Mazda MX-5, the roadster formerly known as Miata, gets a shot of testosterone for 2006. Bigger, stronger and more, um, potent than before, MX-5 enters its third incarnation since launch in 1989.
The Miata name officially goes away this year, which makes sense only if you consider Mazda's efforts to shed its "chick car" image. Plenty of guys enjoy Miata's sporty behavior, but the two-seater's diminutive size and stylish shape grate on the muscle-car/monster-truck crowd.
The notoriously cramped interior doesn't help. Only drivers of small stature can find comfort here, which often translates to women.
To confuse the issue, Mazda will continue using the Miata name in advertising. Prices start at $20,435.
Whatever you call it, Mazda's plucky roadster continues its mission of redefining the nimble sports cars of the '50s and '60s, mainly imported from England and Italy. The concept worked, with Miata listed in Guinness World Records as the best-selling sports car of all time.
A few inches longer and wider, MX-5 gets a power boost for 2006, its four-cylinder engine bumped to 170 horsepower from 142.
The extra pull comes just in the nick of time. For 2006, Pontiac rolled out its highly anticipated Solstice sports car, with similar configuration, power and starting price, about $20,000. Solstice has stirred the same kind of buying frenzy enjoyed by Miata when it first appeared 17 years ago, with a lengthy waiting list to buy.
Solstice would have trumped the former Miata. The new MX-5 is on equal footing.
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PERFORMANCE: The new 2-liter engine makes MX-5 feel like a hot little club racer with a sweetly raspy note from the tailpipe. The engine revs happily, providing strong, flexible power.
Keeping the faith with a four-banger rather than stuffing a V-6 under the hood maintains MX-5's classic format. The Grand Touring test car comes with a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission, which shifted like butter and was well suited to the engine power. A six-speed automatic with paddle shifting is optional.
DRIVABILITY: MX-5 gains balance with the engine moved back in the frame, bringing more weight to the middle and adding to the agile handling. It's a blast to drive on a winding road. Freeway cruising is another matter.
The combination of firm suspension, tire noise, light weight and tight interior create a hostile work environment. MX-5 blows around in crosswinds and skips over expansion joints.
STYLING: MX-5 is unmistakably a Miata, despite the larger size and muscular wheel arches. The look is more purposeful and, as intended, more masculine. The manual roof goes down easily, with a single latch and one-handed operation. The folded top forms its own cover behind the seats.
INTERIOR: My lanky, too-tall frame never fit in the old Miatas. But hope springs eternal, and I was looking forward to the MX-5's enlarged cockpit. It's noticeably roomier, but I'm still squished in this driver's seat, kneecaps pointing to the sky.
Oh, well. Most people likely will find the new MX-5 more accommodating, with a wider body, more comfortable seats and good-looking dials and controls.
BOTTOM LINE: The purity of the original Miata concept, a simple, sprightly and affordable sports car in the European tradition, remains intact with the new MX-5.
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Vehicle type: Two-passenger, two-door convertible, rear-wheel drive.
Engine: 2-liter inline four, 170 horsepower at 6,700 rpm, 140 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Wheelbase: 91.7 inches.
Overall length: 157.3 inches.
Curb weight: 2,498 pounds.
EPA rating: 24 city, 30 highway.
Highs: Sharp handling, more power, roadster fun.
Lows: Snug interior, busy highway ride, too-perky image.
Base price: $24,435.
Price as tested: $25,495.
* Sport-tuned suspension and limited-slip differential, $500.
* Shipping, $560.
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For more on the Mazda MX-5 Miata, go to autos.azcentral .com.
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