The Mazda MX-5 revived the British sports car tradition. Now it's back in a brand-new guise.

The first car of a dynasty is always the purest, before the regulatory authorities find ways to meddle and hindsight demands alterations. So where does that leave Mazda's new MX-5?

It would have been easy to make this third-generation model a homage to the pure, simple first, but that would have been disingenuous, because the MX-5 was itself a resurrection of something older. That something was the British sports car, at its most prolific when an MGB, at its most wonderful when a Lotus Elan.

That's why the first MX-5 looked very much like a modernised, MGB-sized Elan. The vital difference, though, was that it always worked and demanded no special tolerance from its owner. It took a Japanese carmaker to make the world realise it still wanted simple two-seater sports cars in the British idiom. People had grown tired of them because they broke down and had become hopelessly out of date, but they hadn't grown tired of the idea. A decade after the last MGB left the factory and the doors closed behind it, the game picked up just where it left off.

Some 800,000 MX-5s later, the sports car idea is clearly as enticing as ever. So now there's a new one, clearly related in looks to its two preceding generations but assertively its own car. It doesn't really have much Elan left in it now, but it does flaunt today's Mazda look of exaggerated wheel arches and broad, straight shoulders while clearly nodding at its roots. The oval front air intake, the slim headlights, the ovoid tail lights - they all are MX-5 signifiers.

And, suitably adjusted for the modern context, so is the simplicity. There's no complex electro-hydraulic roof-moving machinery, just a simple hood you raise and lower with your own arm, easily and neatly, and secure with a single latch. You don't even need to leave the driving seat if you can summon the over-the-shoulder strength. Even better, with the hood folded down there's no need for a separate cover to keep it neat - it's smooth and tidy enough already. There's even a flip-up wind diffuser to stop blow-drying backdraughts.

Simple and pure: front engine set well back, rear-wheel drive, weight evenly spread over the four wheels. Low cost: about £1,000 more than the outgoing model when it goes on UK sale in December (don't worry about the season - the hood is snug and low on wind noise, and the heater is excellent). And, when you think about it, not threatened by any direct rivals. The first MX-5 may have triggered, mightily, the sports car's rebirth, but right now no one makes anything else quite like it. Why ever not?

Toyota's MR2 is mid-engined, has no luggage space and is no longer available. The MG TF (mid-engined) is dead, the Fiat Barchetta (front-wheel drive) is moribund, the Honda S2000 (MX-5ish but much more sophisticated) costs a lot more. Otherwise, we're talking Mini Convertible, Peugeot 206 CC, Vauxhall Tigra - cars that may chase similar buyers but that are a universe away from the authentic sports car experience. The nearest rival now is a Lotus Elise, which is more expensive and considerably more demanding of its owner, albeit a complete thrill.

This is remarkable. The world's most successful sports car line and no one tries to muscle in? Go Mazda, I say, but don't get complacent. And that's one of the most heartwarming things about the new MX-5, which incidentally shares nothing but the side indicator repeaters with the previous one: its creators clearly love it like a baby.

This pure and simple theme extends from the design and engineering right through to the driving experience. The engineers took the Japanese phrase "jinba ittai", meaning "horse and rider as one", as their inspiration. Every sensation, every action, every sound must make the driver feel part of the machine. The driver must feel exactly how the MX-5 is reacting to corners, how its engine is responding to the accelerator - it's a car to involve, not to insulate. These notions are music to the ears of the enthusiast, but the point is that anyone, petrolhead or not, should feel the pleasure of driving an MX-5.

The breed has always been like this; it's the main reason it has so many fans. The trick has been to keep it that way, given the demands of the modern world. Those demands mean a slightly longer and wider MX-5 this time, but one which, amazingly, is just 10kg heavier. This is thanks to various lightweight materials - aluminium for the bonnet and boot, for example - and a weight-saving regime that keeps a close eye even on the length of the bolts.

So it's lighter, but also stronger. The old MX-5 was starting to feel shaky because its structure wobbled over bumps. This one is nearly half as stiff again. That's one way in which it feels a more honed, more complete car. Another is that the interior is crisper and tidier, and far better in quality, although very tall occupants will be disappointed that the seats don't slide backwards a little further.

So, after all that, does this new sports car torch carrier do as promised? Mazda so clearly understands what is needed and how to achieve it that there can surely be no question. I zoom-zoom off to confirm it in a shiny red MX-5 along a road that sweeps among Hawaiian lava flows. (Why has Mazda chosen Hawaii for the launch? Hard to say, beyond the fact that the first MX-5 was also launched here. It's not unpleasant, though.)

And now reality bites. This MX-5 is not quite right. The subtleties that make the difference between mediocrity and delight aren't quite as honed as the engineers clearly intend them to be. Maybe many buyers won't notice, but that's no excuse and the car's creators wouldn't want it to be. The engine, now up to 2.0 litres (a 1.8 is also still offered, with 126bhp), is meant to produce 160bhp but it feels more like 130. And this car's gear ratios, although there are six of them, are all too short-legged and there's a chasm between third and fourth. European cars will have more suitable gearing, I'm pleased to say.

So the expected sports-car pep isn't there. Possibly Europe's higher-octane fuel will help matters, but Mazda's chief product planner, the Australian Joe Bakaj, thinks not, as all the engines are calibrated for US-grade regular at 91 octane. This is very strange, and also a waste of the greater power and economy that European fuel could bring. Nor does the engine sound quite as sporty as it should.

There's also something not right about the steering, a rubbery feel to the initial response and a sense of too much friction in the system. We want well-oiled steering with an exact mechanical connection between hands and wheels - "jinba ittai", in fact. Mazda must fix this. It's vital.

So, from high expectations it's back down to the earth of today's typically numb steering and engines that have lost their spark to the great energy-sapping god of emissions. Chastened, I find some bends and discover that, once past the subtlety and purity firewall, the MX-5 shows promise. It corners beautifully, as a light, rear-wheel-drive sports car should, drifting its tail a little as you accelerate out of a bend and turning into the next one with the eagerness that comes from low weight concentrated towards the car's middle. The body is almost free of shudder, the suspension is firm but never jarring, and the stubby little gear lever's direct, mechanical action (the gearbox is right below it) is a rare treat in a modern car.

It's so nearly brilliant, and with more fire from the engine and less stodge in the steering, it would be. Get to it, Mazda. You have a history of proud sports cars resting on your shoulders.

MX-5: the British sports car, done properly

We have the American car journalist-turned-Mazda engineer, Bob Hall, to thank for the MX-5. While still a wordsmith he came up with the idea for Mazda to build a simple, low-cost sports car based on the 323 platform, a car that could fill the void left by the departure of the British relics from MG and Triumph. He was so fired up by the plan that he got himself a job at the company - and the ear of its research and development chief, who thought that if Mazda were to make such a car, it should do it properly.

The MX-5, called Miata in the US and Eunos Roadster in Japan, was launched in 1989 and the car world was blown away. We thrilled to its eager engine, sweet steering and the fabulous handling that its all-round double-wishbone suspension gave us. And we loved the door handles, remakes of the ones Alfa Romeo used to fit on its Spiders.

In 1997, the magic Mazda had a makeover with some more curves and better roadholding, but it lost its Elan-like pop-up headlights and those door handles to some killjoy legislation. It remained the best mainstream sports car, of course. And the new, thoroughly modern MX-5, which still wears its roots on its sleeve, brings us up to date. Let's hope it's the car it promises to be when it comes here. We'll find out in December, in The Independent road test.

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