The Little Engine That Could

The Miata started its life with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that grew to 1.8 liters in 1994 and 2.0 liters with the current (third) generation in 2004. Tweaks over the years, including the addition of variable valve timing in 2001, have increased the output incrementally. When equipped with a five- or six-speed manual, the 2009 now produces 167 horsepower, a 1-hp increase over last year. The change comes from a higher redline with the manual: 7,200 rpm rather than 6,700 rpm with the six-speed automatic, which is programmed to upshift before hitting the rev limiter and is capped at 158 hp as a result.

It seemed to me that the power increase over last year was negligible in my test car, but it gives a little more "headroom" in each gear before hitting the limiter or requiring an upshift. It adds some flexibility, in a sense, though I seldom felt it necessary to ride the tach to its peak. For one thing, the little engine has substantial torque at low rpm for a small block with no turbo. The five-speed, which I haven't tested, would probably tame the launch a bit. Even if you want or need to work the shifter more than I did — say on hillier terrain — you won't mind. The stick is well-placed, a good height and has medium-short throws and well-defined gates. A short-throw shifter kit would be attractive to some buyers, but for the masses, this one's just about perfect.

Mazda also revised the engine's intake runner for a sportier sound, and it definitely works for me. Again, for its size, it sounds deeper and beefier than its 2.0 liters suggest. It's nice to see a four-banger make some noise without sounding as flatulent as some tuner imports do. Another bonus: EPA mileage estimates have increased by 1 mpg on the highway with the five-speed manual and 1 mpg in both city and highway with the six-speed automatic.

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