Good: sharp looks, high quality cabin, engaging dynamics, purity.
Not so good: needs more power, quite cramped.
What is it with the Mazda MX-5? Did Mazda luck out in 1989 by identifying a two-seat roadster sized gap in the market? Four generations and a million sales later we are firmly into the 'ND' version and the formula has changed little. It's still a very compact two-door, two-seat roadster with a naturally aspirated petrol engine up front sending drive to the rear wheels. The focus remains on delicate balance and driving pleasure over and above outright speed and this time around Mazda obsessed about weight reduction.
In terms of looks, the MX-5 has always been attractive, yet its diminutive dimensions mean it doesn't stand out or look showy in any way. The current car is the sharpest in terms of design, yet it retains the neat proportions and Mazda refuses to fit huge wheels so it looks lithe and almost modest, even in the lovely Soul Red paint colour.
There's nothing radical about the cabin, either. Much of the switchgear is shared with the rest of the Mazda range, which means high build quality and attractive design without any fripperies. It all operates efficiently and intuitively and you get the sense it'll still be that way in 20 years' time. The interior is what an estate agent might call 'cosy', with the passengers positioned close together and precious little room behind, but that's all part of the appeal of a pure two-seat roadster like this. There are a few small storage areas dotted around the place, but they're of limited use and the boot, at 130 litres, requires careful planning if you're going away for any length of time. More importantly to buyers of the MX-5, the driving position is spot on. You sit low down in the car, there's plenty of adjustment in the seat and wheel and they're both well-designed for comfort and tactility. The pedal spacing is perfect and the stubby gear lever is a mere wrist flick away from the wheel.
That steering wheel and gear knob are trimmed in leather as standard, as you'd hope, and even the entry-level Roadster features automatic air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry and start, electric windows, LED headlights, a seven-inch infotainment screen, Bluetooth and 16-inch alloy wheels. That's for €27,995. Spend an extra €2,000 for the Roadster GT (as we'd advise) and you gain black leather upholstery with red trim, heated seats, upgraded infotainment and a few other bits and pieces. Both cars feature a manually operated cloth roof.
To date, the only engine offered to Irish buyers of the MX-5 is the modest 1.5-litre unit, where other markets get a 2.0-litre option. We expect that to come on stream in Ireland once the MX-5 RF folding hardtop coupe arrives. Nonetheless, the 1.5-litre engine has a lot going for it. While you'll find it elsewhere in the Mazda line-up (the Mazda2 and CX-3 for example), it never sounds as sporty as it does in the MX-5. Outputs of 113hp and 150Nm don't sound like much - and they aren't - but the MX-5 makes good use of them. The car never feels exceptionally fast, but it gains speed in a pleasingly effortless fashion, an upshot of the low 1,050kg weight. Without a turbocharger, you really need to work hard to extract the most from the engine and that is the joy of this car. It won't be for everyone - and yes, you may regularly hanker after a little more grunt - but it can be an absolute joy to wring out the engine to the red line in each gear and change up and down through the excellent six-speed transmission just for the sake of it.
Obviously none of that would matter if the chassis wasn't up to the job. The MX-5 has always stood for balance and deftness in the turns and this new one is no different. Yet I found it takes a while to gel with it. There's initially a surprising amount of body roll when you turn in to a tight corner, and I wish the steering system had more feedback, but you soon learn that you can lean hard on the MX-5's modest tyres and maintain momentum through any sequence of corners. It takes a hell of a lot of provocation to unstick those tyres and the chassis lets you know in plenty of time before it relinquishes grip. But that's not the most satisfying way to drive this car. It's at its best whipping along at eight tenths, stringing corners together smoothly and demanding its driver to perfect their skills, without grabbing unwanted attention or breaking speed limits. Even if you don't class yourself as someone that relishes driving, and you choose this car because of its image, you'll find yourself taking the MX-5 out for a spin, just for the sake of it. It explains why Mazda has sold so many of the things and why buyers keep coming back for more.