2007 Mazda MX-5

One wonders, watching the new hardtop MX-5 in action (I still call it the Miata), why so many other car companies – Mercedes-Benz, BMW, General Motors, Volvo – have had such a hard time packaging their convertible roofs, never mind their folding hardtops.

One wonders, watching the new hardtop MX-5 in action (I still call it the Miata), why so many other car companies – Mercedes-Benz, BMW, General Motors, Volvo – have had such a hard time packaging their convertible roofs, never mind their folding hardtops.

While it lacks the convenience of true one-touch operation (you still have to undo a latch on the windshield header), the top goes up and down in 10 seconds and doesn't eat into any of the available trunk space.

The soft-tops of the Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice, though they look really cool with their flying buttresses, eat up almost all of the trunk space in these two cars, and are a pain to put up and down.

Then there's the price: a $3,200 premium over the soft-top version, not much given the superior weather sealing and security provided by the hardtop.

How do they do it? Well, the top itself is, relative to other ones on the market, very small, spanning only two seats and with a deliberately stubby appearance; everything else on the market is bigger and many of them incorporate glass panels or a third section to span an extra pair of seats.

Beyond that, the rear half of the Mazda's roof splits into two, with the glass tucking away underneath the piece that surrounds it and into a shallow opening that's barely bigger than the one the Miata's standard soft-top folds away into.

True Miataphiles will, of course, notice that there are some subtle differences between the Power Retractable Hard Top (PRHT, as we'll call it) and the regular Miata.

The trunk is, in fact, fractionally higher than the regular Miata's, with a tiny rear spoiler moulded into the boot lid. Roof up, it looks subtly different from a Miata with the removable hardtop thanks to a big seam across the base of the roof and a bulging tonneau cover.

Inside, the curve of the roof means that there's actually even more headroom than in the soft-top version and visibility is much improved thanks to the large glass rear window.

But the hardtop is not more refined. I was expecting more insulation from wind and road noise in the PRHT, but it's still pretty busy inside the cabin at speed. There's plenty of noise from the roof (including the occasional squeak from up front) and it's a good thing the stereo has Bose's AudioPilot technology to up the volume level. Which is not to say that I really mind the Miata noise – the grumbling of the tires, the whine of the gearbox and the happy snarl of the engine are all part of its immersive driving experience.

Even when you're shut up inside with the hardtop on, you feel like you're really involved with this car, as if your right hand is right down there in the transmission moving the gears around, as if your feet are right by the wheels reading the texture of the road. It's wonderful.

The current Miata, of course, is a bit bigger than the first- and second-generation models. I guess it says something about the general state of automotive bloat when it still feels way smaller to drive than almost any car out there.

You sit really low in the cabin, but your shoulders are way up above the window line, exposed to the wind and the sun.

In profile, the Miata has classic long-hood short-deck proportions, but from behind the wheel, there doesn't seem to be much car in front of you at all.

Inside, even the farthest controls, for the stereo and the windows, are mere finger-widths away from the steering wheel or shifter. The downside of this, of course, is that even minivans start to feel threatening when you're driving around with the roof down and Hummer H2s seem so large that it's almost as if they could drive over you and not notice.

I've lamented in the past the Miata's growth, not just in terms of size but also in terms of engine power and tire size, but for whatever reason, this version felt livelier than others.

The 166 hp engine, connected in my tester to a super-slick six-speed manual, had just enough torque (140 lb.-ft.) to ease the winter-tire-shod rear end out into a gentle slide before the standard-fit stability control set in. This slight advantage of power over grip is what elevates the Miata into a driver's tool that's a lot more satisfying than the base models of the Solstice and Sky, which have way too much tire for their wheezy engines.

The turbocharged versions of both those GM cars (significantly more expensive even than a loaded Miata) are a lot more fun, but can't match the purity and sweetness of the Miata's driving experience, even if they are way faster. The Mini Cooper ragtop is only as fun if you opt for the more-expensive supercharged Cooper S and its rear seats and trunk are too small to be any more practical than the Mazda.

Even though it is small and very sporty, the Mazda is actually a relatively practical daily proposition. The trunk is big enough for a week's worth of groceries or a couple of large overnight bags (there's even a graphic inside the trunk showing you how to stuff golf bags in) and the seats are comfortable on long drives.

The low window sills also make the cabin more airy than the GM twins, meaning drives with the top up are still a pleasure during the winter months. Plus, the Miata has, over the years, earned a good reputation for toughness and reliability.

The question for me is, even though it's a relatively good deal, whether the PRHT adds much more to the experience. While it's one of the fastest power tops out there, it's still a lot slower than undoing a latch and throwing the soft-top over your shoulder (which, thanks to its brilliant design, the regular Miata allows you to do with one hand) and there isn't a benefit in terms of refinement.

My favourite Miata's also the cheapest Miata, so over $3,000 for the top represents a 10 per cent-plus price jump; the option makes more sense on the more expensive, leather-lined models, which can brush against $40,000 when you load them completely up.

I suspect that a lot of Miata buyers – and potential ones – won't wring their hands nearly as much as me and will happily tick the box on the options list. The power top, if nothing else, is very cool – and gives the Miata a real leg up on its competition.;



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