box of befuddling engineering decisions and infuriating maintenance procedures doesn’t really appeal to me anymore.

That was my comment on Rob Spiteri’s “People My Age Don’t Know What Saab Is” story from this past April. One month later, I saw what looked like a screamin’ deal on Craigslist and bought this 9-5. Instead of studying for finals as a grad student, I spent early May addressing all the myriad problems that I didn’t identify during the test drive. It was not cheap and it was not necessarily fun, but I ended up a Saab convert. Plenty of folks are happy to tell you that the 9-5 isn’t a real Saab. There’s decent merit to their point, but I don’t care. As an engineer, I love cars that feel like they were built by engineers, not accountants or lawyers. I suppose it’s inevitable that I fell prey to the charms of Saab. The focus on ergonomics, safety and usability are so rational that Saabs just circle around to being quirky, even with some of their most GM-ified models. It feels a decade newer than my Nissan despite being designed a decade earlier.

This Saab ended up being loaned out to a friend in my Master’s program who is from India and needed a car to get to his internship job, so I spent that time falling out of love with the car: here was a vehicle that I had to fix every two weeks as some new issue popped up, but could never enjoy. So I did the obvious thing.

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It’s what we’d do, too, if we’re honest.

4. 2003 Saab 9-5 Sportwagon, 5MT. Car Enthusiast Buys Manual Wagon From Obscure/Dead Brand. This fate befalls many of us, and it befell me. Craigslist is the closest thing to a social network app on my phone, and it struck again in mid-November. My plan is to sell the 9-5 sedan, donate the Altima to my girlfriend when we move in together, and be the Saab Wagon Man of my dreams.

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I sold the 2000 Saab 9-5 sedan earlier this month. The 2003 Saab 9-5 wagon remains. I essentially paid for two very nice sets of tires that happen to come with a decent-running car which, based on its service records, seems to eat clutches and clutch hydraulics. So, I’m very excited to see how resolving that particular issue ruins my sanity, schedule and finances. I was determined to fix the 9-5 sedan’s ACC (automatic climate control) before selling it, which nearly broke me. I was upside-down in the driver’s footwell doing the final repair (adjusting a blend door lever) 15 minutes before meeting the buyer to transfer the title.

Skiata
Skiata? Skiata!

What is it, specifically, that you enjoy about your cars?

Something that got lost in my long-ass form submission and is probably better than anything I wrote about either the Altima or Miata: I love my cars for the joy they bring both me and others, and that joy isn’t intrinsic to the mechanical quality of the car.

Camping Ed

This is why I love the Altima. With routine 30K-mile transmission fluid changes (and some Nokian Hakkapeliittas in the wintertime), this car never fails to reach its destination. It’s gotten friends to the hospital in whiteout conditions, road-tripped my girlfriend to Canada and back because her 10-years-newer Kia’s seats are punishment, and gotten me through two degrees, three cross-country moves, and four engineering jobs. If you substitute head gaskets for CVT fluid, my relationship with Alessandra the Altima is functionally similar to that of the archetypal Subaru owner with their respective Outback.

This is also why I specifically don’t love the Miata for the way it drives. The handling exudes mere adequacy, the engine would be lucky to make a rather uninspiring 90 peak horsepower at this age and altitude, and THE TRUNK DOESN’T FIT A GODDAMN PIZZA FROM MY FAVORITE PIZZA SPOT, SO THERE’S LITERALLY NOWHERE TO PUT IT, see photo: No Room For Pizza

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But every year for Mother’s Day, I throw the top down and take the slow, twisty way up to my Mom and I’s favorite breakfast spot in the mountains. And it makes her really, really happy. Every few months, my girlfriend and I throw the top down, cram the trunk entirely full of our weekend stuff, and take the slow, twisty way up to her family’s cabin on a creek in the woods. I keep the RPM under 4,000 and stay 5 mph under the speed limit to keep her from getting carsick, and we enjoy the drive and each other’s company.

Every few weeks, I find an excuse to take the long way to work or a friend’s place, and I spend the drive slam-shifting, bouncing off redline and enjoying the feeling of a free mind during a purposeful drive. And I don’t specifically need a Miata or jinba ittai or 50-50 weight distribution to get any of that joy.

Sexy Sunset Miata

Hell yeah, and well said. So, what would be in your dream garage?

