For rear-wheel-drive fans, there are only two affordable cars worth considering

Whether you’re a keen young driver, or someone just wishing to get a taste of what traditional sportscars felt like to drive after a diet of tiny front-wheel drive hatchbacks, there are really only two cars on the market that you should consider buying: the brilliant Toyota 86 and the car reviewed here.

The Mazda MX-5 is not only the world’s best-selling roadster, but it is quite simply the standard-bearer when it comes to accessible, affordable and enjoyable two-seaters that put their power (whether in great or small quantities) through the rear axle. 

Aside from its relatively justifiable cost of buying, owning and running, its astonishingly compact dimensions in a world where cars seem to be gorging on plastic, steel and aluminium and starting to resemble their couch-potato owners, the MX-5 (or Miata as it’s known in some markets) stays true to the ‘less is more’ mantra. 

Now in its fourth generation, I’ve driven several iterations of Mazda’s marvel over the years, from getting annoyed at the tight cabin with my lanky long-legged six-two frame in gen one, to chasing Honda S2000s in the gen two, to appreciating the visceral raucousness of a gen three while most motors get more and more muted in motion. 

The fourth gen has been out five years now, but this is my first drive of the car – frankly I was not expecting any surprises but nor any disappointment. So how did it go?

Let’s start with a few details on the car tested here. The RF is the roadster’s powered hardtop version, new for this gen, and with the roof lowered is not a full open-top convertible, but a targa-top with rear pillars remaining with flowing flying buttresses that in a larger car might prove an issue for rear visibility, but in this tiny thing matter not one jot. 

There is a 1.5-litre version with 132bhp, but this model is the 2.0 Skyactive-G four-cylinder with 184bhp at 7000rpm and 205Nm of torque from 4000rpm. It will accelerate from rest to 62mph in 6.8 seconds. Continue charging up through a six-speed gearbox and you’ll eventually reach 137mph – place and police permitting. Fuel consumption is quoted as 40.9mpg – remarkable for a sporty thing – and emissions are reasonable at 155g/km – maintaining the affordability of running costs. 

Prices start from £24k for the base roadster, the RF is from just under £26k and the GT Sport Tech tested is well over £32k. 

Believe it or not this car is actually 35mm shorter than the original, although its 55m wider which bodes better. I tentatively slide in and close the door. You’d expect my knees to be up around my ears, my arms folded into my chest and my neck cricked as my head butts up against the hardtop. None of that is true, especially not the neck bit, because I immediately lower the powered top via a button on the centre console – it takes under 15 seconds for the rear deck to lift up and back and the roof to fold and collapse into the cavity below, as the deck settles back in place. 

The action is so smooth you’ll just sit there opening and closing it a few times because it’s rather mesmerising to behold. But not quite as mesmerising as firing up the motor, stirring the manual gear lever and letting the MX-5 off the leash. And because 184bhp is not exactly Earth-shattering by contemporary standards, you can actually give it its head and let it fly. 

But you’re not just along for the ride either. Like a horse and its mount, you connect in a way that’s often missing from modern motors, a telepathic intimacy that elicits immediate reassurance. Yes the front lifts under hard acceleration as the rearranged weight distribution favours the back, but neither does the consistent steering go light, nor does the grip ease as the car maintains its darty and clingy spirit, attacking corners and never overwhelming its abilities or the driver. 

Likewise performance is linear and builds nicely, offering little threat of breaking traction at the rear unless you’re brutal with the torque, but you have to work the engine and gearbox hard to access it – snap between third and fourth for fun B-roads, which is how it should be. Oh and heel and toe on downshifts. 

This car has slightly less body roll than I remember, and the ride is nowhere near as crashy, jittery or vibrant as previous MX-5s – dare I say this is a positively polished performance in a somewhat grown-up package. Gone also is the drivetrain drone, noises levels you’d normally have to shout over. Some of that is to do with the Targa arrangement that encloses you within the car and add structural rigidity, saving you from external noise and buffeting, but retains the illusion of exciting open-to-the-elements motoring. 

If it’s mature in refinement, has it got a little dulled? Nah. It’s just more comfortable for a loyal clientele that’s maybe aged along with it – like yours truly. The MX-5 is typically bought by young guns (it’s a perfect introduction and training ground to rear-driven sportscar dynamics – get this before you buy a Mustang!) and middle-aged drivers looking to revisit youthful fantasies (and why the heck not?). I believe both will appreciate the improvements, while rejoicing in how it remains an engaging drive that delivers the thrills without the spills. 

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