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2009 Mazda MX-5: A Miata by any other name...

Mazda would like us to believe its diminutive, iconic two-seat roadster is called the MX-5. It's not. It's the Miata. Always has been. Always will be.

Mazda would like us to believe its diminutive, iconic two-seat roadster is called the MX-5. It's not. It's the Miata. Always has been. Always will be.

Allow me to illustrate:

"Pete, what car are you testing this week?"

"A Mazda MX-5."

Awkward silence. Blank stare. Chirping crickets.

"You know, a Miata."

"Oh, yeah! Cute car. Don't they come with a big bottle of perfume?"

Legendary chick-car status notwithstanding, friend Gary Craig and I, being reasonably secure in our manhood, took a look-at-me Competition Yellow 2009 Miata, er, MX-5 GT deep into Niagara wine country in search of some new vintages.

This third-generation car (launched in 2006 with the MX-5 handle) sees a number of tweaks for 2009. Externally, it gets more muscular side-sills, reshaped rear bumper and a revised visage with sharper headlights and a (thankfully) subtler version of Mazda's leering grille.

The interior is spruced up with recontoured sport seats, trim upgrades, sharper gauge graphics, a new centre console with additional storage, a padded armrest and door panels reshaped for increased leg room.

MX-5 pricing starts at $28,995 for the five-speed manual soft-top GX. Our fully loaded six-speed manual GT specimen checked in at a healthy $39,995. That price included the power retractable hardtop (which is a $2,295 option on the $33,495 six-speed GS model).

With the top in place on the highway, both Gary and I, at around six feet, found the cabin quite accommodating with plenty of headroom. Decent legroom too, but the foot wells are narrow. Those wearing size-12 clodhoppers will find the closely spaced pedals a challenge,

The Miata has never been a great highway car, but this 2009 tin-top version, featuring improved sound insulation and ride quality, is the best yet. There's still plenty of road, wind and engine noise (3400 r.p.m. at 120 km/h), and the steering feels twitchy at speed, but compared to earlier versions, this one's a veritable limo.

No one buys an MX-5 for long-distance touring anyway. It's made for sunny days and country roads, and Craig and I hit the sweet spot on a balmy May afternoon in wine country.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Miata and I'm happy to report this car retains the playful rear-drive purity that made the Miata a hit from day one.

The low beltline gives you the sense of being part of the great outdoors, and all the major controls are calibrated for quick response and economy of motion. Clutch takeup is short, and a mere twist of the wrist has the roadster obediently changing direction. The star of the show is the rifle-bolt six-speed shifter that sprouts from the top of the transmission, just as God intended.

A six-speed auto with paddle shifters is a $1,200 option. And yes, God will probably forgive you for ordering a slushbox-equipped Miata.

For 2009, the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine gets a new forged steel crankshaft and connecting rods, stiffer valve springs and an oil cooler. Horsepower increases by one to 167, but more important, the redline has risen from 6700 to 7200 r.p.m. Power is delivered over a broader range, and with 140 lb.-ft. of torque it's reasonably punchy in the mid-range.

The MX-5, however, is not about speed. It is engineered to deliver maximum driving pleasures at modest velocities. It's all about the engine sounds, nimble handling, playful oversteer – the perception of speed.

Unlike just about every other automaker in the sports car business, Mazda is not chasing 0-to-100 times or skid pad numbers here. It's a seven-tenths car. Push beyond that and it gets tail happy and a bit messy.

If you want a ten-tenths roadster that loves to dance on the edge of adhesion, spend twice the money and buy a Porsche Boxster.

The MX-5 Miata was probably the last car to ask for a retractable hardtop. Nonetheless, Mazda has engineered a slick piece here that looks good, operates in 12 seconds and doesn't take up more trunk space than the fabric lid. It does add 37 kg, though. The 150-litre trunk proved deep enough to accept a case of wine – something of prime importance on this day. Try that in an Audi TT.

The MX-5's closest rivals are the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky siblings, both lovely to look at, not bad to drive and, tragically, will likely be deep-sixed with GM's restructuring.

So who's left? The Porsche Boxster, BMW Z4 and Audi TT live at a higher price point, and the Mini and Beetle convertible, while similarly priced, are front-drive four-seaters.

It looks like the little roadster has the playground to itself again.


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