The instincts of many long-standing Mazda MX-5 owners will be to keep the mechanical specification of their car simple, and thereby to give the lauded delicacy of the car’s handling the best chance to thrive. We had the same instincts – hence the chosen specification of 1.5-litre engine, standard suspension, open differential and 16in wheels for our road test subject.

In reality, the MX-5’s handling doesn’t reward that judicious restraint in unqualified terms, in ways to which we’ll come. But that shouldn’t prevent this car from taking its place among the most vibrant, responsive and engaging sports cars available at any price.

It's delicate and perfectly balanced, although the ride lacks the original's fluency

From the effortlessness of its hold on the road, through its fine balance and directional agility, to the zapping crispness of its every answer to a few extra degrees of steering angle or mid-corner dab of pedal, this car remains a true sporting great.

On delicacy, meanwhile, nothing short of a Caterham, Lotus or Ariel can equal what the MX-5 brings to the table. The car’s 195-section tyres produce only moderate but perfectly balanced grip levels and therefore don’t overburden the suspension or steering with cornering forces, and they break away into lateral slip with a wonderfully tender progressiveness.

The day of our performance tests started wet but subsequently dried out. It therefore afforded us the opportunity to find out that the MX-5's delicate dry-surface grip level becomes even more tantalising when a bit of surface water is in the mix. In the wet, an uninterested driver might call that grip level worryingly faint - although the MX-5's ESP would look after even them. 

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In the dry, there's only just enough power to get the rear wheels to break traction with the accelerator during cornering - and only then at very high revs and by a fleeting few degrees of slip angle. It's a tenderness of adjustability that you rarely find in a modern car and is no less enjoyable for its subtlety than a 500bhp Jaguar's handling is for its luridness. 

Disengage the ESP - a system that's neither sophisticated nor unobtrusive, unfortunately - and there are familiar ways to have fun with your cornering line, either with a trailed brake or an exaggerated, throttle-off steering input. The MX-5 is sensitive to all. 

The electromechanical power steering could actually do with a larger contact patch through which to work, though. On 16in wheels, there’s just a tad too much lightness about the steering wheel and the merest shortage of centre feel and dead-ahead stability about the steering. Meanwhile, with a relatively high 50-profile sidewall, there’s inevitable softness in the handling mix under high lateral loads, taking some precision away – if only on the very edge of adhesion.

Those sidewalls also make the ride a bit excitable over very high-frequency lumps and bumps, because they’re simply too soft to let the suspension do its work. But the rest of the time the MX-5’s ride is easy and fairly laid back. Like that of its forebears, the directional keenness and poise come not from high chassis rates but from the advantages of even weight distribution, a low centre of gravity and driven rear wheels, and so the MX-5 doesn’t feel firm on the road or short of wheel travel. It doesn’t need to.

It’s true that the ride could feel more fluent. Mazda couldn’t get away with the gentleness of the original MX-5’s damper tune today, and so the new car is more tautly checked when disturbed vertically. But it still feels like a natural athlete rather than a reconstructed one – and that’s absolutely vital to its appeal.

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