Overview

In 1989, Mazda resuscitated the two-seater, convertible sports car market with the Miata. From the first one out the door, it delivered what the long-gone and only lightly lamented English sports cars had never quite managed, a delightful, fun, supremely capable, well-engineered car that started every time and ran forever.

Over the intervening years, the Miata has worn well. It's a daily commuter in environments as disparate as Southern California and Detroit, Michigan. There are more Miatas on racetracks every weekend around the country than any other car. However, its carefully serviced freshness and vaunted vitality has been fading lately. Direct competition is looming in the form of the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, not to mention more expensive entries from BMW, Audi, Porsche, and Mercedes.

Thus we have the all-new, 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata. It's longer and wider, but taller. It's more powerful, but gets better gas mileage and is cleaner. Its looks are sharper, more assertive, but faithful to the heritage. It's also more fun to drive, and not just because it's more responsive to the driver's needs and wants, but also because it's safer, with improved crash protection from side impacts.

Price-wise, it's a compelling picture. Once you sift through the shifting mix of standard and optional features, that is. The entry-level 2006 MX-5 Miata lists for $1,103 less than the base 2005. While the '05 came with air conditioning, a spare tire, leather-wrapped steering wheel, boot cover and fog lights, it didn't have anti-lock brakes or side airbags, both standard across the 2006 line. Given the choice, we'll take the ABS and side airbags. When the top models, the 2006 MX-5 Grand Touring and the 2005 Miata LS, are tricked out with all the available options, the '06 edges the '05 by about $1,500, but this also includes a few niceties like the aforementioned side airbags, larger wheels with run-flat tires and dynamic stability control. So we're not exactly complaining.

To us, this sounds like a good deal on a fun car.

Model Lineup

There's one basic configuration for the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata, a two-door, two-passenger roadster. Three transmissions are offered, a five-speed manual, a new-for-2006 six-speed manual and a six-speed automatic with Activematic, Mazda's take on a shift-it-yourself slushbox. The automatic isn't as robust as the two manuals, however, so the only engine available, a 2.0-liter, inline four cylinder, comes in two tuning levels, one rated at 170 horsepower, the other, for the automatic, rated at 166 horsepower.

The least expensive Miata, the Club Spec ($20,435), is what once might have been called a stripper model. It's priced to get shoppers in the door or to form the basis for a race car. It comes with a five-speed manual gearbox instead of the six-speed manual; black fabric upholstery; black vinyl top and door panels; urethane-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob; manual door locks; a four-speaker, AM/FM/CD stereo; a storage pocket on the back of the driver's seat; a pair of open storage bins behind the seats; 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels; carpeted floor mats; power outside mirrors and windows. Air conditioning is not offered, nor is cruise control. A tire puncture repair kit fills in for a spare tire; and a four-year/50,000-mile 24-hour roadside assistance program is standard.

Next up is the plain and simple MX-5 ($21,435), which is the Club Spec plus air conditioning and leather-wrapped steering wheel. Mazda offers no factory options on this model.

The list of standard features grows on the MX-5 Touring ($22,435), with the inclusion of cruise control, power door locks, steering wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls, fog lights, a storage net on the passenger side of the center floor tunnel, covers for the storage bins behind the seats and silver trim on the seat back/roll bars. A six-speed Activematic automatic transmission ($1,100) is optional.

The MX-5 Sport model ($22,935) is the first in the line with the six-speed manual; the automatic is optional. Standard features include 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels and a front suspension tower bar. The shift knob is trimmed in leather in place of the urethane used on the lower models. Run-flat tires with performance-oriented, asymmetrical tread and tire-pressure monitoring are optional ($515). And a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein shocks and limited slip differential ($500) is available for Sport models with the manual transmission.

The top MX-5 that'll be generally available is the Grand Touring ($24,435). This is the classy Miata, with all the standard equipment and options on the lesser models plus a number of high-grade features. Among them: leather seating surfaces in black or tan and leather-like interior door panels; a cloth top in black or tan in place of the the standard black vinyl top; silver-toned on various interior grips and gauges; a seven-speaker Bose stereo.

The Grand Touring Premium Package ($1600) adds Xenon HID headlights, dynamic stability control with traction control, limited-slip rear differential, Smart Key keyless ignition and anti-theft alarm.

