The permissive suspension telegraphs shifting weight even more sweetly than its rival, prompting a heightened sensation of speed and making each corner a talkative endeavour that uses the seatbacks and your inner ear to leave you in no doubt as to when the rear wheels intend to glide wide of the apex.
As a result, and not least because of the empowering effect of its cleaner-revving, less encumbered engine and bracing abundance of fresh air, the Mazda edges it on the road, being endlessly accessible and fun up to its limit in a way that the GT86 is not, as well as in a way that feels like it ought to be appreciated by everyone, not just those of a tyre-shredding bent.
Back on the track, it takes the rest of the day and all of the next to thrash out this group’s podium places. First to go, shamefully, and in apparent reverse order of outright ability, must be the 270R. It was nakedly brilliant at Bedford, yes. But if we concede that the £30k budget is buying a car for all seasons, a Caterham isn’t ever going to be it.
As always in such company, the Seven provided a better benchmark than it did actual competitor – by which I mean that after half a century on sale, it remains an archetype of the affordable front-engined, rear-drive sports car, and its handling prowess rightly aspired to by the engineers of both its rivals.
Toyota’s singular effort has had us spellbound for the past three years. The GT86 proved, in the best way possible, that a major, mainstream manufacturer still understood where we were coming from and what we wanted. In response, it made its coupé light, not powerful, made it adjustable, not inert, and threw in practicality and economy for good measure.
It deserved to become the world’s best-selling sports car – but it isn’t and never will be.
That’s the MX-5’s job, and Mazda has made doubly sure of it by having it do almost everything the GT86 does, including going sideways on request on track. But rather than making it the car’s reason for being – as it sometimes seems to be with the Toyota – the diff-enabled smoky stuff appears at the tail end of a dynamic package that already manages to be punchily quick, cheerily involving and very easy indeed to adore.
The fact that you can also peel the roof off, buy a 2.0-litre one for nearly £10k less than our budget and pay less than ever to run it help make the MX-5 the stand-out affordable rear-driver of 2015. By half a trunk.
Read the previous shoot-out - Honda Civic Type R versus Ford Focus ST-2
Read more - how much fun can be had for £30,000?
Price £26,990; Engine 4 cyls, 1596cc, petrol; Power 135bhp at 6800rpm; Torque 122b ft at 4100rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual; Kerbweight 540kg; 0-62mph 5.0 seconds; Top speed 122mph; Economy NA; CO2/tax band NA
Mazda MX-5 2.0 160 Sport Nav
Price £23,296; Engine 4 cyls, 1998cc, petrol; Power 158bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 148b ft at 4600rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual; Kerbweight 1122kg (including driver); 0-62mph 7.3 seconds; Top speed 133mph; Economy 40.9mpg; CO2/tax band 161g/km/27%
Toyota GT86 Primo
Price £22,700; Engine 4 cyls, 1998cc, petrol; Power 197bhp at 7000rpm; Torque 151b ft at 6400rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual; Kerb weight 1275kg; 0-62mph 7.6 seconds; Top speed 140mph; Economy 36.2mpg; CO2/tax band 180g/km/29%
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