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Click to view road test review picture gallery“Mazda may have
  waited a rather long
  time before adding
  a folding hard-top to
  its mega-popular
  sports car, but when
  you see what a great
  (and clever) job it’s
  done, you’ll under-
  stand why
...”

FOR HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF PASSIONATE SPORTS CAR DRIVERS, Mazda's MX-5 Roadster rates a '10'. When it was announced that Mazda was going to fit a folding hard-top, fans of the iconic little sportster were more than a little concerned. And for a couple of very good reasons, too. Firstly, many such coupé-convertibles end up with what can only be described as a bulging rear and secondly and far more importantly adding a folding hard-top can have a similar effect to strapping a couple of 20-stone scrum-halfs to the back of the car. In other words, pretty bad news for the handling dynamics.

Oh, ye of little faith! Since the MX-5 first appeared and then stormed into the Guinness Book of Records as the world's best-selling roadster, Mazda has laboured tirelessly to keep the MX-5 as pure as the driven snow. So it wasn't going to sacrifice all that effort simply to keep up with the times.

Whereas other manufacturers of 'flip-tops' have added heavy metal roofs, the MX-5 has one made from a selection of composite materials to keep down the weight. Just to put Mazda's efforts into perspective, consider that the folding metal roof on Peugeot's 307CC adds more than 200kg to that car's kerb weight. Mazda, however, managed the CC 'trick' at a total cost of just 18kg of extra weight (including all the motors to operate it) over the soft-top version of the MX-5!

What's more, the MX-5's cleverly-packaged hard-top folds away into the same well the canvas roof used to — just aft of the seats and ahead of the boot. And, whether the roof is up or stowed neatly out of sight, the MX-5 driver is guaranteed 150 litres of usable boot space.

Also retained, thankfully, are the MX-5's classic looks. And, as on the soft-top version, getting your top off is impressively quick: release
the central roof catch, press a button and twelve seconds later the two-section hard-top is folded tidily away. That time, incidentally,
also makes it the world's fastest folding hard-top. The car has to be stationary because of safety issues but nobody is going to argue with that!

And, MX-5 fans take note. Top down it's almost impossible to tell the two versions apart. Look very closely and you'll see that the front of the folding hard-top model's slightly longer rear deck is 40mm higher; and the rear wheel arches are slightly more flared. For my money, top up, the 'fuller' curvature and better-defined roof makes the Roadster Coupé — by a margin — the classier looking of the pair.

So, no question that Mazda has kept the faith. Which just leaves the million dollar question: Has Mazda managed to retain the MX-5's joyful handling abilities? Put your mind at rest — you don't have to drive very far at all to appreciate that the hard-topped MX-5 is both more refined and even better than the soft-top model it now partners in the show-room. However, that's not to say that the £2K 'cheaper' rag-top ver-sions won't continue to sell in large numbers.

For the record, the rag-top MX-5 costs between £15,730 and £19,030; the Roadster Coupé version starts at £18,580 and tops out at £21,080. But given the extra convenience, security, weatherproofing and refine-ment of the coupé-convertible, most owners will see this as a bargain. The same 124bhp 1.8 and 158bhp 2.0-litre petrol engines serve in both versions. We've tested the range-topping 2.0i Sport Coupé with the six-speed gearbox (and a shorter set of gear ratios). The 1.8 and stan-dard-spec 2.0 make do with 5-speed manual 'boxes.

The Sport model comes with a decent level of kit that includes black leather upholstery, heated Sports seats with integral head restraints, leather-trimmed steering wheel with audio controls, polished stainless steel scuff plates, climate control air conditioning, electric windows (both one-touch auto down), power steering, MP3-compatible radio/ single CD player with six speakers, iPod connectivity (in the glovebox — and you can select the artist, album or playlist of your choice, as well as skip between tracks or playlists, using the car's audio controls), smart piano black facia, 17-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels with 205/45 rubber (and, as is becoming more accepted, no spare but a puncture repair kit instead), Sport suspension, power-operated and heated door mirrors, electrically-operated retractable hardtop, remote central locking, a limited slip diff, Dynamic Stability Control with Traction Control system, ABS with Electronic Brake-force Distribution and dual front airbags and side airbags.

Mothers will be pleased to know that there are Isofix child seat
anchorages on the passenger side and a passenger airbag deactiv-ation system.

If all that's not enough, there's quite an extensive options list to personalise your MX-5. Our test car was fitted with the optional Premium Bose audio system with 6-CD autochanger, seven speakers and a digital amp with four channels of customised equalisation switching automatically between top-down and top-up. Sounds impressive — indeed, impressive sounds!