Mazda will also sell a limited-edition MX-5 for 2006; hey, this is a Miata, remember? Called the 3rd Generation Limited ($26,700), production will be capped at 3500 world wide, of which 750 are destined for the U.S. market. They're essentially Grand Touring models but painted Velocity Red and with red or black leather interior; bright-finish, 17-inch wheels; bright trim on various exterior and interior fixtures; and a special, numbered badge on the dash.

Accessories include a detachable hardtop, a six-disc CD-changer/MP3 player and Sirius Satellite Radio.

Safety equipment standard across the line comprises dual, two-stage frontal airbags; new-for-2006, seat-mounted, side airbags designed to protect the chest and head; and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution. The passenger-side frontal airbag has an on/off switch, and that seat is fitt

Walkaround

There's not a single body panel or fixture on the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata that's the same as on the 2005 model. But just as with the second-generation Miata (1999-2005), the third generation is still unmistakably a Miata. This is even more telling when you factor in that the car is larger in every measure, from what's beneath the hood to the interior to the shadow it casts on the road.

Starting at the front, the central air intake is both enlarged and mildly reshaped and augmented by a smaller opening beneath. This moves more cooling air through the radiator and around the larger engine and combines with a more pronounced air dam across the bottom of the lower opening to give the Miata's face a stronger chin. So what if it brings to mind a largemouth bass when viewed straight on. It does what it's supposed to do. Compound, projector-beam headlights return but in housings that are marginally smaller, more oval than teardrop in shape, more deeply recessed and nearer to the car's centerline, all tending to emphasize the Miata's diminutive size. A taller, rounder hood wears a mini-bulge in the center, simultaneously suggestive of a scoop and of a similar bulge on the RX-8.

Differences between the new Miata and its previous generations show up more in the side view. Sharply sculpted wheel flares appear directly adapted from the RX-8 in a form the company calls Mazda design DNA. It clearly moves the new Miata away from the more cuddly look of its predecessors. The flares also spread wide enough to cover the new Miata's wider track. (Track is the distance between the left and right wheels). The new MX-5's track is three inches wider in front, two inches wider in the rear when compared with the 2005 model.

The windshield gives up a few degrees of rake, leading to a flatter, more classic top. The top, with a glass rear window, collapses into a well behind the seats cleanly and completely, in a way requiring no cover. That's good, because there are plenty of times when you'd like to drop the top but don't want to take time to snap on a cover.

Rollbar-like hoops rise out of the body behind the seats; Mazda doesn't list them as safety features, calling them seat back bars, but they're certainly more than merely surfaces to which decorative trim can be affixed. A mesh windblocker fits between the hoops. Small quarter windows, like yesteryear's windwings, fill the acute angle where the doors meet the A-pillars. The '05's concave side body panels have filled in on the '06, tumbling in a nearly sheer drop from the beltline to the rocker panels. Door handles are finger-friendly full rounds, instead of the previous model's top-hinged pull-ups. The hardtop (late availability) boasts a wraparound rear window, substantially reducing the convertible's rear quarter blind spots.

Taillights are evolutions of the previous generation's, retaining the basic elliptical outline but following the headlights' lead and sliding around the fenders toward the car's middle. The center brake light has been moved from the trailing edge of the trunk lid forward, right behind where the top folds into the body and where the hardtop will seat. The rear license plate housing is, like so much about the new Miata's contours, rounder and more crisply molded into the surrounding sheet metal than on the '05. A horizontal, black panel beneath the rear bumper echoes the front end's air dam, only this one is braced by twin exhaust tips, a spiffy step up from the '05's single tip.

Interior Features

The all-new 2006 Miata is bigger than before, which results in a marginally roomier cabin. It's still not accommodating for full-figured or especially tall sports car lovers. Most notably, and although the official yardstick records the legroom added by the longer wheelbase and overall length at less than a half-inch, the rearward seat travel is extended by about an inch. And the car's expanded girth yields an additional 1.4 inches in hip room. Otherwise, the 0.7-inch higher roofline boosts headroom by less than half an inch, and even without the spare tire, the trunk's 5.3 cubic feet capacity is but 0.2 cubic feet larger than the '05's, leading to the conclusion the spare tire was left out more to save weight than to add space for golf clubs.

