What do you get when you cross an American wistfulness for cheap British roadsters with a Japanese firm’s readiness to speculate and innovate in order to make its global reputation? In 1989 you got ‘Mazda Experiment, Project Number Five’, which would become the world’s fastest-selling sports car.

The idea of an affordable open-top was hardly new to Japan. Preceding decades had seen oddities such as the Datsun Fairlady, Honda S500 and Toyota Sports 800 emerge, often as their fledgling makers’ first production models. But by the end of the 1970s, with the demise of such icons as the Triumph Spitfire, MG B and original Lotus Elan, the segment was assumed to be in decline. 

New York update: The retractable fastback (RF) hard-top version of the Mazda MX-5 is unveiled 

It was these models, though, that Mazda dissected during the MX-5’s development, and they are among the reasons why it emerged in 1989 as a small, sub-one-tonne, front-engined, rear-drive, perfectly balanced home run. Ironically, the MX-5’s success found a counterpoint almost immediately in the lukewarm reception and ailing sales figures that greeted the all-new Elan which  emerged only a few months later, lumbered as it was by a higher price, lumpier looks and front-wheel drive. 

The first MX-5 was arguably the model’s dynamic high point. Its successors were generally very good too, but they became progressively more powerful, bigger, heavier and that bit less exciting to drive. 

Now Mazda – with its Skyactiv engineering programme in full swing – insists it has returned to the old template. Shorter, lower, wider and – most importantly – lighter, the new MX-5 comes with a choice of either 1.5 or 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol engines and the promise of unparalleled ‘Jinba ittai’ – the manufacturer’s catch-all term for oneness between car and driver. 

Just as importantly, the car starts at less than £20k, meaning that everyone currently considering a small hot hatch is in the ballpark. Can the new MX-5 do as much as its forebear to turn their heads?

Top 5 Affordable sports cars

  • Porsche Cayman
    The Porsche Cayman is now in its second generation

    Porsche Cayman

    1
  • Here is the fourth-gen Mazda MX-5 - the definitive small sports car

    Mazda MX-5

    2
  • Toyota GT86
    The stated criteria for the GT86 read like a purist's manifesto: rear-drive, no turbo, ordinary tyres

    Toyota GT86

    3
  • BMW M235i
    The BMW M235i is a rear-wheel-drive turbocharged coupé which rivals the likes of the Porsche Cayman

    BMW M235i

    4
  • Lotus Elise S Cup
    Road-going version of the racing Elise. Suspension mods help make it an unbridled joy.

    Lotus Elise S Cup

    5

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