Always with the Miata, there was the knee problem. Everything fit in a Miata but my right knee, which seemed to intersect with the console in a manner that I found unacceptable. Several times I've been tempted to buy a Miata, and several times, I've decided that the knee room was unacceptable.
Funny, isn't it? Little things can make or break your relationship with an otherwise ideal car.
So when the all-new 2006 Miata -- which Mazda would prefer we call the MX-5, as they do elsewhere in the world -- showed up, the first thing tested was right knee room.
Better. Much better. Due in part to the redesign of the interior, and in part to the extra width of about an inch and a half, my knee decided we could live with this Miata.
It did not hurt that a great many other things were improved too. Exterior styling, though still familiar, is fresh and handsome. Two inches extra in length give the car a little more presence and added road stability, though heavy crosswinds and highway speeds will still get your attention.
A gutsy 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 170 horsepower -- quite similar to engines in other Mazda vehicles -- replaces the 1.8-liter, 142-horsepower base engine from last year. That's with the manual transmission, anyway. With its optional six-speed automatic, which the test car had, horsepower is detuned to 166. For a 2,500-pound car, though, it seemed plenty.
One of the Miata's best features hasn't changed: Unfasten a single lever above the rearview mirror, and you can flip the top back with one hand. The top folds into a compact little space, then locks into place. You can raise it with one hand too. It isn't power operated, but it doesn't need to be. This is about as simple and near-perfect as a convertible top gets. Mazda still offers an optional removable hardtop if you really want one.
On the road, the 2006 Miata seems as nimble and light on its feet as ever. The new engine feels and sounds just right, and fuel mileage -- 23 mpg in the city, 30 mpg on the highway -- adds to the package, and is actually better than with last year's smaller, less powerful engine. Although the automatic transmission is fine, the Miata really works best with a manual transmission, which would also save you $1,100 off the test car's sticker. The automatic has a typical console-mounted shifter, but also has big, awkward-looking paddles on the steering wheel that let you shift up or down. Thanks, but no thanks.
The 2006 Miata starts at $20,995 for a bare-bones Club Sport version, and tops out at $24,995 (including shipping) for the Grand Touring edition, which was the test vehicle. The only option was an automatic transmission, made for a $26,095 sticker. There are two option packages offered for the Grand Touring model, but it already had everything I'd want, including leather upholstery.
The best buy is the regular MX-5 model at $21,995, which gets you a five-speed manual transmission, a good four-speaker stereo and side air bags. It also adds air conditioning, which is lacking from the Club Sport model. A six-speed manual comes with the Touring, Sport and Grand Touring model, or you can get the automatic.
With the new 2006 Pontiac Solstice, the Miata finally has some sports-car competition in the low-$20,000 range. As nice as the Solstice is, the Miata has one thing the Pontiac model doesn't: More than 15 years of proven reliability and customer good will. Mazda has messed with success and succeeded in improving an already delightful car.
P.S.: Thanks for the knee room.
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Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith's TV reports air Thursdays on Central Florida News 13.
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