Last updateWed, 20 Sep 2017 9am

On The Road

2006 Mazda MX-5 - A thoroughly modern classic sports car

Mazda has amped up the venerable Miata line to give it more horsepower, additional cargo space and greater fuel efficiency in one hot little package, the new MX-5.

With the MG, the British can properly claim to have introduced the excitement of sports-car driving to these shores, but according to the Guinness Book of Records, the title for best-selling sports car of all time passed to Mazda a year or so ago, when Mazda Miata sales outdistanced those of every other sports car manufacturer.

Time enough for Mazda to rest on its laurels and go on to some other niche, right? Based on our experience with the new 2006 Mazda MX-5, we're pleased to say that rather than discontinuing the roadster in the face of recently disappointing sales, they've just introduced a new, and definitely improved, model without screwing up any of the good things that made the original Miata such a treat.

But what's up with that name change? The Miata name doesn't appear anywhere on the new model, with its muscular fender flares over 17-inch alloy wheels and large brake discs, taut nose and pleasingly rounded rear end.

Instead, Mazda has decided to go global with the MX-5 designation by which the Miata has always been known outside the United States. Publicly, they're saying that it's just a matter of global marketing efficiency. However, the private word is that the name change was a reaction to some focus group research that has suggested the name Miata implied the car was, to use the politically incorrect term prevalent in auto circles, a "chick car."

We would have been prepared to argue that the previous version was anything but feminine in its characteristics, though it was certainly a pleasant cruiser if that was all you wanted.

Sure, it only had four cylinders under the hood, putting out less than 150 horsepower, but the handling and responsiveness made it a great car to flog on track days. In fact, the Miata spec-racing class is one of the most popular classes in SCCA amateur racing.

With the new 2006 version, they've bumped horsepower up to 170, with a respectable 140 pound-feet of torque, which makes the car even more satisfying to drive in high-speed conditions. Better yet, with the extra power on tap, you can toddle along in what is laughingly referred to as the Bay Area rush hour without having to be constantly shifting to keep the car from stalling.

But one of the best features of the MX-5 is its transmission. Shifting gears has always been one of the particular pleasures of the Miata, and the new MX-5 doesn't give up anything in that department. The short gear lever sits right under your right hand as it drops from the steering wheel, and the short throws can be executed with a quick flick of the wrist.

Another positive feature of the redesign is that, unlike other sports cars on the market, even ones costing twice as much, this one actually has practical cargo space. With the top up or down, the 5.3 feet of rectangular trunk space will actually carry five bags of groceries home from the store.

And, speaking of practicality, the new MX-5 engine, adapted from the Mazda3 but retuned for sportiness, also is less thirsty at the gas pump. While the old Miata numbers of 22/28 didn't look bad compared with the average sport-ute, the 2006 is rated at 30 mpg on the highway, with the standard five-speed transmission delivering 25 mpg in traffic and the optional six-speed losing only one mpg to that. Even the six-speed automatic transmission, which might actually make sense for the hills of San Francisco, gets 23 mpg on EPA city-driving tests.

Faster on the track, more comfortable in traffic, and costs less to drive than the old model -- those are pretty good claims for any manufacturer to be able to make and they're certainly accurate for the MX5. And the new model sells as little as $21,000 if you're going club racing and don't want silly things like air conditioning and radio, up to about $26,000 for the relatively cushy Grand Touring model with the six-speed transmission, Bose sound system, leather upholstery and AC.

But beyond the numbers, this little car is just plain fun to drive, equally suitable for a young driving enthusiast, or those of us who want to satisfy our midlife need for something sporting without getting into the cliché of a bigger muscle car. In that sense, Mazda has kept the faith with automotive enthusiasts and should be able to count on solid sales as their reward.

Is there anything else to compare to the MX-5? Well, yes, to be quite truthful. In an effort to get some traction in the marketplace, General Motors has just rushed the Pontiac Solstice into production. It's the only head-to-head competitor in terms of price, packaging, practicality and performance. Sure, there are a few small comparative differences. The Solstice is better looking when the top is retracted, but the top is more complicated to operate. The rear end of the Solstice is slightly better looking, but the trunk space is smaller as a result. Performance numbers are almost identical.

Nevertheless, if you want to get into a hot low-priced sports roadster right now, the MX-5 is at your Mazda dealer, while the Solstice is still being rationed and commanding a premium at many dealers.

As for us, we can't think of any reason to wait around. Slide into the seats of the MX-5 with their comfortable side bolsters, flick the top release and toss the top back over your head into its neat little compartment behind the seats.

Then start the rorty two-liter engine, and head for Page Mill Road, Highway 9 or Portola Road up toward Skyline Drive. The steep ascents and tight corners will show off the perfect combination of torque, suspension, and gearing that Mazda has assembled in this attractive little package.

A quick fall drive is a great recipe for enjoying your youth in a fast, good-handling car that is still reliable and weatherproof with all the standard safety and environmental advances we've come to expect, or reliving the good old days when sports cars were British and driving fun was their primary purpose.

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