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2008 Mazda MX-5 Special Version satisfies kid-free fantasy

Unlike some fantasies, whose fulfilment for most would require massive winnings in a lottery or an inexplicable lapse in judgment on the part of Scarlett Johansson or Brad Pitt, the prospect of some day owning a two-seat convertible sports car remains within the realm of possibility.

Unlike some fantasies, whose fulfilment for most would require massive winnings in a lottery or an inexplicable lapse in judgment on the part of Scarlett Johansson or Brad Pitt, the prospect of some day owning a two-seat convertible sports car remains within the realm of possibility.

Most of the credit for that goes to Mazda, which has built record numbers of sporty ragtops since its Miata debuted in 1989, and has built them well enough that plenty of relatively inexpensive used models abound.

Although a few barriers to my acquisition plan remain, I've sated the Miata craving a couple of times in the past by renting one from a Toronto dealer so my wife and I could take a road trip in a convertible – sorry kids! – with just two seats.

The latest hitch to my plans, though, is the 2008 MX-5 Special Version reviewed here, which caused a sudden depreciation in my fondness for the earlier models.

This was my first taste of the third-generation MX-5, which debuted in 2006 with a shape notable for the raised wheel arches, a revised chassis and a larger 2.0-litre inline four rated at 166 hp and 140 lb.-ft. of torque.

Compared with the previous model, it was no contest; this latest version has a heavier, stouter character, but it also feels stronger and better planted, without losing its nimble flair.

Just 105 Special Version models arrived in Canada this year, with a list price of $37,490, compared with the base model's $28,195. The higher price reflects some distinctive interior and exterior elements, including the paint, leather seats, nifty 17-inch wheels and a six-speed manual transmission. It also includes the power retractable hardtop that, in about 12 seconds, miraculously folds into a storage space separate from the trunk.

Although, in theory, a manually operated convertible represents no great hardship, during a week when it rained every single day, the ability to hit a button for quick operation of the folding hardtop seemed a brilliant convenience.

The power top adds 36 kg to the 1,138 kg curb weight of the six-speed manual model (with A/C), which seems to me a slight penalty for the benefits – though it does represent a deviation from the elemental Miata ideal.

The engine produces its peak horsepower at 6700 rpm and, while flexible down low, rewards an active use of the six-speed gearbox, which offers short throws and precise engagement.

Close placement of the brake and gas pedals makes heel-and-toe work feel natural, rather than a contortionist's trick, and the athletic sound of the hard-working engine adds to the fun.

Picking the right gear and hitting the gas out of a corner provides sensory joy without straining the boundaries of physics or the law. It seems responsive to a hard caning, without putting your licence in the kind of jeopardy a more powerful vehicle might.

That same kind of rewarding feedback surfaces in the chassis as well, where the direct response to the steering and tight packaging amplify cornering sensations.

The prowess of the MX-5 on race tracks has been well established, but at a more casual pace, it continues to generate racy sensations. Push it harder and you generate oversteer, though the Special Version includes dynamic stability control and a limited-slip differential as restraining influences.

Some of those go-kart sensations derive from the compact interior, which offers snug and low seating, supportive against cornering forces but lacking in thigh support for a mundane cruise over longer distances, with too much weight tipped onto your tailbone.

The Bose sound system with a six-CD changer benefits from the better sound insulation provided by the hardtop, though it still struggles to overcome tire and wind noise at higher speeds. With the top down, there's a better cocoon of still air than I remember from the previous-generation Miata, but music listening is best left to urban driving.

For years I've been telling a friend of mine – who had a couple of disastrous outcomes with a Triumph Spitfire and GT6 – that he should buy an MX-5 and relive the experience, this time without the headaches. I know he's thinking about it.

The appeal of the MX-5 is simple and right; it's grown-up life that keeps on getting in the way, but Mazda makes the hurdle seem possible.

Freelance auto reviewer Bruce Reeve can be reached at brucereeve@sympatico.ca

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