Even a Guinness Book world record holder doesn't rest on its laurels.

For 2006, the top-selling roadster in the world - the Mazda MX-5 Miata - is a new, third-generation model with a tad larger interior, new four-cylinder engine and more unisex, less cute, styling.



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BASE PRICE: $20,435 for Club Spec model; $21,435 for MX-5 model; $22,435 for Touring model; $22,935 for Sport; $24,435 for Grand Touring.
AS TESTED: $27,095.
TYPE: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger convertible.
ENGINE: 2-liter, double overhead cam, inline four cylinder with VVT.
MILEAGE: 24 (city), 30 (highway).
LENGTH: 157.3 inches.
WHEELBASE: 91.7 inches.
CURB WEIGHT: 2,498 pounds.
BUILT AT: Japan.
OPTIONS: Premium package 2 (includes Xenon high intensity displacement headlights, stability control with traction control, alarm and Smart Key) $1,600; suspension package (includes sport-tuned suspension, Bilstein shock absorbers and limited slip differential) $500.
The car also has new features, including an easier-to-use manual roof and an optional, first-ever, key-free system for entry and startup. Also for the first time, the Miata has standard seat-mounted side airbags designed to provide crash protection for both thorax and head.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $20,995. This is for a Club Spec model that doesn't have air conditioning and comes with a manually operated, black vinyl top.

Competitors include other four-cylinder-powered roadsters such as the 2005 Honda S2000, which starts at $33,665 and includes air conditioning and a power-operated, cloth top, and the 2006 Pontiac Solstice, which starts at $19,995 for a model without air conditioning but with a cloth, manually operated top.

Introduced in 1989, the small, two-seat Miata set a Guinness Book record as the best-selling roadster in history. Miata sales have topped 700,000, with nearly half of them - 322,000 - in the United States. The Miata caught the fancy of consumers by combining the fun-loving, agile handling and look of a topless British sports car with the dependability of a modern Japanese-built auto.

Today, American consumers should look closely at the new Miata. They'll find no reference to "Miata" anywhere on the car.

Badging and even floor mats have only "MX-5" on them. This is because the name "Miata" stuck only in North America, while car buyers in the rest of the world know the car as the "MX-5."

No matter. Mazda officials in the United States said marketing materials such as brochures here will continue to use the Miata name.

There are five trim levels of the car for 2006: Club Spec, MX-5, Touring, Sport and Grand Touring.

All use the same engine - a new, 2-liter, double overhead cam, inline four cylinder with variable intake-valve timing.

Horsepower now is 170, up from the 142 horses of the 2005 Miata. But this is lower than the 178 horses of the turbocharged four cylinder of the Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata that Mazda has sold in the past.

Similarly, torque in the new car rises to 140 foot-pounds at 5,000 rpm, up from 125 in the 2005 Miata.

But the Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata had 166 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm.

Pontiac's Solstice debuts this fall with a 177-horsepower, 2.4-liter four cylinder that generates up to 166 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800 rpm.

During my Miata test drive, though, I didn't fret about the power. Working the six-speed manual transmission in the test car, I got enough zip from the 2-liter Mazda motor for passing maneuvers and for spirited driving.

I did notice, however, that the six-speed is a new Mazda design, and it didn't seem to have quite the same short-throw, satisfyingly precise feel that I enjoyed so much in the previous tranny that came from a Mazda supplier. Note that this six-speed can be had only on the uplevel Miata Sport and Grand Touring models. A five-speed manual is standard on the three lowest trim levels.

It's well worth trying Mazda's new six-speed automatic, too. It worked well during a test drive to keep the Miata peppy, and the shifts were made easier and race car-like because of steering wheel-mounted paddles. This tranny is a $1,100 option.

But horsepower with the automatic transmission is 166 - lower than with the manual gearboxes. A Mazda official said it was because the automaker didn't want to overtax the automatic in handling so much power.

Thankfully, despite the larger displacement, the new Miata four cylinder doesn't hurt the car's fuel economy rating, which ranges from 23 to 25 miles a gallon in city driving and 30 mpg on the highway, depending on which transmission is used.

The best part of the Miata, however, is this rear-wheel-drive car's sprightly, road-hugging ride.

With near-perfect 50-50 weight balance and a weight of less than 3,000 pounds, this low-to-the-ground car feels agile in even sudden maneuvers. The car seems glued to the pavement, and there's a satisfying predictability to the Miata's zippy behavior that's not often found in today's cars, especially at this price.

But don't expect to have much of a view of traffic ahead. The low ride height meant I couldn't see beyond the vehicle in front of me.

This isn't a cushioned ride, as you might guess. Riders feel about all road bumps, especially with the optional sport-tuned suspension. But the wear and tear on passengers seems a bit alleviated because the new Miata body is more rigid than the predecessor model.

Some road noise came from the tires in the Grand Touring test car with uplevel, 17-inch tires, even when the fabric roof was atop the car. Road noise is a bit less in cars with the base 16-inch tires. And obviously, there's wind noise with the top down.

The steering wheel is just the right diameter for this car. Steering response is prompt and accurate but not twitchy or nervous as it can be in some high-priced exotic sports cars.

The interior is the best looking and most upscale of any Miata to date.

I also liked that Mazda changed the soft top so it latches only in one central spot - at the leading edge of the windshield. This replaces the two latches on the earlier car.

This roof is unlined inside, however.

The lack of seat height adjustment for the driver made it difficult for someone my size - 5-foot-4 - to back up this little car, even with the top down. I struggled to raise myself up off the seat as the car moved backward. The problem wasn't just the molded head restraints. It was the plastic wind deflector that's positioned between the head restraints. I just couldn't see over it.

And, there still isn't a great deal of room to put things in this car. With someone in the front seat, I had to toss my purse and briefcase into the trunk. There are no map pockets on the two doors, but I do appreciate the new cupholders molded into the doors, by the armrests. They're just right for water bottles.

Trunk space, by the way, is 5.3 cubic feet, up slightly from 5.1 cubic feet in the previous-generation car.

There have been no safety recalls of the new Miata. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also has not yet reported crash test results on the 2006 Miata.

Because the vehicle is new, Consumer Reports does not provide a reliability rating.