Motoring: New converts

Ten years ago the Mazda MX5 remade the sports car. Will our readers warm to the latest model?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Here's one to fox the amateur psychologists. Mazda's MX5, one of the finest sports cars to ever grace tarmac, makes do with one of the titchiest knobs of all. No more than 4in long, the MX5's gear knob epitomises all that is great about this car: precision, minimalism, immediacy and subtlety.

That is why the MX5 was such a huge hit when it was introduced 10 years ago, and it still applies today. In 1989 Mazda effectively reinvented the affordable, convertible sports car, a niche which had lain dormant since the pitiful MGB Roadster and Midget's extinction in the late Seventies. Ten years on and every manufacturer has a rival on the market or is developing one, and in the greatest irony of all the MX5 was directly responsible for the exhumation of the MG badge.

The reason the MX5 is so sublime is its adherence to, and updating of, the traditional front-engined rear-wheel-drive sports car layout. I have yet to drive a better balanced, more forgiving car than this new generation, limited edition Anniversary MX5. Each element of the driver/car interface is as quicksilver fast and full of feel as possible. Few cars this side of an Alfa Romeo communicate so urgently with the driver.

And few convertibles make this much common sense. If we ignore the Anniversary model (600 will be sold here at pounds 21,100, an extra pounds 2,325 over the standard 1.8i), MX5s are still very cheap. The base 1.6 litre model starts at pounds 15,500 (MGFs are over pounds 18,000). It's not as flash as a pounds 23,000 BMW Z3, so vandals are less interested and it'll return 34mpg but still top 120mph. No wonder this is the world's biggest-selling convertible with over 500,000 units sold.

Of course, for pounds 15,500 you aren't going to get the highest levels of build quality, but the MX5 would shame many a family saloon with the general solidity of its fittings. There are no gadgets, and some aspects of the dash look positively Eastern bloc, while larger drivers may tire of having their knees rub against the unforgiving plastic centre console. But this is me trying to justify my wage packet with petty fault finding, and my heart just ain't in it. The MX5 is still the most agile, intimate, involving, practical and fluent bargain sports car in the world. And I still want one. n

Road test

If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to Motoring, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

The Rev Simon Clark, 30, curate

Currently drives a Ford Fiesta

"This is really nice, very positive acceleration, it really sticks to the road and has a lot of poke. The steering wheel felt lovely, the whole car feels well made. There isn't much foot room, I felt my feet clashing together a bit over the pedals. It was a bit noisy with the roof down over 70mph. I'd worry that taking it into the city would attract vandals. I'd love one but it wouldn't be very practical for me, I couldn't get the youth club in the back. Maybe I'd get one if I inherited some money - or if I became a bishop!"

Stephen Musgrave, 55, lecturer

Currently restoring an MGB

"I've got very few complaints about this. The worst thing is probably the position of the gear lever and arm rest which were too high and awkward. I didn't use the six gears to the full and think you could get by with fewer. Performance was very exciting, the steering was very quick and light. The seat was comfortable, but there could be more side support. There's nothing to say about the interior - it's black and bland. I wouldn't swap it for my MG, that's got much more character."

Tanya Sherwin, 34, mother

Currently drives a VW Passat estate

"This is a really lovely, cuddlesome car, it's very easy to drive apart from a slightly troublesome gear change - but then I'm used to automatics. It's very exciting, smooth and powerful. It feels like it's been made for me it fits so well, but anyone big and rangy might have less elbow room. Inside it's well made, similar to a Golf. The engine feels bigger than a 1.8. I've seen a lot of over 50s driving these, I think they would appeal to people who have retired early and have a bit of money to spare."

Antony Creak, 30, fireman

Currently carless

"This is the nicest car I've ever driven, it looks great - but I'm not sure it would look so special without the chrome wheels. It's not as hairdresser-ey as the old model, it looks a bit more sporty, and it's certainly quick. The seats are great and the leather steering wheel is nice, but the rest of the interior isn't that special. The hand brake is in a bloody weird place. In fact, without that nice stereo the interior is crap. It looks better than an MGF but I'd probably go for a BMW Z3. I don't think this is a bloke's car at all."

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