When Mazda first produced its MX-5 convertible, the concept was loosely based around the high performance Lotus Elan of the 60s.
There's no denying the success Mazda has had with the MX-5, every generation has been true to the original, and I don't know anyone who isn't smitten with the affordable sports car.
That being the case, I was a little surprised to find that the latest generation model was designed in collaboration with the Fiat/Chrysler group. We are unlikely to see the Fiat equivalent here in New Zealand, it's rumoured to be a left-hand-drive model only; but we will see Abarth versions here in right-hand-drive, and it will arrive with a 1.4litre turbocharged engine.
Incidentally, Abarth is the performance arm of Fiat in Italy.
I'm not here to praise the Abarth, I doubt that I'll ever get a drive of that vehicle, but what I do know is that Mazda is determined not to lose grip on the popularity of MX-5, nor its market share, and have launched it here in four variations to cater for all driving tastes. In simple terms, there is a 1.5-litre manual model, a 2-litre manual or automatic, and a 2-litre convertible hardtop.
I've driven all but the hardtop, and have come to appreciate what Mazda have done with the MX-5, it is still the fun, beautifully balanced sports car which has a chassis and suspension that can only be described as delightful.
This evaluation focuses on the 2-litre manual, and it sits in the market at $46,995. $40,995 will get you into the 1.5litre manual, automatic transmission on the 2-litre adds $1500.
Effectively, the engine is the same, but for bore and stroke differences which determine cubic capacity.
The 2-litre model pumps out 118kW and 200Nm against 96kW and 150Nm, and if you add in its weight of just over 1000kg the power-to-weight balance is definitely biased towards performance.
When you fire up the Mazda MX-5 you know you are in for a thrilling ride; the engine is raspy and a little raw, not so that it's overbearing, but it does have sound which lets you know that there is something just a little bit different about the car. It has always been that way, it's just part of the ethos that harks back to my introduction, the Lotus Elan was also vibrant from under the bonnet.
Where Mazda has excelled with the MX-5 is in its driving dynamics, you feel so very much a part of the car, everything from the short-shifting gear lever through to the feel from the suspension and the way you as a driver are connected to the rearwheel-drive feel, the MX-5 involves the driver and drags him/her tightly to the elements which make it the sports machine it is.
In terms of performance, the MX-5 in 2-litre form will haul to 100km/h from a standstill in 6.6sec, and will make an overtaking manoeuvre in 4.9sec (80120km/h). And at the same time it will also sip fuel frugally, Mazda claim a 6.9l/100km (41mpg) combined cycle average.
The twin-camshaft, four cylinder unit is one from the new range of SkyActive engines which have found their way into most of Mazda's current product, it has character and likes to be heard; at highway speed it settles down, but if you use the power on tap it is there to entertain audibly.
The MX-5 is all about character, and it has a chassis that delivers one of the finest handling sensations you are ever likely to experience. The steering is pin-sharp, and by sitting almost over the rear axles you get a lot of feel as to what the suspension is doing in relation to the road surface.
Short-wheelbase, rearwheel-drive cars can be twitchy at the rear under power, and the MX-5 is no exception, but grip through the 205/45 x 17in sport specification Bridgestone Potenza rubber is high and you really have to work hard to lose traction. Of course, that is immediately arrested through the traction control electronics, but the point is the MX-5 can be playful and, as a buyer, you wouldn't want anything less.
I took the test car inland from Windwhistle almost all of the way to Lake Coleridge Village, my favourite high country road, and thoroughly enjoyed the way the MX-5 attacked the corners yet drives in a fashion which allows the driver to use its qualities to full potential.
The driving environment is one of massive appeal, everything about the MX-5 is beautifully engineered, from the cockpit to lowering the roof down with one hand in one easy movement, there is nothing to criticise, and the newcomer is true to the concept which has made it so successful and appealing.
Of course, it is a selfish car, any buyer will only be able to have one passenger at a time as it has two seats only, and that in itself suggests that everything about the MX-5 is a little different.
Price - Mazda MX-5 Ltd, $46,995 Dimensions - Length, 3915mm; width, 1735mm; height, 1230mm Configuration - Four cylinder, rear-wheel drive,1998cc, 118kW, 200Nm, six-speed manual.
Performance 0-100km/h, 6.6sec Fuel usage 6.9l/100km