- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

Dark clouds and cool winds often prompt owners of the sprightly, two-seat Mazda MX-5 Miata convertible to start to put away their cars until the weather clears.

But now, Miata fans can extend their driving season because for the first time in the car’s 17-year history, Mazda offers the Miata with a power hardtop roof.

Formally called the 2007 MX-5 Power Retractable Hardtop, this new model has a roof that insulates against cold temperatures as no cloth top can. And it lets Miata owners enjoy open-air drives later in the autumn should Indian summer break out or an unseasonable warm spell come through early.

Best of all, the new Miata model is affordable with a starting retail price, including destination charge, of $24,910.

This is just $3,915 more than the starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including delivery charge, for a base, 2007 Miata with manual soft top.

And it qualifies this new Miata as the lowest-priced power hardtop convertible on the U.S. market.

Competitors in the low-priced convertible market include the 2007 Chrysler PT Cruiser, which has a cloth top, seats four and starts at $20,605, and the Volkswagen Eos, which has a power hardtop, seats four and starts at $28,620.

But the MX-5 Miata — with hard or soft top and manual transmission — is the most fuel-efficient convertible in the country, with a federal government rating of 24 or 25 miles per gallon in city driving, depending on the roof material, and 30 mpg on the highway.

With global sales of more than 700,000, the Miata is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s best-selling roadster.

It’s known for its zippy, four-cylinder engine, sporting, rear-wheel-drive handling, near-perfect 50-50 weight distribution and open-air personality.

And even with the new hardtop, the Miata has what’s considered generous trunk room for such a small convertible: 5.3 cubic feet at the back of the car.

Operating the hardtop is easy. A driver unlatches the roof at the top of the windshield and presses a button.

The roof splits and folds all on its own. Even the hard tonneau cover fits into place behind the seats automatically, and it’s done in 12 seconds.

The Miata has a reputation as a value-priced throwback to earlier, British-inspired roadsters. Plenty of consumers find the Miata priced just right to be a second or third car that’s perfect for weekend getaways, for example.

And the new hardtop can attract even more people because it’s much quieter inside than any cloth-roof Miata.

This was the first thing I noticed about the test car, which was an uplevel Grand Touring model.

I heard the engine at startup, and the car moved with spirit through traffic. But the outside noises from other vehicles, their radios and such, were nicely muted. There also was less wind noise at highway speeds when the top was on the car.

Though it’s only 4.1 feet tall, the Miata with hardtop didn’t make me feel scrunched inside. Headroom is just 0.4 inches less than that in a traditional, low-riding Miata, seats rest right at the floor, and the tidy dashboard is easy to see over, even for the average-height woman.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t see much beyond the Miata.

This little car sits so low to the pavement, I looked up at every vehicle on the road.

Evidently, I wasn’t the only one with visibility issues.

At least four drivers — three of them in sport utility vehicles — nearly hit the Miata when they strayed into my lane, seemingly unaware that I was there.

The Miata and I were much more comfortable on open roads — especially those with some curves and twists.

The hardtop model is built on the foundation of the third-generation Miata that was new for 2006. The hardtop adds some 75 pounds to the original, lightweight Miata. So there’s little change to the Miata’s standout handling.

The test Miata, with optional sport suspension, darted here and there with gusto, held tight to the road and, with responsive steering, felt like it was part of me.

Mazda did tweak the suspension to handle the added weight of the hard roof, so all hardtop Miatas have front stabilizer bars that are larger in diameter, spring rates that are higher and dampers that are firmer than on cloth-topped Miatas.

But the ride, while firm and controlled, was not punishing.

The Miata’s 166-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine isn’t changed and propels the car easily with 140 pound-feet of torque peaking at 5,000 rpm.

But premium gasoline is required.

The new roof is a composite material, not steel, and the glass rear window with embedded defroster separates from the roof to stow safely among the roof pieces.

The test car included optional stability control and traction control. Mazda continues to sell the Miata with cloth top, too.

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