EAGLES NEST, N. M. -- A driver wields the stubby shifter stick with one hand and grips a plump and sporty steering wheel with the other, using our right foot to accelerate and the left one to decelerate in racer style as we test the chassis dynamics effected for a new MX-5 pop-top -- the longer and stronger 3.0 generation of Mazda's iconic Miata two-seat roadster outfitted with a clever retractable hard top.
Our test track for the MX-5 is a blacktop ribbon stretching from Santa Fe to Eagles Nest, tucked in a high valley of the Sangre de Cristo Range of New Mexico. We follow the snake-winding Rio Grande up a red-rock canyon to Taos, then hang a right on U.S. 64 and tackle the switchbacks climbing over a mountain saddle called Palo Flechado Pass.
MX-5's nimble independent suspension -- a double wishbone up front and multi-link rear -- uses 17-inch alloy wheels for uplevel trims with P205/45 low-profile tires. And optional sport-tuning of the suspension with Bilstein shocks and a limited slip differential applies to our tester.
Perfect weight balance -- the engine up front and all power directed to the rear wheels with half the vehicle's load resting on the front wheels and the other half on the rear ones -- sets up that Miata magic 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.
Miata 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.
From the outset Miata promised the appeal of a 1960s British roadster with 1990s bullet-proof durability of a Japanese machine. It became an instant hit, then scored time after time on every critic's "Ten Best" list.
Despite subtle changes in subsequent models, Miata remained essentially the same car: A pure two-seat open-top roadster with a wee engine but ideal weight balance, plus the shortest stick shifter in the industry.
The Generation 3 design and nameplate switch from Miata to MX-5 occurred in 2006.
The expanded structure, clad in new sheetmetal featuring an aggressive prow and bulbous wheel flares, packs a more powerful engine yet brings better fuel economy scores, and more standard safety features.
And for 2007 Mazda enhances the year-round comfort and security of MX-5 by offering a power retractable hard top (PRHT).
It's the quickest-closing power top in the business, as the push-button conversion from hardtop coupe to airy convertible consumes only 12 seconds.
The drop-top event is controlled by toggles mounted on top of the center dash panel.
First, you must flip a locking handle that binds the top to the windshield frame.
Then touch the switch and watch the roof pleat at two seams and fold in three sections to stack behind the cockpit in the same space where the soft top stows.
Unlike other folding hard tops which tuck into the trunk, Miata's PRHT does not consume any space in the trunk.
The folding lid is lightweight, using sheet molding compound and polypropylene for front and middle sections and glass in the third section which is the rear window.
The body structure has reinforcements to support the hard top, as minor suspension adjustments maintain the vehicle's quick steering response and predictable handling traits.
Overall, only 80 pounds of extra weight comes with the PRHT, and weight distribution actually improves -- to 51/49 percent front/rear versus 52/48 percent for the soft top.
MX-5 with the PRHT wears special trim, like a ring of chrome around the nose grille, bright bezels in the headlamps and a chrome strip on door handles.
The PRHT loads about $1,870 more on the MSRP of MX-5 and it's available for the top three trims -- Sport, Touring and Grand Touring.
All versions kindle more fire in the belly.
They're noticeably quicker, as the expanded dual-cam 2.0-liter and four-cylinder Miata engine employs variable valve timing (VVT) on the intake cam plus electronically controlled port fuel injection.
Output now extends to 166 hp at 6700 rpm with torque spiked to 140 lb-ft at 5000 rpm.
A close-ratio manual five-speed transmission works for the MX-5 Sport, as Touring and Grand Touring show a new six-speed manual as the stock shifter and an option for a six-speed automatic with Activematic sequential shift control via paddles mounted behind the steering wheel for upshifts and thumb buttons on the wheel spokes for downshifts.
For stopping power, MX-5 carries ventilated front disc brakes and rear discs with aluminum calipers in conjunction with an anti-lock brake system (ABS) and electronic brake distribution (EBD).
Cockpit safety gear includes dual frontal air bags, three-point safety belts with pretensioners and force limiters, dual side impact air bags and steel reinforcement beams in doors.
With a longer wheelbase and wider track, the Generation 3 MX-5 ends up with more space in the cockpit, particularly a tad more for legs and hips. And with a higher roofline, headroom improves.
In the cockpit, materials move upscale in look and feel, with high-back bolstered bucket seats in place and analog gauges in the instrument cluster ringed in beads of chrome and flashing vivid white needles over gray faces.
MX-5 PRHT Sport rolls on 17-inch aluminum alloy sports wheels and stocks air conditioning and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The Touring trim adds foglamps, cruise control, a keyless entry device plus convenience items like power door locks and tabs on the steering wheel to operate audio and cruise control systems.
Ultimate edition MX-5 PRHT Grand Touring comes with leather seat upholstery and a deluxe Bose audio kit with seven speakers.
MSRP for MX-5 PRHT Sport tallies to $24,400.