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2008 Mazda MX-5

One of the reasons I've loved the Mazda Miata for so long and so much is that it's the one sports car that's largely bucked the trend of getting heavier, more powerful and more aggressive with each passing generation.

One of the reasons I've loved the Mazda Miata for so long and so much is that it's the one sports car that's largely bucked the trend of getting heavier, more powerful and more aggressive with each passing generation.

Yes, today's Miata (now known as MX-5 in Canada) is a bit bigger than the original, which was introduced in 1990. Yes, it's quite a bit more powerful – 166 hp from a 2.0 L engine beats 116 hp from a 1.6 L. It's heavier, thanks to the addition of airbags, extra safety equipment and robust crash structures.

But it still retains its elemental lightness of response and, most important, its air of simplicity.

The Miata still has a smiley, googly-eyed face, the soft top still drops with the motion of one hand from the driver's seat and it still behaves like an eager little puppy; zippy, energetic and friendly, with virtually no threat of bite.

Still, as much as I like how cute and cheerful the Miata has remained, there is certainly a part of the roadster-buying population – many of them owners of older Miatas – who are looking for something more from Mazda's little sports car.

Having felt they'd mastered the Miata's dynamics, they're looking for something a bit faster, a bit more aggressive; something that's a bit more of a challenge. Mazda had to respond: largely thanks to the Miata's success, the market is rife with two-seat roadsters, most of them packing more power and more aggression.

Enter, then, Mazdaspeed performance parts, which take the friendly little puppy of a car and turn it into a miniature pit bull.

It starts with the looks. My creamy-white tester was fitted with an aggressive body kit that turned its rounded jellybean shape into something more purposeful and, some would say, masculine.

An extension underneath the front air intake gives this modified Miata a distinctive double chin. Side sill extensions visually lower the car – so does a Mazdaspeed sport spring kit, which drops the ride height by 34 mm – and make it look wider as well.

At the back, a more sculpted rear bumper wraps over the twin tailpipes, housing a venturi duct; you'd be forgiven if you thought, at a glance, you were looking at a BMW M Series. Up top, there's a small rear spoiler.

My tester retained the same 17-inch wheel and tire setup as up-level Miatas, but the wheels were tucked deeper into the fenders thanks to the shortened springs.

It's not like the car needs any more rubber on the road. Even in base format with 16-inch tires, the Miata can generate levels of cornering grip and g-force that would shame many so-called performance cars. It seems that no matter how hard you push, it just sticks and sticks and sticks.

That's even truer once you spend the bargain price of $383 for the Mazdaspeed sports suspension, which endows the little roadster with seemingly supernatural levels of stick.

You can barge into a corner, roll your wrists at the steering wheel and sail around almost any turn, your shoulder pressed up against the door panel as you slide out of the seat.

The new suspension has also introduced a little bit of extra throttle sensitivity. While you're never really going to get the rear end to step out on this car – there's just so much grip – a lift of the gas tightens your line noticeably around corners, making the modified Miata a lot of fun to twitch around with the gas pedal.

Indeed, there are a few downsides to the lower suspension: you have to be more careful going in and out of steep driveways; the front tires can aggressively follow ruts in the road – but the Miata's fine ride quality has been retained.

Perhaps it's because you're maintaining much more momentum around corners, or that you're sitting lower, but the Mazdaspeed-modified Miata feels so much faster than a stock car.

In reality, however, the cold-air intake ($451) and sports exhaust ($843) probably don't add more than a handful of horsepower.

Rather, they add a bit of extra attitude to the noise the Miata makes: its exhaust now barks on downshifts, it snorts angrily every time you toe into the gas and, unfortunately, drones loudly when you're cruising along.

What has improved a bit is the car's electric throttle response; it leaps forward with every twitch of your right foot, but still remains docile and easy-to-drive in town.

One of the nice things about the Mazdaspeed parts is that you can build exactly the car you want. My tester, which stickered at a fairly shocking $39,077, was based on the fully loaded GT model, with a leather interior, Bose sound system and other luxury goodies.

That's not far off what Pontiac and Saturn charge for the turbocharged versions of their two-seat roadsters, the Sky and Solstice, both of which produce almost 100 more horsepower than the Mazda.

The good news is that if you're really into the performance angle, you can build an equally capable road-burner for a lot less money, starting with a GS-spec car with a five-speed transmission, which is a lot nicer to shift than the GT's sticky six-speed.

Its cloth seats are grippier, too, a big improvement over the slippery leather units that come as standard in the GT.

Indeed, if I wanted to build a more aggressive Miata, I would definitely take the à la carte approach. Many of the performance-enhancing bits fitted to my test car were downright bargains: the suspension gives a noticeable improvement for only a few hundred bucks and the cold air intake adds a nice rasp to the engine sound.

I'd hesitate over the sports exhaust only because I like to take long trips in convertibles and would find the noise it makes grating on longer journeys.

I'd also pick and choose cosmetic additions: I like the angry-looking front bumper and the side sills, but almost $750 for a little lip of a spoiler seems a bit much and the rear bumper looks a bit fat, extended down so low.

As it is, all of the body additions fitted to my tester – as well as the big Mazdaspeed sticker across its windshield – attracted a lot of attention, some of it from members of our law-enforcement fraternity, who can now confiscate your car if they think it's been modified to go racing on the street.

In the end, that's not what this car is about. It's fast enough – a heck of a lot faster than the original Miata – but its real talents lie in the way it entertains even at low speeds, when you're wheeling around tight turns in the city, flicking between lanes, or circling on-ramps.

The Mazdaspeed parts add some edge to the Miata's behaviour but don't change its fundamental outlook: it's a small, light car that's as much of a delight to drive in everyday situations as it is to push hard on a racetrack or a winding road. It's a car that never fails to bring a smile to your face – and the improved suspension, snarly noises and hardened looks only add to the satisfaction.

Put differently, I turned 30 in the time I was driving this modified Miata, but I didn't even notice. It was like turning back the clock 10 years every time I got behind its little three-spoke wheel.


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