Forget the specs, the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata is the embodiment of driving joy

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In a word, the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata is "playful." My 24-hour stint behind the wheel of the all-new fourth-generation roadster revealed that Mazda is less concerned with all-out performance and more focused on delivering a unique and engaging driving experience. Despite the roadster's weekend racing pedigree, Mazda approaches the new Miata as a road car first and builds its experience around delivering the sensation of speed.

You might notice, for example, that the MX-5's ride is a bit more compliant than your average sport compact's "track-tuned" suspension. The softer setup lets the suspension absorb mid-corner bumps with grace and allows a bit of body roll when cornering. That roll gives the driver the sensation of carving corners at any speed and helps you feel how hard you're pushing the car around a bend. This feel helps make the roadster more predictable, which builds confidence and encourages more speed.

In most cars, roll also brings a reduction in grip as the car leans over, but the roadster's double-wishbone suspension prevents this downside by keeping the tires planted and maintaining consistent and predictable grip through the corner. The MX-5's body is even stiffer than before, which gives the suspension a good platform under which to work, which makes the movements of the suspension even more consistent and predictable.

The Miata starts with a stiff chassis and an excellent suspension, so it doesn't need to compensate with a too-firm ride. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The result is handling that's engaging and very responsive, but without a punishing ride over the cracked and pockmarked pavement that you'll often encounter on the best twisty backroads. The MX-5 is a grin-generating machine that I was able to effortlessly guide through apex after apex. The roadster's suspension soaks up bumps, rather than skipping over them, which makes the car feel more planted under dynamic driving conditions. Driver mistakes that would result in over or understeer are easily recognizable and even easier to correct. Chucking the Miata into a corner becomes a rewarding adrenaline rush, rather than a mildly terrifying one.

Looking at the numbers, you might also notice the Miata has less power than last year. Its 155-horsepower Skyactiv 2.0-liter is down about 12 ponies from last year and, on paper, this is disappointing. But the Miata doesn't live on paper and the roadster has never been a great powerhouse. On the road and in practice, the new chassis' lighter curb weight and meatier midrange torque curve conspire to make the new Miata feel as responsive as ever. The engine is eager to please and swings the tachometer needle like a happy puppy. Sure, there were one or two uphill blasts where I wished for just a bit more power, but for the most part I was pleased with the performance.

The 2.0-liter Skyactiv engine boasts less peak power, but with more accessible torque it feels just as peppy. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The six-speed manual and automatic transmission options have revised gear ratios to better take advantage of all 148 available pound feet of torque, which is available lower in the power band than before. There was always enough power to make the Miata feel quick and zippy. Like the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ , this isn't a driving experience that's built around overwhelming power. Rather, the Miata rewards the driver who embraces the nimble handling, makes smart gear choices and conserves their speed and inertia through the twisty bits. The Miata wants you to carry speed through the turn, not just pile it on after the apex.

Here, I must admit, that my example was a Grand Touring model equipped with an automatic transmission and paddle shifters. Even without the third pedal, the Mazda was a blast to drive. The automatic transmission is not a terrible gearbox for a casual mountain cruise or slog through traffic. It's smooth and its shifts are reasonably quick when set in the Sport mode. Gear changes happen at logical points with rev-matched downshifts and programming that prevents upshifting mid-corner. However, I found that when the road got really twisty, I preferred to choose my own ratios with the paddle shifters. And all the time I was thinking, "This would be so much better with a proper manual transmission."

The brakes feature an excellent and progressive feel. I liked that they didn't have too much initial bite, which made them easy to modulate -- loads of bite is good for stopping distance tests, but on the road it reduces pedal sensitivity. I'm told that the more performance-oriented Club model's upgraded brakes have even less initial bite than my Grand Touring model, but better control and more fade resistance. Again, here's Mazda placing practical driveability over spec sheet brag-ability.

The Miata was built around the driver with improved seats, better ergonomics and an optimized driving position that's a better fit for taller drivers. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Dave Coleman, vehicle development engineer at Mazda R&D, tells me that the MX-5 was built from the driver's seat up to ensure that this is the best MX-5 ever as far as seating position, ergonomics and space are concerned; particularly for taller drivers. (I'm not a taller driver, so I'll take Dave's word for it.) This means that special attention has been placed on making sure that the pedal placement is perfectly centered with the seat and steering wheel, and that the steering wheel and shifter feel good in the driver's hand.

The roadster's A-pillars have been positioned to offer the most unobstructed view of the road and the low-slung hood lets the driver look right down at the road ahead of the car, enhancing the sensation of speed as the road seems to rush right up to the windshield. Even the tech was designed with the driver in mind, featuring headrest mounted speakers with the optional Bose audio system and an unobtrusive Mazda Connect infotainment suite.

Over the windy canyon roads that snake through the Angeles National Forest in Southern California, the 2016 Miata is in its element. The route never straightens, so the Miata's moderate power never becomes a handicap and the constant bending of the road up and down the mountainside highlights the responsiveness of the steering, the excellent and neutral grip, and the forgiving and stiff chassis. For a fan of nimble sport compacts, spending hour after hour exploring the mountains in the fourth-generation Miata is pretty close to Nirvana.

Yes, the 2016 MX-5 is quick, but it's also playful, pure and approachable. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Mazda has taken the spec sheet, the performance chart, and the Internet forum bench racing and tossed them all aside for the fourth-generation Mazda Miata. Instead of just giving us more power, more trunk space and a better 0-60, the automaker has instead built the best driving experience -- and perhaps the most faithful homage to the first two generations of Miata -- that it could muster.

Yes, the roadster is a quick little ride, but I think it's more important that the playful 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata is just so much fun. Mazda has built a true driver's car that's delivers the joy of driving, not just bigger numbers.

Editor's note: CNET accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All fuel and vehicle insurance costs are covered by CNET. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgements and opinions of CNET's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid content.

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2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata

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