I walked the floor of the Detroit Auto Show with James Bell, the head consumer guy at General Motors, and he stopped dead at the 2016 Mazda Miata. “I’m not a huge fan of that face,” he said. “It’s kind of sinister looking.”

Indeed it is, though sinister is not such a bad thing in a sports car. Traditionally, the Miata has seemed downright friendly. For next year’s model, it’s getting a distinctly tougher look, along with tiny cuts in both length and width, and the new 155-horsepower Skyactiv-G direct-injection engine (shared with the CX-5). Thanks in part to copious use of aluminum (hood, trunk lid, fender- and bumper reinforcements), plus a leaner soft top, there’s a weight loss of a whopping 220 pounds. That means that even without a power increase it should be faster. Fuel economy should go from the current 28 mpg combined to over 30. We don't know the price yet, but it could be higher than the current $23,970 car.

Mazda Miata

The Miata looks good from the back, too. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Owners can choose between a six-speed manual and an automatic. In the new configuration, with front-midship engine and rear-wheel drive, it offers (as did the first one) 50-50 weight distribution. The center of gravity is also lower, helping with handling.

As to that nose, Mazda has a whole thing about its KODO design language that includes “body surfaces that richly express the Japanese sense of contrast between stillness and motion.” OK, well it looks like it’s moving when it’s standing still, if that’s what they mean. “Merely looking at it will make any car lover happy,” Mazda says.

Stepping back a bit, the Miata was a big hit when it debuted in 1989, and since then it’s become part of the American fabric. You see far more of them, per capita-wise, on U.S. roads than Japanese. Originally, it replaced the British sports roadster that graced our roads up until 1980 (from Triumph, MG, Morgan and Jaguar), but now we barely even remember them. The Toyota MR-2 and Honda S2000 both provided memorable competition, but neither had the staying power of the Miata.

Alfa Spider

Alfa's exotic 4C Spider comes in after the coupe version. It should be an exhilarating, but expensive, ride at $60,000. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

An interesting aspect of the new Miata is that it represents shared technology. Through a deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, there was a rumor that Alfa-Romeo would field a variation, but now it appears that the sister car will be a Fiat or Abarth-badged Spider. “The Far East import will probably find a new home with Fiat-Abarth,” said Harald Wester, who heads the Alfa brand.

An affordable Alfa sports car is coming, perhaps a worthy successor to the 1976 Spider I fielded back in the day. It’s part of Project Giorgio, which is a code name for a rear-wheel drive platform that will underpin now only a new Spider but the 159 sedan and other cars. The Alfa Spider we'll see in the meantime is the 4C Spider, which is far more exotic. Expect it to be in the $60,000 range.

Mini Superleggera

That windshield would never make it into production, but otherwise this sports Mini was a home run. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

And speaking of Italian sports cars, one of my favorite cars at the show was the Mini Superleggera, a Touring-built two-seat Italian spin on the car using lightweight construction. It's just a concept, harking back to the days when Italian coachbuilders did many of the automakers' show cars, but BMW/Mini should totally build this thing. Mini has put out a number of increasingly ugly variants on the basic two-door, and this is the first one that's a home run, styling- and market-wise. The Miata needs real competition.

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

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