June Neary on Mazda's latest fourth generation MX-5
Will It Suit Me?
No car assaults the senses and tugs on the heart strings quite so fervently as a roadster and if we're talking about roadsters, the conversation must inevitably turn to Mazda's iconic MX-5. The current MK4 model takes the classic formula that has established the MX-5 as the world's best selling sports car and fundamentally updates it with a car that's smaller and lighter than its predecessor, with a superior power-to-weight ratio, a low centre of gravity and an ideal 50:50 weight distribution for the perfectly balanced rear wheel drive chassis. All the ingredients seem in place then, for a return to the purity of purpose that so established the earliest version of this car in the hearts of ordinary enthusiasts around the world. Inevitably, the MX-5 is still woefully inadequate as a family car but it is desirable, accessible and has the capacity to make the most mundane journeys enjoyable. So yes, it would suit me. Or at least it would if it weren't for the kids, the dog and that monstrous weekly shop that I find myself carting home from the supermarket every Thursday night. Many other people will be in a similar boat, but that won't stop them lusting after an MX-5. I couldn't wait to try it.
Roadsters aren't built to be practical but the MX-5 makes a surprisingly good job of being as easy to live with as its lightweight, open-top remit allows. In an age when folding hard top roofs on cars can require a whole collection of electric motors to do their thing, it's refreshing to find a canvas cover that can be deployed and stowed, one-handed from the driver's seat in a matter of seconds. Mazda claim that's it's possible to get the roof down in six seconds but you'd be hanging around a bit if it took you that long. Release a couple of catches, sling the canopy nonchalantly over your shoulder and, hey presto, you're in posing mode. The boot is a touch smaller than before but is still a bit bigger than you might imagine, usefully deep and with a wide aperture. There's space for six or so shopping bags to be lined-up across its width and Mazda say you can get cases of 12 1.5-litre bottles stood upright in there. A booze cruise might not be out of the question. The interior is perhaps the area where today's MX-5 has progressed most significantly from its forebears, though folk over-familiar with the offerings of Colonel Sanders will find that the compact dimensions take a bit of getting used to as they adjust to the close proximity of the centre console, the door trim and the sides of the narrow footwell. Mazda says there's more kneeroom this time round - plus there's a bit of extra headroom when the roof's up too - but despite that, larger folk might still like to consider dietary plans and all will find the pedal box particularly tight, so much so that, rather annoyingly, it doesn't provide anywhere for your clutch foot to rest on longer journeys.
Behind the Wheel
So what's it like to drive? Well, MX-5 motoring has never been all about ultimate power - and it still isn't. The two SKYACTIVE-G petrol engines on offer - a 131PS 1.5-litre unit and the 160PS 2.0-litre powerplant I tried - seem to offer modest performance stats on paper. On the road though, a real roadster experience awaits, this MK4 model feeling sharper and more eager through the turns thanks to a dietary development programme which has seen over 100kgs trimmed from the kerbweight. The freshly-developed electric power steering system plays its part too, offering great feedback between rubber and road and ensuring that you're encouraged to make the very most from performance on offer that sees the 2.0-litre model make 62mph from rest in 7.3s en route to 133mph. Buyers of this variant get the option of paying extra for the top 'Sport' version which gets a few extra dynamic aids - sports suspension, stiffer Bilstein dampers and a limited slip differential for extra traction. You don't really need any of this though, to have fun in this car. Indeed, when it comes to suspension, the suppler set-up of the standard models is arguably preferable. The wonderfully incisive short-shift SKYACTIV-MT six-speed manual transmission is another key contributor to the whole experience - which is just as well as you'll be shunting the stubby lever around the 'box rather a lot to get the most out of those revvy little engines.
Value For Money
If you've got between £19,000 and £24,000 to spend on a convertible sports car, your choices are severely limited. Other manufacturers seem to have admitted defeat and taken evasive action in the face of the MX-5 sales steamroller. If you must have a convertible, your alternatives are largely supermini-based products with folding hard-top roofs and these don't offer the same sporty feel as the MX-5. Equipment levels are fairly generous, with all cars getting LED headlamps, daytime running lights and alloy wheels of at least 16-inches in size. You also get air conditioning, remote keyless entry with a dashboard start/stop button, electric windows, power heated mirrors, leather for the multi-function steering wheel and gearknob, a trip computer and a decent quality four-speaker stereo with USB and iPod connectivity.
Could I Live With One?
As a value for money package of classic styling, driving excitement and open-topped motoring that isn't a chore to live with day to day, this fourth generation Mazda MX-5 is hard to beat. The Japanese brand has sensibly fought the urge to mess with its winning formula but they've given the car an added dimension in quality while making various tweaks and improvements across the board. It's still a two seater roadster and most people simply won't be able to run one as an only car for practical reasons. Still, many of them will now wish even more that they could. I know I do.