- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

Sweet 16. And it’s been kissed by more than 700,000 people.

That’s the story of the Mazda MX-5 sports car, which owns the Guinness Book of World Records title as the most successful two-seat convertible in history. About half of those buyers have been in the United States, where sports car aficionados embraced the MX-5 Miata as the heir to the traditional two-seat roadster.

Back in the mid-20th century, enthusiasts learned to love British sports cars with names such as Austin-Healey, MG, Sunbeam, Jaguar, Triumph and Lotus, as well as Italy’s Alfa-Romeo and Germany’s Porsche. They were exciting and fun on a good day, but often infuriating in their lack of constancy and reliability.

Mazda changed all that in 1989, when it introduced the first MX-5 Miata. Though Japanese, it was the embodiment of the traditional British two-seat sports car, but without the aggravation. The top flipped down and up with ease, and there was no need to have a mechanic on retainer.

Since its introduction as a 1990 model, the MX-5 Miata has had only two iterations. The second-generation model did not arrive for almost a decade, in 1998 as a 1999 model. It received minor tweaking in 2000, but not enough to be called a new generation. With Mazda’s iconic status, its designers and engineers approached the 21st-century third-generation model with care and trepidation. How to take this beloved sports car to even greater emotional heights without ruining its basic character?

As it turns out, they were nothing if not persnickety. They fussed and fidgeted over every fragment. Several examples: To keep the weight down, they crafted the trunk lid, as well as the hood, from aluminum, and they redesigned the inside rear-view mirror to be about one-fifth of a pound lighter. The 2006 model is lighter in one other area as well. It has lost part of its name. From the beginning, it has been called the MX-5 Miata in the United States.

Now the powers at Mazda have decided to drop the Miata designation to bring the car in line with its world-wide MX-5 designation. But they know that legions of fans, as well as affinity clubs, will continue to call it the Miata, so they’re not arguing. As befits its coming-of-age, the Sweet 16 Miata (we’re sticking with the emotive title), is more mature than its progenitors, though it retains their charm. In one sense, it is less a sports car than it was before, mainly because it has achieved more civility and comfort.

Motoring down the highway, the 2006 MX-5 feels more like a comfortable grand tourer than a frisky sportster. It has a better ride, with a more supple suspension system, and a tighter structure that virtually eliminates any of the cowl shake that is often the bane of open cars.

It’s also marginally more roomy and cushy, with low-slung bucket seats that hug the torso. The tested Sport model had the standard sturdy cloth upholstery, which is comfortable in all climates. If you must punish yourself to impress your friends, leather is available. There’s only one engine for all of the six distinct MX-5 versions.

The base car has a suggested sticker price of $20,950. In inflation-adjusted dollars, it costs less than the price of the 1990 original, which sold for about $14,000. The top-line Limited goes for $27,215.

The tested Sport model, with the six-speed manual gearbox (a five-speed is standard), had a base price of $23,415. With the sport suspension, which included a limited-slip differential, the price came to $23,995.

Power comes from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 170 horsepower to the rear wheels. That’s only marginally more power than in many compact and midsize family sedans. But power is not what the MX-5 is all about. It’s about what the Japanese designers call “jinba ittai,” which translated refers to the symbiotic relationship between a capable rider and a well-trained horse.

Handling is quick and the ride is controlled even over rough surfaces. Conversations are possible at highway speeds with the top down, and there’s little wind noise and plenty of headroom with the top up.

Some purists will no doubt criticize the dissolution of the Italianate Miata name. But that won’t offset the affection in which the MX-5 is held.

Thankfully, the designers resisted any urge to make the MX-5 a bigger or way more powerful vehicle, which is usually the case as automobiles evolve. They maintained it as a car that most approaches the excitement of a well-designed amusement-park ride.

There’s not much anybody would change about the new MX-5, though you have to wonder why a two-seat car needs four cup holders.

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