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2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata: More tech, same original fun

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  October 16, 2009 05:01 PM

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(All photos: Gerry Miles/Boston.com)

If it's true that the more things change, the more they stay the same, then one might proffer the Mazda Miata as evidence that supports the cliché.

At first blush, they might be right. And then, again, they'd be wrong.

It's still a snappy, true two-seat drop-top decompression machine that often leaves as much of a grin on the faces of those admiring the ride as those behind the wheel.

It still has a trunk, tall-backed bucket seats, surprisingly good leg room, a spunky little 2.0-liter 167 horsepower I-4 mated to a slick, short-throw stick shift and a rewarding exhaust note that reminds us that having fun behind the wheel can be found at the posted limit, even with nowhere in particular to go.

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What's missing from the 20th iteration is the once-trademark pop-up headlights and an offering in British Racing Green with tan seats.

Since it first arrived in 1989, "Rain Man" was popular on the big screen, the Berlin Wall fell, and the love affair with the tiny Japanese roadster debuting at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show set off a demand for black market prices that saw the titillating two-seater producing high profit margins for anyone that could get one. And, this was well before Craig's List was ever a thought. Buyers paid a premium for this hot car.

The financial rush has abated, but the love affair with this now iconic roadster has not after 20 years. It's morphed into a sleeker, swifter two-door fun machine. that since 2007 has been available with a motorized hardtop.

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The power retractable hardtop, which has been available since 2007, performs a mechanical ballet of efficiency in 12 seconds (it seems faster) to raise or lower the roof into the trunk. The soft top needs but one hand to perform the same function. Mazda notes the hardtop takes up no more space in the trunk than the soft top.

On the outside, there's a more rounded, sleek appearance meant to create more space around the driver and passenger (that's where the widest part of the midpoint is), but there's styling that bespeaks to the car maker's "zoom-zoom" ad tagline. The front end is a tad angular for muscularity - never before thought of in a Miata. Arched fender front fender wells and HID halogen fogs further dress up the front skirts around the spoked wheels.

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Like the 2010 Mazda 3, the large grill opening gives the Miata a smiling appearance as if it were a real-life reproduction from the animated movie, "Cars." The backside's contoured as well to boost air flow and appearances.

Mazda's color wheel offers two new exterior colors (Competition Yellow and Liquid Silver Metallic) and interior colors (Dune Beige Leather and Havana Brown Leather).

Slipping into the Miata is easy but if you're over five-foot-five, you'll have to duck your head if the top's not dropped. Seated inside, six-foot passengers remarked about the leg room, headroom (baseball hats are good, cowboy hats bad), and surprising width. Sure, there's an armrest but that's a trifling matter. And there's a console between the two seats (hey, they're using every inch of space) but it's the ride that matters and there the Miata is true to its roots again.

Chiefly for 2009, Mazda boosted output to 167 hp at 7,000 rpm (previously 166 hp at 6,700 rpm). The torque remains at 140 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm and there's at least 90 percent of it ready from 2,500 up to the redline of 7,200 rpm. The original motor generated but 114 hp from a 1.6-liter motor.

Equipped with the slick 6-speed manual shifter, you can sling-shot your way down the road via the short-throw shifter. Further, this Miata showed a most elastic power band and forgiving nature if you missed a shift but kept your foot in it. This ability to perform like a sports car with a much higher price tag surprised and amazed all who rode and drove it.

The first-generation Miata was tuned to render the sound of a 1960's dual-carb sports car. For 2009, Mazda used an ISE, or Induction Sound Enhancer, a series of pipes and a resonance membrane whereby the sounds are sent to the cowl - in front of the windshield - to provide aural rewards and not over-amped growling.

Still, it's the ride that's the thing, and if legend and lore are correct, it's what sold the first group of Mazda engineers on their purpose and mission to create what some have dubbed the best Japanese-built version of a British sports car.

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With a 50-50 weight ratio, the balance and handling from the Miata is direct, linear, and intuitive. On the open road, the ride is sure. On the corners it's secure. Point it through a set of twisty back-and-forth curvatures and it's downright smile-producing fun.

Adding to the fun in the tester was its puny petrol penchant, producing 32.5 mpg from its 12.7-gallon gas tank during my time behind the wheel.

Also new for 2009 were the inclusion of an auxiliary-audio input jack and a CD player with MP3/WMA playback capability. Touring models got an auto dimming rearview mirror with Homelink, premium finish on the instrument panel, and a trip computer (average fuel economy and ambient temperature displays). Our tester was the $31,010 Grand Touring model, which adds automatic air conditioning, leather-wrapped hand brake, and 5-way adjustable seat heaters. We also had the premium package, which includes Bluetooth, xenon headlamps, keyless ignition, Sirius radio, stability control, and an anti-theft system.

The Miata, like all Mazdas, comes with a 24/7 roadside assistance and a three-year/36,000-mile warranty as well as a five-year, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty and five-year unlimited mile corrosion warranty.

In an ever-changing automotive marketplace, it's nice to know that some things stay the same. The Miata has not compromised its original mission to build a modern sports car that honors yesteryear.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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