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Mazda unveils a smaller, lighter Miata that still delivers thrills

Mazda’s fourth-generation Miata, the first new MX-5 since 2006, delivers better fuel economy than its predecessor.

Mazda’s fourth-generation Miata, the first new MX-5 since 2006, delivers better fuel economy than its predecessor.

(Mazda)

The bestselling two-seater in history is back.

Mazda, betting that the economy has recovered and Americans are ready to buy cars just for the fun of it, has unveiled its new Miata.

The popular drop top joins a growing list of small sports cars, signaling a post-crash resurgence of interest in vehicles that are more than people-movers.

Alfa Romeo is returning to the two-seat convertible market with a new 4C Spider. Fiat plans to introduce a new Spider too. Even stodgy Buick is introducing its first convertible in 25 years, the 2016 Cascada.

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Mazda’s fourth-generation Miata, the first new MX-5 since 2006, is smaller and lighter than its predecessor, and delivers better fuel economy.

It’s an important vehicle for the company, which despite its reputation for building great cars has never been a substantial U.S. rival to Japanese competitors Toyota, Honda or Subaru.

“This is a halo car for Mazda,” said Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing for the online auto shopping site Edmunds. “It defines who they are, and how they look at automobiles.”

The 2016 MX-5 — like earlier Miatas, a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive convertible — weighs 2,332 pounds, boasts a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, enough to propel it from zero to 60 miles per hour in under six seconds. Mazda boasts it is the fastest Miata ever built.

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Priced at about $24,000 for the entry-level Sport edition and just over $30,000 for a loaded GT model, the new Miatas are expected to appeal to an older, male consumer.

The 2016 model is almost 200 pounds lighter than the 2015 car, Mazda says, and allowing for inflation is “more affordable” than the 1990 original. It promises 36 miles per gallon on the highway and 27 miles per gallon in the city.

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Mazda research indicates the average Miata buyer will be 40 to 65 years old. More than 80% of them will be married. Almost 60% of them will choose the manual version over the automatic. They will have an average household income of $85,000 to $130,000.

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“This is a life-stage car,” said Miata product manager Dave Coleman. “The kids are gone. There is a freedom to buy things.”

The Miata mandate, from its inception, was to be a “lightweight, affordable roadster that is fun to drive,” he said.

In the beginning, the “affordable” part was a hallmark. Delivering the feel of a more expensive, more demanding European sports car, the first Miata’s only competitors were German, or Italian sports cars that cost multiples more than the first MX-5’s $14,000 manufacturer’s suggested retail price.

Though it made only 116 horsepower, and took a full nine seconds to get from zero to 60, the car delivered great driving thrills, and soon became a staple on the amateur racing circuit.

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It also became a big seller, moving enough units to become the most popular two-seat sports car in history. American sales were strong, especially at the start. As of June, Mazda had sold a total of 947,999 MX-5s.

But the Miata fell slowly out of favor. As the U.S. economy weakened, sales of sports cars fell, and the vehicle grew heavier and less distinctive in style.

As a brand, despite its racing successes, Mazda too languished, failing to find the sales numbers enjoyed by its larger Japanese rivals.

Though Mazda has sold 158,996 vehicles in the U.S. through the first six months of this year, a 1.6% gain from the same period last year, the brand accounts for just 1.9% of the U.S. auto market.

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The automaker lags the market despite the general acclaim of the automotive press. Consumer Reports recommends four of the six Mazda models it has tested — a list that doesn’t yet include the Miata.

That could change. At a recent Mazda event, a 2016 MX-5 Club with manual transmission proved a worthy incarnation of the original credo.

On the street, the roadster delivers a nimble sports car experience. Sitting low to the ground, and with a low sloping hood, it feels like it’s going faster than it is.

The car offers very little in the way of storage — there is no glove compartment — and few of the normal amenities. Leg room is at a minimum and passengers more than 6 feet tall may bruise their knees. Cup holders are placed behind the driver’s elbow and make for an awkward reach.

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“This is an authentic driving experience,” said Coleman. “We think shifting is more important than drinking, when you’re in a sports car.”

The MX-5 is also missing the suite of safety features becoming common on new cars, such as blind-spot assist, lane-departure warnings or adaptive cruise control — though some of these features are available on the GT model.

“We shy away from anything that takes control away from the driver,” said Mazda vehicle line manager Rod McLaughlin.

The convertible top goes up and down manually, but gracefully, with minimal operator effort.

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Car nuts, or enthusiasts over-attentive to raw numbers, may fault the new Miata’s specs, and may not embrace a car that offers less motor muscle than its predecessor. The heavier third-generation MX-5 came standard with a 2.0-liter engine that made 167 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque.

But Mazda executives said there is no plan to deviate from the “lightweight” and “affordable” game plan.

“We have consciously kept the power low,” Coleman said. “Long term, the focus on this car is only on trying to get the weight down.”

At least one event attendee said that philosophy seems to be working.

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“Mazda has gone back to the purity of the original Miata by reducing weight and focusing on the most unfiltered driving experience possible,” said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer, who recently drove both the 2016 MX-5 and a well-preserved 1990 original. “This is the best-driving Miata yet.”

Edmunds, who owned and raced Miatas in the 1990s, agreed. Unlike some other performance automobiles, enjoying the new MX-5 doesn’t require pro driving expertise or track time.

“This is an authentic modern representation of a classic sports car, designed to deliver driving enjoyment at Angeles Crest Highway speeds,” he said. “You don’t have to take it to the race track to appreciate it.”

charles.fleming@latimes.com

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