The newly developed six-speed manual was derived from the exemplary unit in the RX-8. Offering triple-cone synchros for first through fourth gears, it should provide, in Mazda's words, "quick and snappy shift performance." Mazda devoted considerable energy to researching, both internally and in conjunction with a Japanese university, cabin ergonomics, aiming to find the most suitable driving position and the best angle between a driver's arms and hands and the steering wheel, not to mention how to position the shifter in an "easy-to-operate" area. This was all part of a greater, jinba ittai-style campaign to achieve a "just-fitting" cockpit that optimizes surface tactile qualities and ergonomic shapes. Did you know that the third joint of your middle finger gets the most compression when you grip the steering wheel of a car? Do you care? Mazda does and quantifies it as a "palm load measurement."
More tangible improvements to the cabin include, for the first time, side air bags; standard chrome-ringed roll bars; lower air vents directed at waist level; optional smart-key access; and an all-new center instrument stack. The fuel and temperature gauges, previously separate spheres, now tuck up against the predominant tachometer and speedometer in the main instrument panel, and there's a new, three-spoke, tilt-adjustable steering wheel. The new MX-5 also offers more room for the stuff we like to bring along for the ride, including cup holders in the doors under the grab handles; a marginally bigger trunk, with optional run-flat tires eliminating the need for a spare; a lockable storage niche ideal for CDs between the seatbacks; additional bins behind the seats; several net pockets; covered cup holders in the center console; and a bigger glove compartment.
Sitting in the styling buck, we found notably increased leg and knee room and a just-right seating position. The steering wheel felt absolutely perfect to our palms-and to every joint of every finger, for that matter. The soft top, available in cloth or vinyl, has a center latch system rather than the current dual latches, for one-handed operation, and it is still easy to retract and pull up while you're sitting in the car. A detachable hard top with a wide rear window that wraps around the sides also will be available.
Don't be surprised if you see Mazda's new roadster described more often as the MX-5 than as the Miata. Miata was solely a U.S. brand name, and Mazda officially is dropping the moniker for the third generation. However, Mazda North American Operations is not so naive as to think we Americans are going to give up the name that easily, so they'll continue to refer to it informally as the Miata, and no one is going to admonish you-or us-for doing the same.
Your first stateside opportunity to see the MX-5 in person is at the New York auto show in late March. We get to drive it in June, and sales begin in August or September. All indications point to a car that will be every bit as good as, and most likely better than, its predecessors, which have found nearly 750,000 buyers since the original Miata debuted in April 1989. Mazda wisely has refined, rather than redefined, a winning formula. It seems promises have been kept.