Miata is still tops after 20 years

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The cute little Mazda MX-5 Miata isn't the lowest-priced roadster in America anymore. Its U.S. sales haven't topped 17,000 in nearly a decade.

Still, the two-seater -- now marking its 20th year -- is still a lot of fun, especially now that suspension changes make the diminutive, 13-foot-long car even more poised during energetic driving.

Mileage is improved slightly, too, and most noticeably, the exterior looks sportier and more grown up.

The rear-wheel-drive, 2009 MX-5 arguably packs more driving enjoyment into a small, affordable package than any other car on the market. No wonder so many buyers compare its nimble handling and overall character to British roadsters of old.

Better than those roadsters, the MX-5 is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports magazine, with a "very good" reliability rating, and the starting price is only $22,420.

The 2-liter, four-cylinder engine puts out a credible 167 horses and 140 foot-pounds of torque at 5,000 rpm to provide spirited driving that matches the look of the car.

The specs don't do the car justice. Drivers have to experience what the engine can do for a soft-top car that weighs less than 2,500 pounds. The Miata pulls forward with gusto and keeps going.

I love working the six-speed manual shifter. It's one of the most satisfying and gets even better for 2009 with carbon coating on some synchros for improved gas mileage -- up to 21 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on highways.

Mazda engineers pushed the redline upward by 500 rpm to 7,200 rpm, so there's more opportunity for spirited driving. This was no small feat. It required a new forged steel crankshaft, revised pistons, stiffer valve springs and an engine oil cooler, among other things.

The test Grand Touring model with manual transmission was adaptable to all driving conditions -- city traffic and on less-traveled country roads -- without being fussy.

The small steering wheel fit just right inside the compact interior, and the rack-and-pinion steering responded easily.

The turning radius is something to behold, too. It's less than 31 feet. The Miata wheeled right into compact parking spaces with nary a care, and it snagged the smallest of curbside parking spots. ones that sport utility vehicles and Toyota Camry sedans couldn't fit into.

I heard the engine all the time and often found myself cranking up the radio so I could hear it over the rising engine revs. At stoplights, I'd have to turn the volume back down.

The engine sounds are improved for 2009, thanks to a sound enhancer for models with six-speed manual. This enhancer has tuned pipes and a passive resonance membrane to help manage engine sounds appropriately.

There's plenty of road noise, too, regardless of whether the soft roof is up or down. In this way, the sports car is a real throwback to earlier roadsters that gave drivers a much more intimate connection to the outdoors than most vehicles do today.

The ride is firmly sporty, not smooth or cushioned. Driver and passenger feel the pavement quite clearly, and in the test car with optional sport suspension, the car bounced over expansion cracks on concrete bridges.

The Miata continues to keep a simple fabric roof that can be opened and closed with one hand while the driver sits inside the vehicle. It's all manual and the driver doesn't have to be muscle-bound.

Still, for those who prefer a power-operating top, Mazda offers a retractable hard top, too. It adds weight -- and cost -- to the car, however. The starting price for an MX-5 Miata with power retractable hard top is $26,060.

It takes some time to get accustomed to Miata's small interior. For example, I found myself instinctively ducking my head as I climbed inside with the top on.

The optional key-free entry seems weird. Though I didn't need to insert a key into an ignition spot inside the car, I had to manually turn an ignition switch stub that looked like a traditional key slot.

The dashboard is among the smallest around, so passengers sit closer to the windshield than they do in many other vehicles.

Occupants drop down quite a bit to settle into the seats. They sit low to the pavement, where views are badly stunted by taller vehicles ahead.

All sizes of drivers will have an easy time getting comfortable in the driver seat because there's a good amount of seat travel.

SPECS

THE VEHICLE: 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata, a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger roadster

BASE PRICE: $21,750 for SV with manual transmission and soft top; $22,750 for Sport manual; $25,010 for Sport automatic; $25,090 for Touring manual; $25,390 for Sport manual with power retractable hard top; $26,190 for Touring automatic; $26,350 for Grand Touring manual (tested)

DESTINATION CHARGE: $670

PRICE AS TESTED: $29,170

ENGINE: 2-liter, 167-horsepower, double-overhead-cam, four-cylinder

TRANSMISSION: Six-speed manual

EPA MILEAGE: 21 mpg city, 28 mpg highway

TOP SPEED: 134 mph

LENGTH: 157.3 inches

WHEELBASE: 91.7 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 2,447 pounds

BUILT IN: Japan

OPTIONS: Premium package (includes alarm, keyless entry system, Xenon high-intensity discharge headlights, Sirius satellite radio and Bluetooth phone connectivity), $1,650; suspension package (includes limited slip differential and sport-tuned suspension), $500


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