MAZDA'S new MX-5 has been one of 2015's revelations, with an intoxicating blend of pure roadster thrills at a compelling price point.
The fourth-generation Mazda sports car landed in August with a 96kW 1.5-litre engine, and for the first time ever the model is scoring a second powerplant with a 118kW 2.0-litre four-cylinder.
And it doesn't cost that much more. The base-spec 1.5-litre MX-5 Roadster is a bargainous $31,990, but you only need to find another $2500 to get in the 2.0-litre equivalent. Move to the plusher Roadster GT and the 1.5 version is $37,990, while the 2.0 costs just $1560 extra.
The up-sell sounds tempting. Not least when you get extra kit in the new 2.0-litre and, as it's a sports car, you'll probably like the idea of the MX-5 with a larger displacement cracking the 100kmh sprint in 7.1-seconds. The 1.5-litre takes a more leisurely 8.5-seconds.
Yet there is a black art when creating sports cars. More power doesn't always mean more reward - just look how many enthusiasts seek out seemingly underpowered old Porsche 911s and BMW M3s for a purer driving experience - so shoppers needn't make the 2.0-litre MX-5 the default choice.
It's pretty cosy in the MX-5's two-seat cabin, with seats featuring a newly-developed net structure for a firm hold when driving.
The driving position is excellent, with the pedals well positioned, but it would be desirable to have the steering wheel adjustable for reach.
The Roadster model has cloth trim and the GT version gets leather (plus body colour-coded door tops), with the latter feeling far more in line with the classic roadster experience.
There are hard plastics aplenty, but the layout, design and general low-slung sporty feel is superb. The skinny leather steering wheel and titchy short-throw gear stick fit the bill perfectly, while the soft top roof is incredibly simple and light to raise, lower and store.
Head room was fine for this six-footer, but taller and/or wider occupants may find the roof-up experience claustrophobic. The small cabin does make storage an issue, especially with no space in the doors for your goodies. Cup holders have been put behind your shoulder, and that means your drinks rattling around beside your ear while out on spirited drives.
On the road
Without doubt, the new 2.0-litre has more urge than the 1.5, especially in the mid range.
It's still not a pin-you-to-your seat drive experience, but it's easier to get back up to speed out of corners, meaning the need to drop down a cog with the manual gearbox isn't as necessary as in the 1.5-litre.
In other words, you don't have to work as hard, which depending on your preferred driving experience, can be a good or bad thing.
The 2.0-litre scores bigger brakes and different spring and damper rates (compensating for the weightier larger engine), and handling wise, impressed just as much as its 1.5-litre stablemate.
Suspension is quite soft for a sports car, showing Mazda expects the car to be a viable daily driver as well as weekend warrior. But fling the rear-drive roadster into the turns and it's got delightful balance, allowing the driver to get into a nice fluid rhythm, so communicative is the brilliant chassis.
Steering feedback is also very sharp, the little manual gear shifter a joy to stir, while the tail is happy to breakaway predictably for extra grins. It's a hoot, pure and simple.
The six-speed auto gearbox is also hard to fault, and seems far better suited to the bigger engined MX-5. But the pure roadster experience is at its best with three pedals.
What do you get?
A bit more fruit than the 1.5-litre, and for not much more money. All MX-5s get LED headlamps, cruise control, Bluetooth, keyless entry, push-button start and leather steering wheel and gear knob.
The 2.0-litre Roadster scores 17-inch gunmetal alloys (the 1.5 has 16-inch alloys), LED daytime running lamps and MZD Connect with sat nav through a 7.0-inch touchscreen. The 1.5-litre Roadster is stuck with a very basic audio head unit.
Move into the Roadster GT and there's black or tan leather trim, Bose sounds, including speakers in the seat head rests, seat warmers, climate control and bright silver 17-inch alloys.
The bigger engine sups 6.9-litres per 100km - up from the 6.1 in the 1.5-litre - but still excellent for a naturally aspirated sports car.
Our test drive returned an average of 8.4-litres/100km after a good deal of Victorian mountain driving thrills.
Mazda's new-gen MX-5 had to drop its price markedly over the old version to compete with the hardtop-only Toyota 86 (from $29,990). The 2.0-litre Roadster GT competes with the Toyota 86 GTS ($35,990).
As for drop-top rivals, you'll not find anything else in this price range right now. BMW's Z4 starts at $80,500, the cheapest Caterham (1.6 275) is $68,990, Nissan 370Z Roadster is $65,930 and a Lotus Elise is $74,990. Cheaper cabrios can be had with the Holden Cascada ($41,990), Renault Megane ($38,990) or VW Golf Cabrio ($43,990), but calling these drop-top sports cars is being quite generous.
Every line and curve looks correct, purposeful and delicious. Front and rear overhangs are very short, and Mazda's designers said its lines were reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy.
Throw in inspiration from classic roadsters like the Lotus Elan, and even a touch of baby F-Type Jaguar at the rear, and the MX-5 looks fast standing still.
As a bargain lightweight drop-top drive experience, the MX-5 is out on its own. Shoppers' biggest quandary is whether to opt for the 1.5-litre version or dig a bit deeper for this new 2.0-litre variant.
In my opinion there's now an MX-5 for everyone. The 1.5-litre Roadster in manual guise is for those wanting to spend the least, enjoy the purity of the drive, and stay busy dropping through gears and keeping revs high.
If you really need the extra shove, go the 2.0-litre, and if you must buy an auto (but must you, really?) the 2.0-litre would be the pick to still deliver thrills.
What matters most
What we liked: Stunning design, pure roadster driving experience, silky manual gear change, urge from 2.0-litre engine.
What we'd like to see: Reach adjustment for steering wheel, a more exciting soundtrack.
Warranty and servicing: Backed by a three-year unlimited-kilometre warranty. Schedule for servicing is every 10,000km or annually, with average price of $311.40 the first five services (50,000km).
Model: Mazda MX-5 2.0-litre.
Details: Two-door two-seat rear-wheel drive soft-top roadster.
Engine: 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol generating maximum power of 118kW @ 6000rpm and peak torque of 200Nm @ 4600rpm.
Transmissions: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic.
Consumption: 6.9-litres/100km (manual) 7.1-litres/100km (auto).
Performance 0-100kmh: 7.1-secoonds.
Bottom line: $34,490 (Roadster), $39,550 (Roadster GT) before on roads (for auto gearbox add $2000).
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