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Lighting Options

Original Garage article by Aaron Smith, 1999.
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There are several ways to improve nighttime visibility on the Miata. Many people have switched to different types of headlights, added fog lights, and added driving lights. When I was considering what type of lights should grace the front of my Miata I began by looking at the Brainstorm low profile headlights. I loved the way that the Brainstorm lights looked, but I wasn’t impressed with the amount of light that they put out. Being one to place function before fashion I opted for the 7" Hella H4 lights. These lights have a very sharp cutoff and excellent light distribution. I picked up a set from Tognotti’s for about $85. If you happen to own a ’99 Miata, you already have H4 headlights. It seems that Mazda was listening to the concerns of current Miata owners when they designed the new Miata and they have fixed a lot of the items that M1 owners have always upgraded. Way to go Mazda!
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oldnew.jpg (11253 bytes)Unlike traditional sealed beam halogen headlights, the Hella units are really lenses with a separate replaceable bulb. Replacement bulbs are available for around $12. The setup that I purchased came with 55 watt low beam / 60 watt high beam bulbs. This is an improvement from the standard 40 watt low beam / 60 watt high beam stock headlights. Higher wattage bulbs are available, but I wouldn’t recommend installing any bulb with a rating of more than 60 watts without first upgrading the headlight wiring in your car. As a note, the lights that I installed in my car (pictured in this article) are not DOT approved. These lights are commonly referred to as E-code lights (I guess that the E is for European) and are approved for use in Europe. Hella makes a DOT approved version of these lights and they are also available at Tognotti’s for about the same price. By using the E-code lights I do run the risk of getting a fix-it ticket, but as far as I’m concerned it falls into the same category as the front license plate. If these lights are good enough for the autobahn at 130 mph, they’re good enough for me!

The instructions for installation are the same as the ones found in the owner’s manual for changing a headlight with a few added steps. The only tool needed is a #2 phillips screwdriver. First, raise the headlights by pressing the button in the center of the dash below the hazard light button. Remove the four screws (two on each side) that hold the black bezel that surrounds the light. Now remove the bezel (now is a good time to clean it). Surrounding the headlight you will find three screws holding a retaining ring is place. Loosen these three screws, turn the retaining ring counterclockwise, and remove the ring. This will free the light. You can now remove the light and disconnect the wiring harness from the back.

Prepare the new H4 lights by inserting the bulb into the lens and attaching the silicon dust cover as shown in the instructions included with the light. Do NOT touch the glass portion of the bulb. The oil from your skin will cause the bulb to prematurely fail. Now, as they say in British repair manuals, installation is the reverse of removal.

Once the lights have been installed, you should adjust them according to the included instructions. I used my garage door to do the initial aiming. Once I had them roughly adjusted I drove the car around and realized that they were pointed too high. I found a dark, out of the way road and performed the final adjustment.

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Before

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After

The more I drive around at night, the more I love these lights. The increased wattage helps to better illuminate the road, but the main difference is the improved beam pattern. Standard headlights place the majority of light directly in front of the car in two patches of light known as "hot spots." The rest of the light is weakly spread out from there (see the before and after photos). By controlling the pattern of the light and putting it where you need it most, the Hella lights are able to use higher wattage bulbs without blinding oncoming drivers. It also completely eliminates the "hot spots." The high beams have the same wattage as the sealed beam units but with an improved light pattern. Flipping on the high beams is like having a light switch to the sun. As Tony the tiger would say, "They’re great!"

Image Many people confuse the difference between fog lights and driving lights. Some people even believe that they are the same. The basic difference is that fog lights are designed to place a wide pattern of light directly in front of the vehicle and driving lights are designed to place light further forward than the vehicle’s high beams (see the illustration). A fog light beam pattern extends well out to each side of the road often illuminating the shoulder. The beam doesn’t extend any further forward than the area illuminated by the vehicle’s low beams. Fog light lenses can either be amber or clear. One of the main advantages of fog lights is their sharp cutoff. The main reason why it is difficult to see while driving in the fog at night is due to the light reflected back from the fog. A sharp cutoff helps to reduce the amount of light reflected back at the driver.

Driving lights serve a different purpose. They are intended to provide lighting further forward than the area illuminated by a vehicle’s high beams and are intended for use on clear nights. Most often, these lights don’t have a cutoff. The lenses are usually clear, but I’ve seen some unusual colors.

I hope that I’ve been able to shed some light on this subject. Until next time, happy motoring!