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Mazda MX-5 Miata ($28,995-$39,995) (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
Mazda MX-5 Miata ($28,995-$39,995) (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

2009 Mazda MX-5 GT

Two-seater stays true to its roots Add to ...

Sports cars are usually associated with soft sunshiny summer days, but often the best outing of the year is that first one with the top stowed, the windows rolled up and the heater cranked to maximum output: there are few things better guaranteed to blow away winter's cobwebs.

And to make my first top-down drive, after another cold Canadian winter had finally been put behind us, even better it was conducted in an old favourite, Mazda's Miata, er, pardon me, MX-5 as it's now alphanumerically known.

I still think Miata rolls more mellifluously off the tongue, but 20 years later - yes, it's been that long since this Japanese remake of the classic British sports car first appeared - I guess we can be thankful the name (plus some sheet metal and mechanical improvements) are all that has really changed, not the car's basic character.

This became evident on the 270-km run from Huntsville along the bottom of Algonquin Park, through Whitney and Bancroft and down to Belleville at the fast-cooling end of a sun-filled afternoon.

The first part was on smoothly paved roads that climb and twist through Muskoka terrain that's either ruggedly rocky or moose-pasture marshy. I saw two of these large, leggy creatures on the drive, which if they were able to see in colour, would have been just as intrigued by this bright orangey/yellow object passing by, as I was with them.

The MX-5 GT was in its element, well one of them, cruising in sixth gear with just enough torque available to manage the hills without shifting.

Mazda's modern version of "bucket" seats are snug-fitting, the cockpit isn't too blustery with the wind blocker in place and the heater stoutly pumps out a bounty of BTUs.

GT equipment includes power locks, windows, mirrors, smart keyless entry, seat heaters, tilt steering wheel with audio controls, cruise control, Sirius radio, Bluetooth connectivity, Bose audio and front and side airbags. And the cherry on top is a power hardtop.

But despite all this and its $39,995 price tag in GT form, the MX-5 still feels more MGB than Boxster.

Although the overall comfort level is certainly higher than that of my own 1960s-era sports car - a Morgan with no heater, no radio, no real windshield, squelchy seat cushions and virtually no suspension to speak of - the Morgan is one of the "traditional" sports cars the Miata was designed to replicate.

The Morgan's top is a sort of pup-tent with a rear window you drape over three metal bows, and fix (not very securely) into place with little chrome snaps. The MX-5 GT's top operates with a wrist flick of one latch and a digital prod on a button and opens and closes in a matter of moments. It's so easy - even compared to the soft-top version, which can be operated with one hand - you'll likely spend more time with it down, just because you can do so with so little fuss.

Headroom is fine, but the windshield header is at about eyebrow level and the rear-view mirror blocks much of your view across the right front fender. The trunk will hold one airline-friendly "rollie" with room left over for some soft bags, making weekend outings workable.

I was a bit surprised it wasn't a little quieter inside with the hardtop in place at highway speeds. Wind and motor noise are present in enough volume the Bose audio system needs every one of its seven speakers to overcome them.

Actually it's not so much that the MX-5 is obnoxiously noisy, it's just that with a small sports car like this you're in more intimate proximity with such things as engine, gearbox, suspension and exhaust.

The motor is very obvious virtually all the time. It starts with a four-cylinder churn before settling down to a slightly vibratory idle, but as it's mounted not very far from your feet, its rather thrashy sounds readily find their way inside. On the positive side, you won't object at all to the neat noises it makes while revving to 7,500 rpm.

Or the performance it delivers. The 2.0-litre, twin-cam makes its 167 hp at 7,000 rpm and 140 lb-ft of torque at a high 5,000 rpm so it's a good job the six-speed manual gearbox (an automatic is available) shifts so neatly and quickly through its pattern.

After it warms up, that is. Shifts are initially a bit balky on a cool morning. It's pretty quick off the mark (0-100 km/h in 7.8 seconds), winding it up through a few gears is great fun, and it is in fact a deceptively fast car point-to-point if you make use of all it has to offer, including its very competent handling.

With the GT you get: a strut tower brace to stiffen the front end, 17-inch wheels with 205/45R17 performance tires and Bilstein shocks to better keep them in touch with the pavement, a limited slip differential to get the power down better and electronic stability control (with an easy-to-find switch to disable it).

With nicely weighted, engine-rpm-sensitive power steering, the MX-5 is a delight on a back road, braking positively and steering accurately into corners where it holds its line with admirable determination.

What a pleasant surprise to find that 20 years later the Miata/MX-5, despite many obvious improvements, remains faithful to what it was originally intended to be - a true sports car.

globeauto@globeandmail.com

****

2009 MAZDA MX-5 GT

Type: Two-seat sports car

Price: $39,995

Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 167 hp/ 140 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Rear-wheel-drive

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

Alternatives: Pontiac Solstice, Saturn Sky, Nissan 370Z, Honda S2000, Audi TT

****

Like

  • Willing and revvy motor
  • Quick shifting gearbox
  • Fine handling, steering and brakes

****

Don't like

  • Outside mirrors are set too far back for those of us with more compact dimensions
  • It could be a bit quieter inside


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