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2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata

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KA'UPULEHU-KONA, Hawaii- Takao Kajima has pretty much made his career at Mazda with the Miata.

He was a suspension engineer on the first-generation car, introduced in 1989, and was promoted to program manager on the second-gen car (1999).

He maintained that position for the all-new Miata, due to hit Canadian Mazda showrooms this August, as a 2006 model.

Starting price: under $28,000.

Kajima offered a series of numbers that help define the rethought Miata.

As in 1: the part number count shared with the outgoing version (the side marker lights for the European-spec cars; North American Miatas are totally new).

As in 6: the number of driving scenarios in which the development team decided the new car had to excel to meet their objectives, namely: leaving a parking lot and heading onto a two-lane road; turning at an intersection; flowing with urban traffic; merging onto a freeway; outrunning other cars (we were strongly discouraged from trying this on the cop-infested roads of our test route); handling a winding road.

But the most significant number was offered by powertrain chief engineer Tetsuo Fujitomi: As in 5: "The number of metres you have to drive to know that this is a new (Miata)." The challenge faced by chief designer Yasushi Nakamuta was to maintain the look of the original Miata, but to move the game on a little, make the car more modern, more sophisticated.

It's something that many car makers have faced: How do you evolve an iconic shape? Stray too far and you lose your faithful fans; don't go far enough and you drift into irrelevancy.

Mazda's European, American and Japanese studios took their best shots at the third-generation Miata. The Hiroshima team's concept won the day.

The most obvious difference between old and new is the taller, blunter front end, partly driven by pedestrian crash standards either here or coming.

Also, the Coke-bottle wasp-waist motif of the original had to be sacrificed, largely due to the largely larger occupants the new car must accommodate, and the available side air bags.

A deeper grille, plus broader-shouldered and flared fenders bring a bit of RX-8 family resemblance to the table.

This Miata is at once more professional, more grown-up – in attitude as well as size – yet still cool and attractive.

It's 40 mm longer, 40 mm wider, 15 mm taller and 65 mm longer in wheelbase, with a significantly larger cabin being the most obvious result.

If the exterior doesn't look much different, the interior does. A few touchstones remain: round eyeball dash air vents and classic circular instruments trimmed in chrome.

But the quality of the materials, the fit and the finish are of an entirely higher order.

The quick and simple folding canvas top, a Miata hallmark, has been made quicker and simpler. It's much easier now to grab it from its folded position and pull it straight forward into place.

Mechanically, the same theme persists: Take a compact, lightweight, front-engine, rear-drive, four-cylinder, two-seat sports roadster.

Then improve it.

A 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine is offered in fuel-conscious Europe. But we'll only be getting a 2.0-litre, twin-cam, 16-valve four with electronic throttle – essentially the base engine in the Mazda3. It produces 170 hp at 6700 r.p.m., only eight fewer than the turbocharged Mazdaspeed version of the outgoing car.

The torque peak is just 140 lb.-ft. at 5000 r.p.m., significantly weaker than the Mazdaspeed car, which suggests you'll be using the gearbox a lot if you want to progress reasonably rapidly.

No worries. Miata gearboxes have long been the gold standard, and they still are.

The base GX trim level gets a five-speed; my primary test car here had the six-cog box, which is standard on sport-oriented GS and luxury-oriented GT.

A six-speed automatic is an option on GX, as well as GT, but the latter gets steering-wheel-mounted shifting paddles.

ABS is standard on GS and GT; sadly, not offered on GX. The sporty GS also is the only version that offers a limited-slip differential, dynamic stability control and traction control.

The engine is eager if not blindingly fast. The six-speed manual transmission is, as noted, terrific.

The new automatic also is truly good. With six ratios, the gaps in the engine's torque curve can be overcome. Shifting – either automatically or with the steering wheel paddles – is very fast, yet smooth.

The steering is light, direct and quick, but not darty. Handling is excellent.

The brake pedal feels firm, the car stops with alacrity.

But what continues to shine through in this Mazda is the overall balance.

Note that throughout, I have referred to this car as the "Miata," because that's what it is.

In an unfathomable marketing decision, Mazda has decided to brand the car as "MX-5" in North America, because that's what it's called in Europe.

Like we – or more significantly, the Americans – give a damn about what they do in Europe.

The GX starts at $27,995, exactly the same price as the current base car. Air-con and a removable hardtop are other options.

The sporty GS, with six-speed, ABS, LSD, DSC, 17-inch alloy wheels (up from 16) and sports suspension, starts at $30,995.

Same options as GX, except no autobox.

The GT adds heated leather seats plus air-con, side air bags, keyless entry and ignition, cloth top (as opposed to vinyl) and a spectacular seven-speaker Bose audio system. It goes for $33,995.

Jim Kenzie, a freelance journalist (jim @ jimkenzie.com), prepared this report based on travel provided by the automaker.

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