Overall, interior quality and appearance are way up the charts. Fit and finish is tight and smooth. Expansive, seamless panels and accents bode well for a long life free of squeaks and rattles. Materials are mostly impressive grade. Even the base cloth upholstery is nice, with tightly woven, smooth-finish bolsters and waffle-weave insets. Depending on the weather, the cloth upholstery's waffle-like weave can be more comfortable than leather. Which is a good thing, as leather doesn't appear until the top-of-the-line Grand Touring model. The standard urethane steering wheel and shift knob wrappings are obviously not leather, but they're not offensive, either. Likewise, in ergonomics, the interior of the new Miata rates both pluses and minuses.

Seats are neither overly firm nor too plush, properly bolstered for the type of driving the Miata invites but with only acceptable thigh support. Be ready for noticeable lumbar, too, for which there's no adjustment. Nor is there a seat height adjustment. The tilt steering wheel helps with this, at least a little. The properly stubby shift lever is where it should be. The hand brake isn't, ratcheting up out of the passenger's side of the drive tunnel instead of next to the driver's right thigh.

A single set of power window buttons is located in the center console aft of the shift boot, behind which a retracting cover conceals two cupholders. The center stack hosts intuitively positioned stereo and air conditioning knobs, buttons and recessed toggles that are easy to grasp and manipulate. A power outlet conveniently placed at the base of the C-stack waits for a radar detector or cell phone. Four air registers are spaced across the dash in a hard, shiny accent panel that changes to brushed aluminum for the Limited Edition.

All gauges are analog, with a large, round tachometer and matching speedometer straddling the steering column and shaded from all but trailing sunlight by an arched hood. Fuel level is reported in a small circle to the lower left, coolant temperature by one to the lower right and, thank you very much, oil pressure by a matching triplet positioned top center between the tach and speedo. Running lights are managed by a stalk on the left side of the steering column, windshield wiper and washer by a stalk on the right side. On the Touring model and above, cruise and secondary audio controls utilize the horizontal spokes of the steering wheel. The on/off switch for the stability control system shares space with a pair of switch blanks in the lower dash by the driver's door.

The premium sound system has a function Bose calls Audiopilot that goes beyond simple speed-sensing volume control by actually re-mixing in real time the sound coming out of the speakers to help the stereo punch through the ambient wind and road noises that accompany open-air motoring.

Oversize speakers dominate the forward part of the door panels. Water bottle holders are molded into the space between the speakers and the door pulls/armrests. Inside door latches are mounted up high and forward. There are no map pockets; Mazda officials say this is to make room for strengthened side impact protective

Driving Impressions

Mazda's engineers worked overtime to keep the new Miata from gaining performance-dulling weight. Liberal and expanded use of lightweight and high tensile metals, along with fresh thinking in such basics as mounting accessories to the engine and even how much a rearview mirror weighs, held the '06's weight gain to a mere 22 pounds over the '05. Oh, yeah, dropping the spare tire no doubt helped. But the Miata's designated dieticians still faced added calories from the larger engine, the head-and-thorax side-impact airbags, more robust side-impact hardware, larger wheels and those stylish seatback hoops.

Just as significant from the driver's seat is how the car's mass is distributed. More obvious is that the lower the mass is in the car's chassis, the lower the car's center of gravity and the more stable its ride and handling. But especially important for a sports car, the closer weight is clustered around what engineers call the vertical yaw axis the better. Imagine a broomstick with two five-pound weights attached. It weighs about 10 pounds regardless of where the weights are positioned. Put the weights at the ends of the broomstick, and try to spin it like a baton. It's not so easy to get started, and once started it's difficult to stop. But move the weights next to each other at the center of the broomstick, and starting it spinning and stopping it requires much less effort. This is a simplification because concentrating too much of the mass around the yaw axis can make a car unstable, but you get the point. And so did the Miata's engineers. The engine in the '06 has been moved rearward more than five inches from its relative location in the '05. The gas tank has been moved forward and lowered in the chassis. Relocating the battery from the trunk to under the hood positioned it closer to the yaw axis.

What all this has accomplished in pursuit of the ideal 50/50 front/rear weight balance is, well, if not perfection, then close, depending on how the Miata is loaded. With two people buckled in, Mazda pegs the new Miata's weight distribution at 50/50. With their luggage, it tends to a rear bias; empty, with a full gas tank, it tends to a front bias.

