- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

When you’re a leader, the imperative always is to stay ahead of the game.

Some do it better than others. Ford has been the leader in full-size pickup trucks, and has maintained its lead with improvements and aggressive marketing. Chrysler invented the modern minivan and stayed ahead in sales by introducing a left-hand sliding door and, later, second-row seats that fold into the floor.

Japan’s Mazda gets the credit for reviving the affordable two-seat sports car, similar to the 1960s-era British MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire, which were popular despite their spotty reliability. Despite having its tracks dogged by upstarts such as the Toyota MR2 Spyder, Saturn Sky and even a brief surge to the fore by the Pontiac Solstice, Mazda’s MX-5 Miata continues as the most popular two-seat roadster in automotive history.

There’s no secret to its success. Now in its 18th year, the MX-5 Miata delivers high quality and reliability, not to mention driver fun, at a reasonable price.

Now, with the addition of a retractable hard top, Mazda takes the MX-5 to a new level. Hard-top convertibles — an old idea that has more reliable technology — are vying for consumer dollars as never before.

Not very imaginatively, Mazda calls its new offering the PRHT, for power retractable hard top, although you could pronounce it as “pert.” But if the name doesn’t stir the juices, the execution does.

The Pert is the least intrusive convertible hard top available. Unlike other hard tops in convertibles such as the Volkswagen EOS and BMW 3-Series, the Pert does not intrude even slightly into the Miata’s trunk space.

It drops exactly into the same storage well, forward of the trunk, as the soft top on other MX-5 versions.

With run-flat tires and no spare, the little sports car has more than 5 cubic feet of trunk space — not outstanding but certainly enough for two persons to stash their stuff on a trip.

It is even minutely larger than the one on the soft-top MX-5.

There now are a dozen versions of the MX-5 Miata, starting with the soft-top, stick-shift SV model at $21,280 and ranging up to the Grand Touring Pert with an automatic transmission at $28,215.

The test car was the Grand Touring, but with the six-speed manual gearbox, which likely is the way most enthusiasts will order the MX-5. It had a starting price of $27,115 and, with options that included stability and traction control, a sport-tuned suspension system, keyless ignition, satellite radio and xenon headlights, the test car topped out at $28,865.

That’s a far cry from the mid-teens pricing of the original Miata in 1989. But it’s also a lot more car, especially with the hard top.

The hard top, made of composite materials that add only about 80 pounds to the weight of the car, is simplicity itself.

Press a button to release a latch that locks the top to the windshield header, flip the latch open and press a button on the dash. Four electric motors kick on instantly, the top folds into its recess, and the hard tonneau cover drops down to hide the whole thing.

It all happens in less than 15 seconds, including releasing the latch.

To raise the top, touch another button on the dash and you have a closed car in about the same time.

Both side windows drop down to get out of the way. But they do not lift back up automatically, so you have to use the power window buttons.

The cool part is that the MX-5, top up, looks stylish and all of a piece.

But there is a bit of a downside. With the top up, engine and road noise combine for a booming aural effect in the passenger pod.

It’s no worse than with the fabric top, and is part of the price you pay for a sports car. However, it can be fatiguing on a long trip.

The engine is the same across the dozen MX-5 versions. It’s a 166-horsepower four-cylinder that provides more than adequate power.

Mazda is to be congratulated for resisting the impulse to hop up the Miata with more cylinders or turbo-charging. That would ruin the car’s character.

The six-speed manual gearbox tends to be a bit balky when cold.

After it warms up, things smooth out and shifting becomes mostly effortless. Clutch engagement is progressive, making the MX-5 easy to drive without jerking.

Handling, as might be expected, is accurate. With rear-wheel drive and tidy dimensions — the overall length is just over 13 feet — the MX-5 darts around curves and through holes in traffic.

Because it’s so low to the ground, the MX-5 requires some bodily dexterity for entry and exit.

Inside, there’s plenty of stretch-out space for two. The seats are firm and supportive. There are even redundant cup holders — four in all.

Standard equipment on the tested Grand Touring edition includes antilock brakes, side air bags, 17-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery, heated seats, air conditioning, fog lights and a Bose audio system with seven speakers and a CD player.

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