Friday, December 16, 2005

Revised Miata Better, But Still the Same

Has the Mazda Miata really been on the road for a decade and a half? The answer is yes and 2006 brings us the third generation of an instant classic from Japan that captured and refined so much of what made old British two-seaters like the MG-B so memorable.

For 2006, there is a new exterior shape, a decidedly more refined interior and a significant boost of horsepower under the hood. Even with the changes, however, the Miata remains what it has always been – an affordable two-seater with a delightful balance of power and handling that makes the driver and car feel as one.

Let’s start on the outside with the new look, which moves away from the coke bottle shape of the first and second generation, replacing it with a bit of an edgier approach that features distinctive wheel arches in the fenders, a prominent oval front air inlet and a rear-end that has more presence.

You still know instantly the first time you see it that the 2006 model is a Miata but it is a more striking shape now than before. I love the way the 16-inch wheels and tires fill the arches, yet the overall shape retains the close-coupled feel of the previous generations.

Under the hood Mazda has boosted power output from the previous generation’s 142 horses coming from a 1.8 liter four cylinder to 170 horses from a new 2.0 liter four cylinder that can be hooked to either a slick-shifting five-speed stick or a six-speed automatic.

The stick’s shift linkage remains among the best in the world, providing quick, short throws, exceptionally sharp engagement and just the right feel. With the added power, there is less of a need to shift, but I still found myself rowing my Miata tester up and down the gears for the simple joy of working with the tranny and shifter.

There is another aspect of the new engine that is worthy of mention and that is its positioning. Mazda moved the engine back in the chassis five inches and that change along had the effect of evening the weight distribution to a perfect 50/50, front and rear.

Talk about engineering harmony! With the increased power and the slight improvement in weight distribution, the Miata is even more the addictive tool for seeing how close you can come to a classic four-wheel-drift in a corner.

The interior features an upgraded feel that is a function of both the use of higher quality materials and crisper appearances for the various gauges. Mazda has also accomplished the impossible by making the one-hand-only folding convertible top even easier to put up and down.

Mazda has seen its ups and downs over the years, but the one consistent high note since 1989 has been the Miata, which has created and sustained a large and loyal following who almost unanimously love their automotive icon.

That’s quite an accomplishment and explains why “zoom-zoom” is precisely the right expression of what a great car company should be all about in its heart.