Settle into the supportive sports-style seat and you'll find yourself en-joying a crisply laid out sporty cabin with a lot more space than you'd expect, given the MX-5's compact external dimensions. While there are no door pockets, you do get a shaped bottle/cup-holder built into each door, a smallish lockable glovebox, sliding-lidded storage box in the central transmission tunnel and a largish, lockable oddments cubby in the rear bulkhead.

The steering wheel only adjusts for height but it's all you'll need; and there is also a good range of seat height adjustability. Clearly visible through the top 180-degree arc of the fine leather-clad steering wheel rim is a five-dial instrument cluster with the needles of the speed-ometer and rev-counter zeroed at six-o-clock. And, subtly under-scoring the MX-5's sporting nature, sitting top dead centre between the speedo and rev-counter is an oil pressure gauge!

Trim materials are good and well fitted and the low-slung driving pos-ition makes you feel at one with the car. Another benefit of the hard-topped coupé is that there's more light — thanks to the larger glass areas and in particular the large glass rear screen. Keep the top up and you'll also gain additional luggage/storage space courtesy of the deep well behind the seats. The coupé definitely sounds and feels more refined — most notably so with the roof in place, when it is much quieter than the soft-topped roadster. On motorways, of course, the 6th gear means lower revs. And speaking of motorways, top down driving in the MX-5 is both enjoyable and pleasant at the legal limit and beyond.

Performance-wise, the 158bhp 2.0-litre delivers crisp acceleration —
0-62mph in 7.9 seconds — and a maximum speed of 134mph. Torque is 138lb ft but, crucially, at least 90 per cent of that is available between 2,500 and 6,700rpm. C02 emissions are 193g/km and put it in Band F for road tax purposes: £205 per year. The insurance group is 13E.
And with official fuel consumption figures of 25.2, 34.5 and 43.5mpg respectively for town, combined and touring, the MX-5 isn't exactly going to break the bank when it comes to running costs.

Finally, what about the handling? The Roadster Coupé's slightly more rigid bodyshell has allowed for stiffer suspension and a thicker front anti-roll bar. Combined with the independent front/multi-link rear arrangement, a 50:50 weight distribution and rear-wheel drive, this provides a comfortably sporting ride. From the helm the MX-5 feels nimble, controllable and responsive. The steering deserves credit here, as it's delightfully accurate. Brakes are meaty; with discs all round, ventilated at the front and the 205/45 Bridgestone Potenzas are re-assuringly grippy. Pedal feel is good and progressive, and quick, clean stops can be taken for granted.

With such a small increase in kerb weight, to all intents and purposes performance feels identical to that of a soft-topped model. The six-speeder is a snappy-changer with a short throw and the 2.0-litre powerplant a willing performer, so keeping the four-cylinder engine on the boil when you feel like going for it — which could be often! — is
no hardship whatsoever.

Power is very well matched to the chassis, so while it's undeniably entertaining extracting the best from the MX-5, it's also just as much fun just cruising around. In fact, one of the MX-5's most endearing characteristics is that you never feel you have to 'prove' yourself. You're happy just to be.

Factor in a competent chassis and you have a focused driver's car
that truly is great fun to drive — fast, slow or any other way. In fact,
I never truly 'got' the MX-5 thing until I spent a week in this one — now I understand why it's such a popular choice for so many keen drivers (including one of our friends — Hi, Mark!). The secret of the MX-5's enduring appeal is the fact that it feels as though it has been meticulously honed until everything and anything that is not essential to core sports car 'function' has been eliminated.

Lauded by many for two decades as one of the world's most gratifying two-seater sports cars, the MX-5 is now even better. When viewed as a cold-hearted ownership proposition one can't overlook its retained value — with residuals expected to be even better than the rag-top's. And, as already mentioned, running costs should be light on your wallet. Little wonder then that when they're not out enjoying them-selves in their versatile sports cars, MX-5 Roadster Coupé drivers sleep easy in their beds. And yes, MX-5 drivers dream in colour.

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Mazda MX-5 Roadster Coupé 2.0i Sport | £21,080
Maximum speed: 134mph | 0-62mph: 7.9 seconds
Overall test MPG: 34.1mpg | Power: 158bhp | Torque: 138lb ft

CO2 193g/km | VED Band F £205 | Insurance group 13E
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----------------------------------------------- Mazda MX-5 Roadster Coupé