Two-post lift, lots of tools, three bikes (e-bike commuter, roadie, MTB), Ural sidecar motorcycle, Morgan 3 Wheeler, my NA Miata but fully restored, EV-swapped Saab 96 (for commuting), Volkswagen XL1 (for longer trips), Citroen DS (for road trips), Lada Niva on portal axles and 33s (for off-road trips), Lotus Exige (track car).

Cat Altima Ed Cc

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Thanks, Daniel! If you’re a member and want to be highlighted, please check your email for a link to a survey you can fill out. If you don’t want to be featured, that’s also fine. Go here and join today!

All photos credit Daniel Tsvankin.

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Jatco Xtronic CVT
Jatco Xtronic CVT
3 months ago

Fellow Altima defender who is also a car enthusiast!
Good to see it. Makes me feel less crazy…

Last edited 3 months ago by Jatco Xtronic CVT
DialMforMiata
DialMforMiata
3 months ago

Great article, and proof that not all Altima drivers are lunatics. Your take on the Miata as a conveyance to be savored is absolutely how I look at mine as well. If I had to drive it in the 90 degree summer heat with the power-robbing anemic AC chundering away, or in the blinding rain or when it’s 50 and cloudy out I don’t think I’d love it the way I do. It gets driven purely for fun… summer nights, nice days during winter, etc. In fact, I drove it to work this morning… it’s like a mini-adventure whenever I want one!

Toecutter
Toecutter
3 months ago

Daniel Tsvankin’s taste in cars mirrors mine.

An old Saab 96 would make a great EV conversion. Its low mass and low CdA value are such that it will need less than 200 Wh/mile when driven normally and without any concern for efficiency, and it doesn’t take a lot of power to make it haul ass. It’s worst flaw IMO is that it is front wheel drive, but if you don’t need to put ridiculous amounts of power in it, then it’s a non-issue. 100 horsepower in a Saab 96 would make it match the average new car in terms of acceleration, and a single Netgain Hyperdrive system will do that.

Too bad the Altima isn’t a manual. More power would make it much more fun to daily, but the CVT can’t take it.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
3 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

What’s wrong with fwd?

Toecutter
Toecutter
3 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

Unless you give your suspension/wheels an alignment that will make your overall rolling resistance horrifically inefficient, at and above about 250 horsepower or so, you will not have sufficient traction to accelerate the car to its full potential, since upon heavy acceleration, more weight transfers to the rear wheels. Then there’s the issue of torque-steer. Understeer can also be an issue unless the car is well balanced. Nevermind that the repairs of FWD get more difficult/complicated vs RWD in my experience(I used to own a Ford Contour that liked to eat CV axles).

You get like a 1% increase in fuel economy for a FWD layout vs RWD layout. Not worth the tradeoff, IMO.

There aren’t many FWD cars I’d consider owning. However, a 1st gen Honda Insight, Saab 96, and Saab Sonnet are among them.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
3 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

All right, that’s fair. My experience with fwd cars has been mostly small automatic cars and I have liked them. I got my 1991 Accord manual driving for the first time the other day and it feels dramatically different from my 1992 Accord automatic. For some reason the manual torque steers a TON, which was new to me because the automatic doesn’t at all, even a little.

I like FWD for the snow/offroading advantages(trust me, fwd is much better than RWD in situations where you really should have 4wd) and for the packaging/low floor advantage, both of which are great in small slow cars. Maybe fwd really does suck for something that needs to be somewhat fast.

I also really want an insight

Toecutter
Toecutter
3 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

I like FWD for the snow/offroading advantages(trust me, fwd is much better than RWD in situations where you really should have 4wd)

You need to try a classic RWD VW Beetle in the snow.

The reason FWD tends to do well in the snow is because the engine is usually up front between the two front drive wheels, with a weight bias at the front of the car. The RWD VW Beetle as the engine between the rear drive wheels and a weight bias at the rear of the car. In either case, a massive difference is made on slick roads in terms of operating dynamics vs a front-engined RWD car, which may be prone to losing lateral stability in the snow in cases where the drive wheels lose traction.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
3 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

Actually my personal experience with fwd vs RWD is very different from conventional wisdom. I’ve driven rwd cars with lots of weight on the driven axle that did very well off-road and in the snow, but the main issue with rwd cars in my experience is the front wheel’s tendency to be “chocked” by small obstacles and stop rotating, and skid across the ground. Fwd and 4wd cars have torque at the front wheels and so the front wheel wants to walk up and over the obstacle rather than get stuck behind it.

