First drive: Mazda MX-5

For a production car to make it into the Guinness Book of Records these days takes something fairly special, but the Mazda MX-5 has found a place as the all-time top seller in its segment. The third generation car's familiar styling makes it instantly recognisable, but that's where the similarities with earlier versions of the two seat convertible end. Underneath the skin it's completely new - bigger, more spacious, safer and featuring a much higher-quality cabin.

Taller drivers will find the cabin offers reasonable space compared to previous generation models. It's a still a snug fit though, and the steering wheel adjusts for height but not reach which hampers your ability to get completely comfortable. Higher quality interior materials mean it's a far better place to spend time, while your knees will definitely thank Mazda for the removal of cupholders in front of the gearlever. Practicality is limited by a small boot – there's barely half the luggage space you'd find in a typical family hatchback – although there are some useful cubby holes between the seats. The fabric-roof mechanism is refreshingly easy to use - unlatch it, fling it backwards and carry on. The folding hard top is just as simple, with a button operating the system that hides the roof in a rapid 12 seconds. The only criticism that can be levelled at it is that it doesn't operate when the car is moving, as convertibles such as Audi's A3 do.On the road MX-5 is a hoot to drive thanks to rear-wheel drive and enthusiastic engines. Some rigorous weight saving ensures that it's only fractionally heavier than the previous generation model, while high-strength steel has given it a far sturdier shell. The 2.0-litre engine sounds great with the roof up or down and the short-throw gearlever is wonderfully crisp and solid.

The facelifted third generation car also gets an automatic gearbox for the first time ever. Actually that isn't quite true – you may have seen a few autos for sale in the used car ads, but they are all Japanese imports and this is the first time the options been made available to UK buyers. Named Powershift, it's a six-speed 'box offered as an option with the 2.0-litre engine and can be operated by steering-wheel-based paddles, or left to change gears itself as a standard auto. It is frustrating at times as it isn't always willing to sit in a gear, sometimes dropping down two ratios or more when the car is asked to overtake. It is smooth and quick through the gears though, and overall is a welcome optional extra to the MX-5 range.

However, it is clear that the auto is aimed at the more leisurely driver when you look at the technical details. While the manual version of the 2.0-litre gets upgraded Bilstein shock absorbers, the automatic doesn't. While this isn't a huge hindrance to the little Mazda's handling, it does show that the auto is aimed at buyers looking for convenience rather than performance.

With or without the upgraded shock absorbers the ride is decent and the handling sublime - with plenty of grip and progressive, predictable behaviour when the limit approaches. There is the reassurance of an optional stability control system, but this can be easily switched off should the occasion arise. The basic, 126bhp 1.8-litre engine delivers decent performance, although most buyers will aspire towards the considerably more rapid 160bhp 2.0-litre version.

Whichever MX-5 you go for, you're unlikely to be disappointed. Prices range between £16,795 and £21,645 and we don't think you can buy a more exciting new car for less.
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