The Mazda Miata and the original VW Beetle (and the Ford Model T) are nothing alike but have one thing in common: Each achieved a high-water mark for sheer numbers built and longevity. The Miata, which has been around since 1989, is the best-selling small roadster of all time - surpassing all of the classic British roadsters of the '60s it was built to emulate in spirit, but also far exceeding them in terms of reliability - and thus, staying power.

That was the Magic Formula: All the freedom and fun of an MGB without the rusting panels, leaky top, iffy electrics or oil-dripping (and burning) engine - at price of entry not far off what you'd pay for a basic transpo economy car.

Thank the Motor Gods Mazda hasn't tried to "fix" what ain't broke.

WHAT IT IS

The Miata is a two-seat, rear-drive roadster available with a regular cloth soft top or power retractable hardtop. The base model with soft-top and six-speed stick starts at $22,810. A loaded Grand Touring model with six-speed automatic and the retractable all-weather hardtop starts at $26,850.

WHAT'S NEW

Several significant incremental improvements, including more power (170 hp) from the standard 2.0 liter engine, six-speed manual now standard equipment, tweaks to the suspension and freshened exterior/interior.

WHAT'S GOOD

It's still the same basic concept, just a little quicker and even better handling now. Amazingly inexpensive compared to the cars it inspired (BMW Z4, Honda S2000, etc.) yet gives up nothing to them as a driver's car. Near economy car gas mileage numbers.

WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD

Like a great sport bike, this car won't fit everyone. But if you're under 6 ft. 3, you'll be fine.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The '10 Miata's 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine has been beefed up (forged crankshaft, full floating wrist pins for the pistons, etc.) to increase the redline to 7,500 rpm (500 rpm higher than before) and bump max power up to 170 (from 167 previously).

Also new: All Miatas (not just the pricier Touring and Grand Touring versions) now come standard with a six-speed manual transmission - with carbon coated internal cogs to enhance shift speed/feel as well as the durability of the transmission.

A six-speed automatic with Active Adaptive Shift manual mode and paddle shifters is optionally available.

With a bit more power on tap, a wider operating range and more favorable gearing through the six-speed transmission, the '10 Miata's 0-60 time drops just slightly to about 7.3 seconds, but thanks the higher redline, it feels noticeably quicker (more on this below).

EPA hasn't released official numbers yet but the updated Miata's gas mileage ought to be about what the current car delivers: 22 city/28 highway.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS/RIDE & HANDLING

The Miata is a true sports car - meaning, it's not so much about high-horsepower or ferocious acceleration as it is about exceptional balance and agility - the quality the Japanese refer to as a rider who is one with his horse.

A 0-60 time in the mid 7 second range is not exceptional these days, but few cars can do the job with as much sheer involvement as the Miata can. The closest to it is a Porsche Boxster - a car that costs more than twice as much, just to start.

The 2.0 liter engine just sounds great (even better now, with revised intake tract tuning specifically designed to let the thing sing as the revs climb over 4,000 or so) and the six-speed transmission perfectly matched to it. While most automakers have gone to excruciating lengths to cull all signs of mechanical life from their drivetrains and turn them into electric car quiet appliances, the Miata will take you right back to the summer of '69 - all the good stuff, without the smelly Hippies. Throw the top back (the power hardtop is neat but this car doesn't need it), point it down the road and just make tracks.

Bilstein shocks are now standard (formerly optional) to provide increased compression damping, which eliminates some of the bounciness the previous car was prone to when it encountered a dip in the middle of a fast corner. It now squats and settles with the firmness of an SCCA-prepped slalom car. Some of the largest/most aggressive tires ever installed on a factory-built Miata are now available, too: P205/45R-17 Bridgestone Potenzas. These can be fitted to beautiful new-design 17-inch BBS wheels. Recaro sport buckets are available, too.

Competitors like the BMW Z4 and Honda S2000 have done their utmost to out-Miata the Miata but there's still only one original. The Z4 is quicker; the S2000 (with its almost 10,000 RPM powerband) more race car-like. But the Miata is still the better balanced mix of back to basics sports car fun and everyday reasonabless, too. It is affordable (the Z4, which starts at $45,750, isn't), comfortable to drive in stop-and-go traffic (the S2000, which has an engine that doesn't start making significant power until 4,000-plus RPM, isn't) and plausibly practical (good gas mileage, high resale value, doesn't require much in the way of expensive maintenance, etc.)

STYLING & UTILITY

Mazda - wisely - hasn't messed with the Miata's classic shape. Just a few minor updates, including a new trunklid spoiler, wider front and rear ends (with new design headlights) to cut down on wind resistance and cabin noise infiltration at high speed (CD drops to .032 for the retractable hardtop model).

The trunk is puny - 5.3 cubic feet. But Mazda built numerous hidey-holes and cubbies into the car's cabin, including a bin between the driver and passenger seatbacks (this is where the pull release for the fuel filler door is located, too) and four small but serviceable cup holders.

The all-weather hardtop (models so equipped start at $26,850) is the least expensive retractable hardtop roadster currently available. VW's Eos, for example, starts at $31,615 (and the front-wheel-drive, two-plus-two Eos isn't even in the same league as the Miata as far as being a sports car goes). The $45,750 BMW Z4 costs almost twenty grand more than the Miata with retractable top.

Etc.

On the highway - driven moderately - a Miata is capable of returning 30-plus MPGs, about the same as a current Toyota Corolla. But with a pulse.

QUALITY & SAFETY

Miatas are hard to kill, even when abused. This is another very powerful reason to consider this car over its competitors. It can literally be autocrossed brutally all weekend long - and then driven 500 miles home from the racetrack. You rarely hear about anything major breaking and routinely encounter Miatas that are 10, 15 even 20 years old and still everyday driven. Given the low price of entry and the solid bet you can drive one for 150,000 miles before it'll even begin to start feeling crickety or causing you problems, it is much easier to rationalize a Miata purchase than the purchase of a high-priced, fast-depreciating (and high maintenance and expensive to maintain) BMW or similar. No offense. The Z4 is a great car. So is the S2000 and the Porsche Boxster. But buying one of those cars is like acquiring a 21 year old girlfriend when you're staring 45 in the face.

There will be costs involved.

Greats brakes, agile handling and excellent all-around visibility are the Miata's chief safety advantages. It also comes standard with stability/traction control, ABS and side air bags, too. For a small car, it does well in crash tests - compared with other small cars. But your best bet is to avoid getting into a test of physics with large cars.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Twenty years later, the Miata is still the one everyone's trying to copy - and which no one (so far) has managed to beat.