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Mazda MX-5 Miata keeps best of its tradition

If you're worried that the new Miata isn't as good as the original icon that captivated fanboys and fanladies for decades, don't be.

If you're worried that the new Miata isn't as good as the original icon that captivated fanboys and fanladies for decades, don't be.

The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata has the same playful mien, the same whip-tight body, and the same toylike dimensions as earlier models.

In fact, while SUVs and crossovers keep driving the market toward bulkier vehicles every year, the lithe Miata has gone against the trend, shortening its wheelbase and dropping its ride height by almost an inch compared with its predecessor.

With aesthetic changes like a lower hood, sculpted sides, a pronounced rear lip spoiler, and bolder curves over the new 17-inch wheels, it looks better, too.

This is not a fast sports car. It takes more than seven seconds to hit 60 m.p.h. The steering scampers a bit at quick, breakaway speeds. But the rear-wheel-drive MX-5 retains the pure joy-of-driving fun that endeared it to thousands of drivers a generation ago.

Consider it against the likes of the Scion FR-S and Subaru BR-Z. Or if you want to pay thousands more for considerably more power and performance, pit it against a Lotus Elise (good luck finding one in the United States) or an Alfa Romeo 4C Spider; I'm throwing those in only because their size compares well.

If you do buy an MX-5, choose the six-speed manual version. Not only does it get better gas mileage than the automatic version, but the manual model also maintains the simple pleasure principle Mazda envisioned when it conceived this car.

I used that manual on a 2016 MX-5 Miata Grand Touring edition in New York for a few days recently. The Grand Touring is the most expensive variant of this car, which starts at $25,000 for the Sport edition. It includes as standard such things as lane-departure warning and blind-spot monitoring, navigation, and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

The Touring edition has the same 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine as the other variants. It's set inside a 2,350-pound body svelte enough to capitalize on the 155 horsepower and 148 foot-pounds of torque it can offer.

On paper, the MX-5 is decidedly unimpressive. The Scion and Subaru deliver considerably more, as will any proper luxury roadster. But the emphasis here is on play rather than performance, passion rather than power. The MX-5 will make you giggle as you throw it into curves and smirk as you whip around slowpoke drivers.

The body roll you feel inside - and you will feel it - serves in this case to enhance the thrill rather than detract, as it does in most cars. In fact, from the moment you get behind the wheel, you are unconstrained by overprotectiveness. Because of the price tag, you are also free of low-level anxiety about any number of things often associated with driving more expensive or powerful cars. You can have fun with a Miata because you didn't spend a crazy amount on it.

Life inside the new Miata is great, too, so long as you don't ask for extra fluff. It comes with remote keyless entry, Bluetooth, leather-trimmed and heated seats, auto-dimming and heated mirrors, along with 24-hour roadside assistance. The paltry nine-speaker Bose sound system could stand replacement, but the seven-inch center touchscreen, while small, is effective.

The (only) two seats in the car afford less space than those of other two-seat roadsters, and the trunk is only slightly more practical than something "for show only." This is not a car for big guys or long trips.