Motoring: The Lotus eater

Road test Mazda MX-5

Remember your first MGB? Top-down, two-seater motoring, wind in the hair, a world temporarily free of cares; a peculiarly British world, because it's here that most two-seater sports cars, of which the MGB was the most numerous, were created.

Italy has produced a few, too. And Japan has produced a few more. Yes, just when we Brits had forgotten how to do it, up popped the Mazda MX- 5. It was much the same idea, brought up to date and with a little bit of Lotus Elan mixed in for good measure, but this time it was guaranteed to work and keep on working, which was where the old BL interpretations weren't so hot.

Not surprisingly, the Mazda has been a huge sales success. And now, nearly nine years on - more than twice the production life of a normal Japanese car - there's an MX-5 Mark Two.

It's as well, really. Once other car-makers, including the current custodians of the MG name, realised that people hadn't fallen out of love with sports cars after all, we ended up with quite a selection to choose from. Against these newer rivals, the MX-5 has been seeming dated. Good grief, it may even be heading for that automotive rest-home known as the world of classic cars. Certainly there's the culture to support it, with MX-5 clubs all over the world. In Japan, where it's called the Eunos Roadster, the car is almost a cult object.

At first glance, this new version looks much like the old one. The pop- up headlights have gone, the former sidelight and indicator unit having grown to include the headlights as well, and there's no longer a crease running around the car's midriff. Instead, we find a subtle squeezing of contour along the lower flanks to give a soft-edged, zig-zag reflection of light, and a squatter, more muscular stance.

But - how could they? - the designers have replaced the pull-out chrome door handles, copied from an old Alfa Romeo Duetto, with boring modern ones. Apparently, the old handles broke fingernails.

The theme remains retrospective inside, with cowled, circular air-vents resembling the nozzle of a hair-dryer, but it feels more solid and looks more expensive. This applies to the whole car; the structure is stiffer, and the shudders over bumps are fewer. The hood's rear window is now of heatable glass instead of scratchable plastic, and the boot is now just small instead of laughable.

This new-found solidity does wonders for the driving experience, because is has allowed Mazda to modify the suspension. The changes are subtle, but the effects are dramatic.

Even its greatest fans have to concede that the old MX-5 could turn twitchy in a fast bend or on a wet road. It was fun if you felt heroic, but hard work if you weren't in the mood.

All that has gone. The new MX-5 feels much more stable, more tolerant of skill shortcomings. But this has been done without damage to the interactivity, the sportiness; the fun is enhanced, but the fear has gone.

The new car is faster, too. There are still two twin-cam, 16-valve engines to choose from, but the 1.6's power has risen from a feeble 88bhp to 110, while the 1.8 delivers 140bhp instead of 130. Both are good-looking engines - these things matter in a sports car, you know - with a pair of cast aluminium cam covers just like an old Lotus Elan's. And they feel eager to play, especially the 1.8. A sweet, swift gear change, activated by possibly the shortest, sharpest-shifting gear lever in mass-produced existence, helps the engine to sing.

This new MX-5 is the best sensible-money, everyday-practical sports car you can buy. Britain may have had the original idea, but Japan has made it work properly. So what's new?

Mazda MX-5 1.8iS

Price: pounds 18,775

Engine: 1,839cc, 4 cylinders, 16 valves, 140bhp at 6,500rpm. Five-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive.

Performance: top speed 127mph, 0-60 in 7.8sec, 28-33mpg.

Rivals

Alfa Romeo Spider: pounds 23,305. Terrific wedge-shaped styling, fine pedigree, but expensive. Structure flexes over bumps, too.

BMW Z3 1.9: pounds 21,480. US-built, looks faster than it is; a shade over- styled. Less fun than Mazda.

Fiat Barchetta: pounds 15,825. Cute looks, full of retro details, but hatchback underpinnings take away sporty edge. Price close to MX-5 1.6's; left-hand drive only.

MGF: pounds 17,995. Mid-engined layout gives huge roadholding, but it feels less intimate than Mazda to drive. Cabin is plasticky.

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