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Stacy94PGT 10-19-05 05:48 AM

US:2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata,Miata handles like dream
 
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2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Product Review

Miata handles like dream

Speedy roadster adds zip and better pull-down top

By Anita and Paul Lienert / Special to The Detroit News

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Mazda
2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata

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Mazda
The 2006 Mazda MX-5 cockpit is well laid out.

ANN ARBOR -- When Mazda recently dropped off his-and-hers 2006 MX-5 Miatas in our driveway, we were secretly disappointed.

Sure, we have long carried a torch for the little rear-wheel-drive roadster that has been so popular it's earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling sports car of all time. We were anxious to check out its changes for the new generation, including its new look, more powerful engine and roomier cabin.


Solstice

Miata
But if we were to pick out a pair of twin drop-tops for our family, our dream combination would be the 2006 Pontiac Solstice and the 2006 MX-5 Miata. The affordable Solstice, General Motor Corp.'s slam-dunk roadster that's already sold out for 2006, is giving the Mazda a serious run for the money, more so than pricier competitors like the BMW Z4, the Chrysler Crossfire convertible and the Honda S2000.

One of our biggest gripes about the MX-5 Miata is the confusing name change.

It's a transitional step, the company says, as Mazda goes entirely to an alpha-numeric lineup, which means they will drop the "Miata" part of the name eventually.

Aside from the dumb name change, the Miata gets some interesting cosmetic tweaks, most noticeably fender flares to make it look more like the Japanese brand's pricier RX-8 sports car. The Mazda convertible has more room for taller passengers and more get-up-and-go than the car it replaces, but it still has a reasonable base price of $20,995.

One test car was a 2006 MX-5 Miata Sport with a manual vinyl soft top, cloth upholstery, an AM/FM/CD player, a six-speed manual transmission and optional $500 Bilstein shock absorbers. It had a sticker price of $23,995, including a $560 destination charge.

The second Miata was a 2006 Grand Touring model with a manual cloth top, seven-speaker Bose sound system, fancier interior trim and optional $500 Bilstein shock absorbers. It was priced at $25,495, including destination.

We didn't exactly stick to Mazda's agenda with the his-and-hers concept; we found ourselves trading our Hiroshima-built Miatas nearly every day -- and just as happy to be in the cheaper Sport model as we were to be in the upscale Grand Touring model.

Most importantly, one of our excursions that week in early fall included a ride up to the GM Proving Ground to zip around in a Solstice and conduct a head-to-head test of the two-seaters. Our test Solstice had a base price of $19,995, including a $575 destination charge.

The Solstice and the MX-5 Miata have distinct personalities.

The Mazda has the more feminine look of a classic European roadster while the boy-racer Solstice is more beefy and muscular.

One of the greatest joys about the MX-5 Miata is that operating its manual roof is a snap. You have to get out of the car to drop the manual top on the Solstice -- one of our biggest complaints about the Pontiac.

The MX-5 Miata's roof can be lowered in seconds from the driver's seat, which means you can be impulsive and put it down at a stop light, if you choose. You'll have to throw your arms up to lower the roof, but it's not that difficult. New hardware makes it easier to latch the roof whether you're putting it up or down, too. But we wish Mazda would do something about the cheap-looking vinyl roof on the Sport model. It detracts from an otherwise classy product.

The MX-5 Miata has a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 170 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque -- that's only eight horses less than the 2005 turbocharged Mazdaspeed Miata. The new engine is also a significant boost from the 2005 base Miata, which was equipped with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that make 142 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque.

Both of our test MX-5 Miatas were equipped with a standard six-speed manual transmission with short, sporty throws. The base car gets a five-speed manual and a new six-speed automatic transmission adds another $1,100 to the price. The Solstice only comes with a five-speed manual, though Pontiac says a five-speed automatic is coming in 2006.

Our twin Mazdas got excellent gas mileage. The EPA rates them at 24 mpg in city driving and 30 mpg on the highway. The MX-5 Miata gets slightly better fuel economy than the Solstice, which is rated at 20 in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway.

Our test Mazdas were notable for their precise and responsive steering, particularly on twisty roads. But we did notice a stiff ride, especially on rough pavement. The seats in the MX-5 Miata also cry out for more lumbar support, even on short trips. And the convertible is not quiet. We noticed a low hum at lower speeds and plenty of wind noise with the top down -- and up.

The Solstice is also a great performer on the road, with a firm and composed ride. The Pontiac roadster seems to respond intuitively to the slight nudge of the steering wheel or touch of the brakes. Like the MX-5 Miata, the bucket seats in the Solstice could use more lumbar support.

We were struck by the differences in the cabins of the Solstice and the Miata. Our test Solstice had an appealing two-tone combination that gave the convertible an airy feeling even when the top was up. Our MX-5 Miatas had a subdued, monochromatic black interior, with attractive touches like piano-black trim on the instrument panel. We liked the small lockable storage bin between the seats in the Mazda; the Solstice had no convenient place, outside of a little cubby behind the driver to stow small items. Still, we think the cabin in the Solstice looks fresher than the one in the MX-5 Miata.

In terms of creature comforts, especially trunk space, the Mazda is a winner. The trunk of the MX-5 can accommodate a small suitcase, in part, because the top doesn't reduce the storage space when it's folded down.

The Solstice's trunk is much smaller because the car's fuel tank cramps the layout.

The Mazda is the clear winner in terms of safety features. Where the MX-5 Miata comes with standard antilock brakes and side air bags, you'll have to pay $400 extra for ABS on the Solstice, and you can't order side air bags. Traction control and electronic stability control are options on the MX-5 Miata; Pontiac says traction control will be available on the Solstice sometime in 2006.

All of that said, it's pretty hard to pit the MX-5 Miata against the Solstice.

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