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Compact - Sporty: Mazda MX-5 (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
Compact - Sporty: Mazda MX-5 (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

Mazda MX-5

Popular roadster showing its age - but is still a ton of fun Add to ...

The best selling sports car of all time?

That's easy, Mazda's once-Miata-now-MX5.

Why? Because, now into its third decade, it still captures the essence of what a sports car should be.

Close to 900,000 Miata/MX5s have been sold since it was introduced in 1989, easily eclipsing the half million or so MGBs - the car whose tire tracks it so ably filled as a fun and affordable sports car - built between 1962 and its demise in 1980.

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This nimble and neat-looking little two-seat roadster is celebrating its 20th anniversary in Canada this year after arriving here for the 1990 model year. And the MX5 story is far from reaching its conclusion with an all-new fourth-generation model due to debut, possibly some time next year.

The new MX5 is reportedly a return-to-its-roots effort, in the sense it will be smaller and lighter than the current model, which has gained many features over the years - such as the retractable hardtop on the version we'll be looking at here - and inevitably considerable more weight. The 2010 flip-top MX5 weighs in at 1,145 kg versus the original's 952 kg.

The new one will likely only be a bit smaller as it still has to carry two people and some luggage, but the weight target is apparently 1,000 kg. To help it get there, a smaller engine, possibly a 1.6 litre unit as the original had, will be employed. This could be a version of Mazda's just introduced and highly efficient SKY-G inline-four, making in the neighbourhood of 150 hp. With the weight reduction this would maintain current performance levels, but with improved fuel efficiency.

The word is the price could be a bit "lighter," too. The 1990 edition sold for $18,590 while the current base car goes for $28,995. The 2010 GS tested - and fitted with the optional power folding hardtop - carries a price sticker of $35,790, which buys you a lot more than the 1990 starter car's bucket seats, steel wheels and "handraulically" operated canvas top.

The third-generation - now MX5 rather than Miata - was introduced for 2006 and remained true to the original formula, which by then was wearing a bit thin in sales terms. It was given a "freshening" for 2009, but little has been altered for 2010.

The base GX MX5 is fitted with most of the things we've come to expect over the past couple of decades, such as power windows, mirrors, locks, tilt leather-wrapped steering wheel, cloth seats, audio system, ABS brakes, front and side airbags, cruise control, 16-inch wheels - but not Bluetooth, and air conditioning remains optional.

The GS ads goodies such as outside temp gauge, trip computer, premium interior trim, mesh grille, fog lights, steering-wheel audio controls and automatic climate control, but still no Bluetooth.

The cockpit is snug, with reasonably supportive bucket seats separated by a high console topped with a stubby gearlever. Instruments are tidily arrayed under a humped binnacle and a nice touch is the premium aluminum trim on the dash.

The power flip-top is perhaps a bit over-the-top for a car with a reputation built on "cheap thrills," but it is undeniably convenient. You just unlock one catch and press a button for it to quickly retract or redeploy, which means you may end up running around topless more often. It also makes things quieter inside at cruising speeds, although sound levels remain high. The sound factor, and the 150-litre trunk, might limit its touring appeal for some.

The GS also adds performance-enhancing devices such as a six-speed gearbox (versus five in the base car), limited slip differential, electronic stability control, a strut tower brace, 17-inch wheels with lower profile tires and a sport suspension equipped with Bilstein shocks.

The engine is 2.0-litre, twin-cam, four-cylinder rated at 167 hp at 7,000 rpm (it revs to about 7,500 rpm) and 140 lb-ft of torque at 5,000 rpm, which is enough in combination with the six-speed box to produce more than acceptable acceleration - accompanied by rather a lot of not particularly pleasant noise.

Like the sports cars of old that it reprises, it requires that you actually "drive" it to get the most out of it. By using the gearbox - which works well when you're shifting quickly, but is a tad clunky in the lower gears when you're just poking around - and all the revs, along with its agile but stable and nicely balanced handling and good brakes. When you do, it's very rewarding.

Fuel economy is lower than you might expect, rated at 9.7 L/100 km city/7.1 highway with premium gas required.

After driving the MX5, you can't escape the fact that it's showing its age. We've simply come to expect a little more refinement than it delivers for its increasingly higher price. But that said, it still has plenty of character and remains a lot of fun - the only survivor of the affordable two-seat roadster class. Can't wait to see what the new one will be like.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

2010 Mazda MX5 GS

Type: Two-seat roadster

Base Price: $28,995; as tested, $35,790

Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 167 hp/140 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Rear-wheel

Fuel economy (Litres/100 km): 9.7 city/7.1 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Possibly BMW 128i Cabriolet, otherwise nothing near it in price. But if your willing to pay more: Lotus Elise, Nissan 370Z Roadster, Porsche Boxster, Audi TT Roadster, BMW Z4, Corvette Convertible and well … then prices just get silly.

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