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Click to view picture gallery“Drive one of Mazda’s
  new MX-5 Roadsters
  for a week and it’s easy
  to understand why
  750,000 owners have
  made it the most
  popular sports car
  in the world...

NOW IN ITS THIRD generation, Mazda's popular — to be precise, and as confirmed by the Guinness book of records, the world's most popular — Roadster, is all grown up.
But MX-5 aficionados needn
't worry. The new model hasn't lost its sense of fun and it remains faithful to its front-engine, rear-drive two-seater roadster roots.

Since it first hit the road in 1989, more than three quarters of a million have been snapped up by doting owners around the world. The latest model may have passed through two previous incarnations, but its uncluttered lines and pleasing curves still instantly identify it as an
MX-5. New details include blistered RX-8-style wheel arches, larger alloy wheels and twin rear exhausts. Our test car came in an eye-catching metallic royal blue (Winning Blue) that really made the car stand out.

Three MX-5s are currently available: a 125bhp 1.8i, and two 158bhp 2.0-litre cars, one of which comes in Sport spec. Prices start at £15,600 for the entry-level 1.8, with the 2.0i Sport costing £18,950. Yes, you guessed it — we tested the 2.0i Sport model. This comes as standard with a close-ratio six-speed manual 'box, a limited slip diff, traction control and 0-62mph acceleration in 7.9 seconds. And a flat-out top speed of 130mph — more than enough to enjoy the good old-fashioned wind-in-your-hair style of motoring. In fact, a key ingredient in the MX-5's Unique Selling Proposition has always been adequate — as opposed to excessive — power allied to entertaining handling
and driving pleasure. And for that, the MX-5's 158bhp and 139lb ft of torque is — to steal Rolls-Royce's famously understated line — 'sufficient'.

In these days of 1,000bhp supercars, 158bhp might not sound a lot. But then the MX-5 doesn't need a lot because Mazda has gone to a great deal of trouble to ensure that its weight hasn't blossomed as its character (and body) has matured. And it has, in the process, gained more safety (front and side airbags and door impact bars), refinement and comfort. A tape measure quickly reveals that the all-new model is somewhat bigger than its predecessor — it's now 20mm longer, 20mm taller and 40mm wider. The wheelbase is longer, too, by 65mm.

Underpinning the refreshed styling is a conventional steel monocoque that bestows a 47 per cent increase in torsional rigidity. The bonnet, bootlid and engine are all made from aluminium. The result is an all-up weight of just 1,095kg — only 10kg heavier than the less stiff and less well-equipped second generation MX-5 it replaces.

All of which bodes well for the new MX-5's dynamic ability. Suddenly, 'only' 158bhp is looking pretty good. Above all else, the MX-5 is
about being a Roadster. To that end, the hood is extremely important. Happily, Mazda have got it just right. No, it isn't powered. Partly because of the weight penalty that would incur. It is, however, a breeze to use.

When Mazda says it can be operated one-handed literally in seconds they're telling the truth. No matter how fast electrically-operated hoods are, none of them are as quick as the MX-5's — nor would you want them to be. The driver, or passenger, can release and throw back the hood quicker than any clever electro-mechanical jiggery-pokery could ever hope to do it. Better still, it feels robust and it needs to be. Because if other MX-5 drivers are anything like us, the top will be dropped at every opportunity.

Better still, we didn't need to leave our seats to drop the top. Press the release button, undo the central retaining lever and fling the lightweight soft-top back over your head. You won't need a fiddly tonneau either, because the complete Z-fold soft-top folds into a dedicated compartment behind the rear seats, locking safely into position below the body line. Simple, effective and neat.

By the end of our week's road test, we could go topless in less than five seconds. There's a handy flip-up wind blocker fitted between the rear roll-hoops/high-backed sports seats and, hood stowed, you can zip along topless without getting blown out of shape and still listen to your favourite driving music on the Bose sound system. Raising the hood, as you'd expect, is also easy, thanks to built-in 'assist' springs.

Come on inside. Or rather, drop down over a sill smartly capped with a metal kick plate into firm, slim and shapely seats. The leather-trimmed steering wheel is nicely contoured and features aluminium-effect spokes, the left of which houses a set of our remote audio controls. The wheel itself is fairly upright and there's no reach adjustment, but you can work it without banging your elbows — either against your passenger or your door. By design or accident you'll find your left forearm rests easily on the wide central transmission tunnel, your left palm almost automatically — and very comfortably — cupping the stubby gearlever.

The cabin will, surprisingly, accommodate a brace of six-footers with-out their heads grazing the roof. A horizontal theme defines the
classy dash, emphasised by the high-gloss black strip that stretches the full width of the cabin, and which forms a strong T-shape with the prominent centre stack housing the CD/radio and secondary controls. Five clear dials of varying sizes — the two biggest for speed and revs — tell you everything you need, or want, to know. Clear, simple,
logical and driver-friendly. Overall the accommodation is of the 'snug
as a bug' variety — but it is none the worse for it.

Although not immediately obvious the MX-5's cabin provides more than enough storage to make it very liveable, with a natty little storage net in the passenger's footwell, 500ml bottle-shaped compartments in
the front of both doors and three fair-sized compartments in the rear bulkhead. There is also a quality stereo, electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking, aluminium foot pedals (including a proper left-foot rest), leather upholstery, 10-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels and Xenon headlights.