Fwd cars also do much better turning sharply because of leverage. In a sharp turn, the front wheels follow a much longer path than the rear wheels. A rear wheel drive car has to generate considerable torque at the rear wheels to swing the front wheels all the way around, while the fwd requires much less force.

I also have found that red cars are not necessarily any less laterally stable or more prone to oversteer than fwd cars.

World24
World24
3 months ago

Not fitting pizzas into the back of cars should be a metric everyone uses!
This was a great read!

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
3 months ago

Manual 9-5 wagons are awesome despite the inevitable frustration of Saab ownership. Keep fighting that good fight.

Great article!

Who is the Leader
Who is the Leader
3 months ago

I’m impressed with your transition from car-oblivious to car-obsesses. It always feels like you’ve done less than you actually have until you come to write it all down. Thanks for sharing!

I’ve followed a somewhat similar path this past year, also in the senior year of a degree. I was always into cars, but I never knew diddly squat about how to make them work and I’d never driven or ridden in anything remotely interesting. So I went out and bought a loveable heap of an ’85 Mercedes 300D that has been weirdly reliable and memorably flawed. I don’t have any mechanical mentor to help me though. That hasn’t stopped me from taking it half apart trying to fix the HVAC controls (unsuccessfully).

Last edited 3 months ago by Who is the Leader
Who is the Leader
Who is the Leader
3 months ago

Also, if you haven’t yet, check out Oppositelock.com as a general interest car forum. It has deep ties to Torch and the old Jalopnik crew but has gone independent since then.

Who is the Leader
Who is the Leader
3 months ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

Since the Autopian doesn’t host images

https://opposite-lock.com/topic/89783/dieselification-professional-sunset-photo-shoot

For a 38 year old car in not particularly great condition, it’s shockingly usable as a normal, everyday car.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
3 months ago

Nailed it with the concept of cars bringing joy to self and others. Great writing too. My son is a freshman Aerospace engineering major, so I cringed with the comment about final projects, but I admit I would also join a SAE challenge rather then build a space widgit.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
3 months ago

Nice fleet man, I love it! And nice dream garage too!

Sensual Bugling Elk
Sensual Bugling Elk
3 months ago
Reply to  Shooting Brake

Thank you! I’ll admit that the dream garage grew by at least 2 vehicles ever since I started reading Toecutter’s comments.

Paul E
Paul E
3 months ago

That manual Aero wagon is one of the sweetest spots in modern Saabdom. The gearing really pairs well with the boosted 2.3, and makes good grunty noises when laying into the boost. Terrific road cars. Previous clutch issues all sound like a previous owner’s lack of ability to drive a manual, rather than the car’s. 200k+ is very doable with a 9-5 clutch. A fine fleet all the way around (even the Altima)!

Sensual Bugling Elk
Sensual Bugling Elk
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Thanks! I’m a pretty gentle shifter (courtesy of learning to keep Miata passengers happy), so we’re about to find out if the Saab has a real mechanical issue or I’m secretly a miserable manual driver.

Unfortunately the wagon isn’t an aero. It still feels like a rocket and is the fastest car I’ve ever owned, and all your comments on it are accurate. But Aeros rightfully command a premium, whereas this wagon was solidly in impulse-buy territory.

Paul E
Paul E
3 months ago

Adding a tune to a base 9-5 will get you an extra boost (literally). The engine internals are identical–the only differences are the turbo used and the tune. Oh, and the suspension (from factory, slightly lower, slightly different dampers and slightly bigger sway bars) is a nice treat. Even the base cars respond well to the Aero suspension bits–did that with one 9-5 wagon I owned.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
3 months ago

Nice! How much did you pay for a stock manual Miata with less than 100k miles and was it under 15 large?

Sensual Bugling Elk
Sensual Bugling Elk
3 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

So…I bought the Miata right before the pandemic blew prices up, before NAs really started trundling back up the depreciation curve, and from just outside the default Craigslist radius for the Denver metro area.

I bought the Miata for less than the Blue Book value of my Altima, and I will never, ever, ever get that lucky with the timing of a car purchase again.

Last edited 3 months ago by Sensual Bugling Elk
Dan Pritts
Dan Pritts
3 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

I bought my 2002 with 40k miles last summer for $11500.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
3 months ago
Reply to  Dan Pritts

Which is about right, considering an NB goes for like 50% less than an NA.

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