CARNATION, Wash. -- We're cinched hard in the driver's seat of Mazda's MX-5 convertible roadster, left hand gripping a leather-bound steering wheel while the right one plies a stubby shifter stick, right foot rocking between throttle and brake pedals in racer style while our left foot pumps a tight clutch for some testing of chassis dynamics in a new Club edition of 2013.
Our impromptu track for MX-5 is Snoqualmie Valley Road, a blacktop ribbon wiggling over fir-covered foothills of the Cascade Range east of Seattle.
We follow the snaking I-90 freeway out of Seattle as it climbs into the hills, then head north at Issaquah to Fall City and Carnation to reach the wiggle route of Snoqualmie Valley Road.
And our MX-5 devours the kinky course: It hugs every contour of the convoluted route as we cut clean and quick lines across apexes of so many curves.
This pint-size roadster, stretched longer and broader on a monocoque structure for the Generation 3 design and spiked now with ideally balanced firepower, rides on a stiff chassis with a wide track.
MX-5's nimble independent suspension -- a double wishbone up front with aluminum arms and a multi-link rear with aluminum baring support -- for Club edition trim receives sport-tuning with Bilstein shocks plus a limited slip differential working to roll 17-inch gunmetal alloy wheels capped by 205/45R low-profile performance tires.
Perfect weight balance -- the engine up front and all power directed to the rear wheels with about half of the vehicle's mass resting on the front wheels and the other half on the rear ones -- sets up that magic Mazda mix of keen and predictable vehicle control for a hands-on kind of driver.
It's our idea of the perfect car: Quick and lively, precise and totally balanced, certainly not practical as a family car but -- wow -- what fun for the driver.
The MX-5 first appeared in the creative mind of Tom Metano, Mazda's California-based designer in the 1980s, and it emerged in production reality as a 1990 model dubbed Miata. From the outset Miata promised the appeal of a 1960s Lotus Elan roadster with 1990s bullet-proof durability of Japanese vehicles.
Despite subtle changes in subsequent models, the Miata remained essentially the same car: A pure 2-seat open-top roadster with a modest engine but ideal weight balance, plus the shortest shifter stick in the industry.
The Generation 3 design and nameplate switch from Miata to MX-5 came in 2006. The expanded structure, clad in revised sheetmetal featuring an aggressive prow and bulbous wheel flares, packed a more powerful engine and more standard safety features.
For 2013 Mazda enhances the MX-5 with a fresh front fascia in trim grades of Sport, Club and Grand Touring.
All draw from the same 2.0-liter and 4-cylinder Mazda WZR-LFX engine which employs variable valve timing (VVT) on the intake cam plus electronically controlled port fuel injection. Output extends to 167 hp at 7000 rpm with torque spiked to 140 lb-ft at 5000 rpm.
A close-ratio manual 5-speed transmission works for the MX-5 Sport, as Club and Grand Touring models use a 6-speed manual as the stock shifter or an optional 6-speed automatic with sequential shift control via paddles mounted on the steering wheel for upshifts and downshifts.
MX-5's new Club trim, which replaces the former Touring model, is available with either a conventional manually operated soft-top lid or a power retractable hard top (PRHT). The quick-closing PRHT becomes a push-button conversion that consumes only 12 seconds.
The MX-5 Club models carry edgy exterior elements such as black-colored outside mirrors and headlamp bezels, a front air dam and rear diffuser.
In the cockpit, MX-5 Club models show a new body-color decoration panel featuring unique graphics, as red contrast stitching appears on the black cloth seats.
A Convenience Package that's optional on the MX-5 Sport model becomes standard gear on Club models as does a leather shift knob, dark gray contoured surround meter around gauges and a body-color dash panel. The Convenience Package includes foglamps, power controls for windows and door locks via a remote key fob, cruise control, trip computer and audio control tabs on the steering wheel.
MX-5 Grand Touring trim builds in more amenities like heated leather seats, automatic climate controls and a Bose audio kit with subwoofer and Sirius satellite radio.
The optional Premium Package for Grand Touring includes xenon high intensity discharge (HID) headlamps, a keyless ignition system and Bluetooth connectivity.
For stopping power, all MX-5 models stock ventilated front disc brakes and solid rear discs with aluminum calipers in conjunction with an anti-lock brake system (ABS), electronic brake force distribution (EBD), a traction control system (TCS) plus dynamic stability control (DSC) anti-skid device.
Cockpit safety gear includes dual frontal air bags, 3-point safety belts with pretensioners and force limiters, dual side impact air bags and steel reinforcement beams in doors, plus a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
Mazda marks the MSRP for a 2013 MX-5 Sport at $23,720. The MX-5 Club lists for $26,705, and MX-5 Grand Touring tallies to $27,350.
Picking the push-button PRHT adds $1,760 to MX-5 Club models, or $1,900 to MX-5 Grand Touring.