Talking of which, the low-slung seats are also heated (essential in a roadster!) and have stepped manual seat controls for fore/aft and backrest adjustment. They also allow a good driving position to be quickly set. And they are just as easy to get comfortable in. Of course, they're lighter, too; without all those hefty electric motors. Twin front and side/torso airbags bring the MX-5 fully up to date in the safety stakes. Gripes? Well, just two minor ones. Full length door pockets would have been nice — there's room in the door skin but for some reason it's boxed in with a blank panel. And while you do get vanity mirrors in the sun visors, they're not illuminated.

Numerous other nice touches more than make up for it, though. The illuminated ignition switch makes getting started so much easier at night and the driver's window has a one-shot up/down operation.
The strong red instrument lighting combined with crisp white needles works well. Behind the centrally-mounted handbrake, and also very useful, is a twin cup-holder with a sliding lid which was brilliant for holding smaller items like coins and a mobile phone.

The fuel filler flap release is sensibly located inside the lockable rear cubby between the rear seat backs The glovebox is also lockable, so you can leave the car with the roof down without worrying. Another clever touch was the button in the centre of the air vents nearest the doors. Pushing it in opens the vent; push again to close it. And the unobtrusive front quarter lights at the base of the A-pillars keep out cross winds from the cockpit when you're travelling top down. Even hood-up, the all-round visibility is good, and there's an interesting view down the bonnet.

Sitting still this long in the MX-5's pleasant cabin is not normal. By
now any driver with oil in his (or her) veins would have fired up the engine and been long gone. Well, okay. Twist the key and blip the throttle. You'll find the soundtrack from the chunky twin exhaust
pipes pleasingly sporty.

The first dynamic sensation you're keenly aware of is lightness. Next you notice the ride quality. Finally, you appreciate the stiffness of the new bodyshell that proves to be pretty well unfazed by even badly scarred and degraded blacktop. Body motion is well-controlled and you quickly feel at one with the car and want to exploit its obvious ability. First, find yourself a fast B-road — preferably peppered with tricky cambers and some demanding bends. Push hard on routes such as these and you'll soon be aware of the MX-5's tied-down front end.

You'll also be glad of the standard traction control and stability control hardware that efficiently reins in the MX-5's occasional tendency towards oversteer. The hydraulic power steering is particularly reassuring on motorways, thanks to a noticeable degree of weighting around the dead ahead position that ensures the car tracks straight and true. However, it's marked enough for you to notice it as you apply the first few degrees of lock. That said the turning circle is a tight 10 metres. Like the gearshift, familiarity quickly breeds fluency.

Happily the MX-5 stops as hard as it goes. Not being a heavy car you don't have mass to use when it comes to slowing, but — thanks to
grip levels from the sticky 205/4517-inch Michelins — you find yourself using the gears much more to slow the car which in turn adds to the fun of driving. However, when you do need the brakes — discs all round — you'll find them to be strong with good feel. Full emergency stops in Mazda's roadster are exactly that: Stops. Stamp the middle pedal hard and the MX-5 stops pretty damn quickly and with no deviation from the straight ahead.

Overall the MX-5 is easy to handle, with good responses so that what-ever you're doing you feel in control. Furthermore, it provides driving enjoyment on par with that of more expensive machinery. That it does so at an affordable price is even more to its credit.

Bury the throttle and Mazda's petite roadster comes alive, bolting off the line to 62mph in under 8 seconds. The engine, like the chassis, is more than happy to be used hard. In fact it thrives on it, though not so the gearchange. The six-speeder's precise gate is of a tight pattern and responds best to a deliberate hand, the short throw feeling a tad reluctant if rushed. It's the kind of shift that practise makes perfect — and in an MX-5 it's most definitely no hardship to practise.

The cabin is commendably free from rattles and shakes, and — together with a 'long' sixth gear — makes for relaxed cruising. Hood up, the cloth soft-top insulates the cabin against wind noise. But if you plan to use it daily throughout the winter, you may think it prudent to buy the optional (£1,600) hard-top.

Honed on Germany's demanding and unforgiving Nürburgring circuit,
the latest MX-5 is an exceedingly user-friendly car. It delivers a supple drive through the twists that positively encourages lots of down-changes to keep the engine on the boil and the exploitable rear-wheel drive chassis on its toes. Mid-range in 2nd and 3rd it's devilishly zippy. Mazda's engineers have even fitted triple-cone synchromesh on gears one through four, so you can have as much fun exiting really tight bends as you do entering them. I see you wagging that tail, wagging that tail… if you get my drift.

If they'd had cars in the Garden of Eden, they would have wanted something along the lines of the MX-5 Roadster. The MX-5 Roadster could have provided fun motoring for Adam and Eve and the boot, thanks to the omission of a spare wheel, is the right size for a reasonable amount of luggage for a couple during a week's touring — and we're not talking fig leaves! Where that leaves the serpent, I
really can't say… Tempting, isn't it!

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Mazda MX-5 2.0i Sport
| £18,950
Maximum speed: 130mph | 0-62mph: 7.9 seconds
Overall test MPG: 26.2mpg | Power: 158
bhp | Torque: 139lb ft
Visit Mazda's website Click to go there now

------------------------------------------------------------------------- Mazda MX-5