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2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata

To get a sense of just how important the new MX-5 (nee Miata) is to Mazda, you have only to look at the business cards that members of the roadster's design team proffer when you meet them.

Everybody's card not only has name, phone number and address, but also a full-colour photo of the sports car.

While this two-seater will trail far behind volume leaders like the Mazda3 and Mazda6 in sales, its emotional appeal, both for customers and for people inside the company, goes much deeper than mere numbers.

Its 1989 launch started Mazda's renaissance, and Miata remains at the centre of the company's pitch to driving enthusiasts.

Without it, there would have been no RX-8 four-passenger coupe, and the sportiness inherent in Mazda products probably wouldn't be there, either.

So you can imagine the challenge that the new Miata's development team faced with redesigning such an icon.

How to balance the seemingly conflicting demands of making a vehicle that was simultaneously more modern but also would retain some of the elemental retro appeal that made the original first-generation Miata such a hit? How to compete against an increasingly varied range of competitors – many of which wouldn't exist were it not for Mazda opening up the market for value-conscious convertibles – without alienating the core customer base for whom affordability was one of the original car's prime attributes? How to simultaneously add the features and extra room that buyers today wish to have, while retaining the tight dimensions and instantaneous responsiveness that have defined the car since its introduction? Very carefully.

Yes, the new Miata is bigger. An all-new platform, which shares some engineering but little componentry with the RX-8, is longer and wider, with a lengthened wheelbase.

Interior room is significantly improved over the old car's; the seats have a much longer range of travel, but remain low to the ground so that decent headroom can be achieved.

The wider interior means you no longer butt shoulders with your passenger, and there's enough elbow room for a decent padded armrest on the inside of the door.

More than anything, though, it's the car's overall architecture – the view out over the higher, wider hood , the higher window sills, the smaller side windows – that gives the impression of extra size and heft.

Though the Miata hasn't actually grown that much, its newfound roominess means it lacks that sense of intimacy of the old one – you're just that tiny bit further away from the action.

In practice, the extra size becomes a problem only on the narrowest and windiest of roads.

This little Mazda's steering remains pure magic: it bends into curves as if it can read your mind and remains sensitive to even the smallest changes in pavement surface.

But you notice that thanks to the car's extra width, you can't go quite as deep into those hairpins as you used to, and at least initially, you drive a bit more carefully than you would have in the deliciously flickable previous-generation car.

Compensation comes, however, in extra stability – thanks to a larger footprint, wider 205/45R17 tires and optional dynamic stability control – and improved ride comfort and general refinement when you're not in sports-car mode.

While the overall feel is less edgy than the last-gen Miata, which would snarl and squeal between corners, the latest version flows better, allows you to maintain more momentum thanks to its improved chassis balance, better brakes, bigger tires and increased horsepower.

Those horses now number 170 and are pushed out by the largest engine yet fitted to a Miata, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder connected to a standard five-speed manual or the optional six-speed manual that was fitted to my GS tester.

This is still a practical little sports car – important, because at its price point, it will be the primary vehicle for many buyers.

The trunk, for instance, can hold a week's worth of groceries easily or a couple of big overnight bags. There are numerous, if little, storage cubbies in the cabin, including a pair of useful door pockets, four cupholders (two of them in the doors) and a storage compartment between the seats.

Contrast this with the MX-5's only major competition, the Pontiac Solstice (similar in length but wider), which has almost no trunk space and whose interior lacks useful storage spaces.

As always, operating the Mazda's top is easy: you now only have to undo a single latch and throw it back over your head to go alfresco, and you don't need to leave your seat to raise it, either.

The firm has held the line on pricing while making the 2006 Miatas better-equipped than their predecessors.

All models now come with tilt steering, remote audio controls and other goodies and feel more expensive than they used to.

The GS package adds bigger wheels, a limited-slip differential and strut tower bar while the GT adds leather, a cloth top and xenon headlights.

The new styling is exceptionally clean, with high-tech details and nearly invisible shutlines that impart an upscale air; some of the Miata faithful might miss the car's organic curves.

The interior is more comfortable, with wider, deeper bucket seats and extra equipment, and is constructed of better materials (save the cheap plastic on the lower dash) that include swaths of body-colour plastic, real aluminum and nice leathers and fabrics.

While $30,000 or so might seem like a lot for a small two-seater, the Miata remains a bargain. It offers a driving experience that's hard to match for any price, such is its friendliness, immediacy and fun factor.

This redone sports car has a specialness that adds up to so much more than the sum of its vastly improved parts.

It has broader appeal: it's now a comfortable highway cruiser and a great urban commuter.

And it remains one of the few rides that seems made for connecting us with the road so many other cars are now trying to dissociate us from.

yap @ mac.com wheels @ thestar.ca Mazda MX-5 Price: Base/as tested, $27,995/$31,995 Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder Fuel consumption: City/highway/as tested, 9.7/7.2/9.5 L/100 km Power/torque: 170 hp/140 lb.-ft.

Competition: Pontiac Solstice, Honda Civic Si Pros: Still the best sub-$60,000 roadster Cons: It's not quite as cute – or as frisky – as it once was.

What's interesting: It's as fast as the old Mazdaspeed Miata

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