So much for what gratifies the left brain. What's so cool about all this shifting around of mechanicals and components is, it works. The new Miata is a blast to drive. The added 28 horsepower and 15 pound-feet of torque give it a nice kick in the, well, back end. With the wider track and lower center of gravity, it corners flatter than should be possible. Balance is so close to perfect, with two people on board, of course, and with the sporty, asymmetrical-tread tires on the Sport and Grand Touring models, that it holds its line through corners like it was highway striping paint.

Quick, left-right-left transitions on a winding two-lane running along a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the Big Island of Hawaii succumb to nearly perfect steering response: light but not twitchy, with good feel regardless of the speed. Crank in more steering to keep it off the rock wall on the outside of a tight switchback on that two-lane, and the rear tires step tentatively sideways. A touch of counter steer and a soft feathering of the gas and the tires stick again, and away you go. What a rush. This is with the stability control system deactivated. With it active, the new Miata's still fun, just not as much.

We didn't have the opportunity to drive any of the three models with the 16-inch wheels and standard tires and five-speed manual, but from experience with last year's Miata, we'd expect a similar experience, albeit at lower thresholds.

The new Miata cruises well, too. Not that this is its forte, but when it must, it can crawl along with stop-and-go traffic, which we thoroughly tested on the Big Island, with no complaint. Ordering the sport suspension buys a firmer ride and increased feel of the r

Summary

As the holder of the sales record for two-door, convertible sports cars, the Miata has its work pretty well defined. There can be no relaxing, no pointing to what I did for you yesterday as an excuse for not doing something better today. The 2006 Miata MX-5 has risen to the cause. Now let's see what the long-promised Solstice and the Sky can do. The new Miata has set the bar high.

New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Kona, Hawaii.

Model Line Overview
Base Price (MSRP)
$20,435
Model lineup:
Mazda MX-5 Miata ($21,435); Club Spec ($20,435); Touring ($22,435); Sport ($22,935); Grand Touring ($24,435); 3rd Generation Limited ($26,700)
Engines:
2.0-liter, double overhead cam, 16-valve inline four cylinder
Transmissions:
five-speed manual; six-speed manual; six-speed automatic with Activematic
Safety equipment (Standard):
dual, two-stage front airbags (with passenger-seat deactivation switch); seat-mounted side-impact airbags
Safety equipment (Optional):
tire pressure monitoring system
Basic warranty:
4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in:
Hiroshima, Japan
Specifications As Tested
Model tested (MSRP):
2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring ($24,435)
Standard equipment:
air conditioning; cruise control; power windows, mirrors and door locks; leather-covered seats, steering wheel rim and shift knob; and Bose AM/FM stereo with six-disc, in-dash CD changer and seven speakers
Options as tested:
Premium Package 1 ($1,600) includes xenon HID headlights, dynamic stability control with traction control, Smart Key keyless ignition, and anti-theft alarm; run-flat tires with tire-pressure monitor system ($515)
Destination charge:
560
Gas Guzzler Tax:
N/A
Price as tested (MSRP)
$27,110
Layout:
rear-wheel drive
Engine:
2.0-liter, double overhead cam, 16-valve inline four-cylinder
Horsepower (hp @ rpm):
170 @ 6700
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm):
140 @ 5000
Transmission:
six-speed manual
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy:
24/30 mpg.
Wheelbase:
91.7 in.
Length/width/height:
157.1/67.7/49.0 in.
Track, f/r:
58.7/58.9 in.
Turning circle:
30.8 ft.
Seating capacity:
2
Head/hip/leg room, f:
37.4/50.6/43.1 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m:
N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r:
N/A
Cargo volume:
5.3 cu. ft.
Payload:
N/A
Towing capacity:
Not recommended lbs.
Suspension F:
independent, double wishbone, gas-pressure shocks, coil springs, stabilizer bar
Suspension R:
independent, multi-link, gas-pressure shocks, coil springs, stabilizer bar
Ground clearance:
4.6 in.
Curb weight:
2498 lbs.
Tires:
P205/45R17
Brakes, f/r:
vented disc/solid disc with ABS and EBD in.
Fuel capacity:
12.7 gal.
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