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2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata

  • Driver

Jinba ittai.

That's a Japanese phrase meaning "oneness between horse and rider." According to the official history of the Mazda Miata, that was the inspiration for the development of what surely is the seminal sports car of our time.

The not-so-official story is that Marc Jordan, a designer with Mazda's California design studio, and Bob Hall, an automotive journalist, were relaxing in a southern California bar after a long day's work. This would have been in the mid-1980s.

They got to wondering why nobody was building a pure, elemental sports car any more.

It was a short mental journey from there to surmising what a Lotus Elan for the modern era might look like.

"Imagine," one of them must have more or less said, "How cool would it be to have an Elan that didn't break down every 15 minutes?" A couple of pencil-on-cocktail-napkin sketches later, and there was the Miata.

At the launch of the first-generation car in 1989, one of the supplied press photos was a dead-profile shot, in black and white. I remembered having seen a Road & Track magazine shot of the Lotus Elan from around 1964 that looked dead similar.

Throwing copyright laws to the wind, we ran that Lotus picture and the Miata picture side by side here in Wheels. You could barely tell them apart.

There may be some truth in both stories. I like the Jordan-Hall one better.

Doesn't matter. The car was fabulous and became an immediate worldwide hit.

A mid-life refresh a few years ago didn't materially change things: bigger engine, no more frog-eye pop-up headlights, slightly modified contours. It was still a delight to drive.

But for 2006, it has come time for a completely new Miata.

Problem: replacing a failure is easy; how do you replace a legend? A car that, after all these years, is still pretty much perfect at discharging the assignment it has been given? With great care, is how.

And with great understanding of the car's traditions, jinba ittai or no jinba ittai.

Takao Kajima, program manager on the new car, worked as a suspension engineer on the original, so he knows what the Miata is all about.

Yasushi Nakamuta, the chief designer, probably had the toughest challenge of all: to retain the style, look and mostly the character of the original Miata (or, if you're being less than charitable, the Elan), yet update it, bring it into the 21st century.

And not the least, incidentally, ensure that the car had more room inside for our ever-increasing bodies and passed all current and near-term-future safety standards.

One of which – impending regulations regarding protection of pedestrians who have the misfortune to get in your way – resulted in a considerably taller, blunter front end than the original car could get away with.

The Coke bottle narrowing of the waist of the original is gone, to accommodate our collective corpulence and the now-standard side air bags.

The slightly more bulbous back end provides a significant increase in trunk space.

Nakamuta also incorporated broad-shouldered front fenders to enclose a wider track and the beefier 16- or 17-inch wheels and tires, and to visually draw the Miata closer into the Mazda family – the fenders are distinctly RX-8-like.

No lie, since much of the underpinnings of the car are shared with the RX-8, including most of the double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension hardware, recalibrated, of course, for the Miata's lighter weight.

Miata retains its unique powerplant frame, a truss-like aluminum casting that runs longitudinally down the centre of the car, providing a backbone upon which hang the rest of the car's mechanical hardware.

Not unlike, it must be said, the Lotus Elan, although that car's central structure was fabricated out of sheet steel, if memory serves.

The Miata's performs the same function, though – rigidity with minimal weight.

The numbers support that claim – resistance to bending is up by 22 per cent and to torsional flexing by 47 per cent.

Despite the larger size and increased equipment, total weight gain has been limited to just 10 kg.

The powerplant frame also looks gorgeous. Too bad they couldn't find some way to make the floor transparent – not many people are going to jack their car up so their friends can enjoy that particular view.

Two engines are specified for the Miata, a 1.8-litre, twin-cam, 16-valve four developing 126 hp, and a bored-out 2.0-litre derivative.

We'll only get the larger one, essentially the same as in our Mazda3, but with more power.

Final North American specs are yet to be released, but in European tune, this engine generates 160 pferdestarke – metric horsepower – at 6,700 r.p.m., and 138 lb.-ft. of torque at 5,000 r.p.m.

That modest torque value and that high peak torque r.p.m.

suggest you'll be using the gearbox a lot. Fortunately, in a Miata, that has always been pure pleasure. Both five- and six-speed manual transmissions are available, depending on market. I suspect we'll only get the latter.

A six-speed, paddle-shifted automatic will be optional.

As before, considerable effort has been expended to make sure the Miata's exhaust system sings the right song.

No Wankel rotary, more's the pity. Miata program manager Kajima told me at the car's launch in Geneva last month that it would be too powerful and would upset the car's perfect balance.

Too much power? In a sports car? We should have had a longer chat.

The engine is located 135 mm farther rearward in the chassis, for an ideal 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution. This should help alleviate what was perhaps the Miata's one handling flaw, its tail-happiness.

The interior is where the biggest changes occur in the new car.

It looks almost too luxurious in there, with higher-quality materials, larger, more comfortable seats, added air vents for more pleasant cool- and hot-weather driving, an even easier-to-use folding top with glass rear window, a wind deflector behind the seats to reduce drafts, and an optional advanced Bose sound system.

Three separate storage areas along the back wall of the cabin, a lockable glovebox, a bottle holder in the door map pocket and even a pair of cup holders provide better-than-expected oddment space for such a small car.

There's even – gasp – a tilt steering wheel, although fully upward is surely about as low as anyone would want it.

Note that throughout, I have referred to the car as the "Miata." Because that's what it is. Except nowhere on the car will you find a badge bearing that word.

In a baffling display of ignorance that only a marketing genius could come up with, Mazda has decided to label the car the way the rest of the world knows it: MX-5.

As if anyone in North America (especially in the United States, which is by far the car's largest market) gives a flying wahoo what anyone else anywhere in the world thinks.

Mazda Canada will be using "MX-5 Miata" in its communications to help provide a transition, but it's just a stupid, stupid idea to drop the Miata name.

Didn't they learn from Nissan? That company took 20 years to recover from dropping its Datsun brand.

Or from Acura, which still hasn't got its customers, let alone prospects, to understand that "RSX" means "Integra" or "RL" means "Legend." If it's possible to be even more stupid, Mazda is simultaneously trying to launch the new compact minivan called – wait for it – the Mazda5.

What's wrong with these people? Fortunately, at first glance anyway, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot wrong with the Miata as a car, by any name.

Yours truly will be among the first to drive the new generation late this June; you'll be among the first to know what it's like.

I can hardly wait.

jim @ jimkenzie.com

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