The Verdict: Mazda MX-5

The Mazda MX-5 has always been at the top of the roadster food chain. So what does its newest incarnation have to offer? David Wilkins finds out

Model: Mazda MX-5 1.8i
Price: £15,600
Engine: 1.8-litre petrol
Performance: 0 to 62 mph in 9.4 seconds, 38.7 mpg
CO2: 174g/km
Worth considering: Fiat Barchetta, Mini Convertible, Peugeot 307 CC

The first Mazda MX-5 appeared in 1989 but the basic character of this little sports car has remained the same. It's a pretty, sweet-handling, rear-wheel drive roadster.

Even 17 years ago, the recipe Mazda followed was hardly original; MGs and the original Lotus Elan had already shown the way. But while Lotus still occupies just a cosy niche, and MG has faded away, Mazda has sold over 700,000 MX-5s.

So how did the Japanese manage to build a more successful British sports car than the British? Obviously, Mazda's version was built in Japan, so owners could spend their Saturday afternoons out on the road in the thing instead of fixing it, but I don't think that can be the full explanation - after all, for many enthusiasts, the tinkering is as important as the driving.

I suspect that Mazda's continual development of the MX-5 has been more important. The basic formula and layout may not have changed but a lot of the detail has, and the car is now in its third generation. That means that the company has steadily incorporated the higher equipment and safety levels customers expect these days while resisting better than most the general trend for cars to grow all round in terms of weight, size, power and tyre size.

The result is that the MX-5 has retained an uncommon daintiness in every department; gear-change, clutch, brakes, steering, the lot. This daintiness means that "MX-5" is often uttered in the same breath as "hairdresser", and two of our readers used that word when I discussed the MX-5 with them.

I did look through my fat files of letters and e-mails from readers who have written in asking to take part in The Verdict to see if I could get together a panel of three hairdressers this week, but unfortunately I couldn't find any.

In fact, since I get my hair cut at the more straightforward sort of establishment that displays a stripy pole outside its doors, and whose staff probably describe themselves as barbers rather than hairdressers, I don't think I have ever discussed cars with a bona fide representative of that trade in my life. So I can't be sure, but I think those evolutionary changes we were talking about have broadened the MX-5's appeal. For example, this latest version has a slightly more square-cut jaw than past versions, and chunkier wheel-arches.

Not enough, I suspect, to put off the hairdressers, but perhaps just enough to draw in the barbers as well. Why, it may even be butch enough for butchers to be tempted to take a butcher's, and I suspect that more than a few bakers and candlestick makers will be taking a look, too.

James Barker, 30, Solicitor from St Albans
USUAL CAR: NISSAN ALMERA

More of an evolution than a revolution, the latest MX-5 manages to be both familiar and interesting. The latest trademark Mazda lights and grille help the sporty looks, not to mention the larger tyres, flared wheel arches and chrome-style roll bars. Outside noise was minimal when driving with the roof up and it's exceptionally easy to fold down and lock into place. Although the dials and instruments were attractive, the interior was slightly disappointing and plastic. Storage space was tight but expected - there's not even a spare wheel. My friends would probably say this car is for hairdressers... in which case, pass me the scissors.

Jason Wakelin-Smith, 28, Pharmacy technician from St Albans
USUAL CAR: ROVER 25

Mazda MX-5 is almost synonymous with "hairdresser's car", and although the looks aren't quite my style, in the grey light of day it has quite an appeal to the eye but I couldn't imagine myself in it. Once inside, however, it was a different story; lots of black and chrome, leather steering wheel, loads of things to press, turn and watch. It was comfortable to drive, the dashboard layout intuitive and even putting the top down was surprisingly easy. The MX-5 is a fun car to drive, happy to potter around town, although a bit feisty, but the most enjoyment is to be had out on the open country roads. It's certainly nippy.

Peter Calver, 57, Electrical consultant from North Hertfordshire
USUAL CARS: MG ZS120; CLASSIC MINI CONVERTIBLE; LOTUS ELISE

Entering the cockpit revealed a cramped driving position. The seat needed to be fully rearward for me at 5'11'', so taller drivers may have some difficulty. The controls fell to hand quite readily, but the short gear lever was somewhat compromised by the intrusion of the handbrake. The first section of the test was motorway with the hood up. The ride was firm without being harsh but it was immediately apparent that the steering castor action was very strong, with a surprising amount of effort being required to bring the car round the motorway curves. Overall a pleasant car to drive but lacking that ultimate sports car experience.

THE VERDICT

If you would like to take part, e-mail motoring@independent.co.uk or write to: The Verdict, Features Department, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, giving your address, phone number and details of the car, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26 and have a clean licence.

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