It took 120 miles for us to fall in love with the Mazda MX-5. At first, and despite loving the idea of the small, reasonably cheap and pretty little sportscar, we just didn't get it. There wasn't a great deal to really grab our attention and it's got a basic interior by modern standards.
Our first drive of any length, from London up to Yorkshire for a wedding, saw us stuck on the M25 motorway in blistering heat back when the summer sun was blazing. While the sun feels like a lingering memory, the MX-5 doesn't. At first for the wrong reasons - the love wasn't flowing, and we couldn't get to grips with driving the car at all. It is not a good car for traffic, that much became clear.
But then, M25 behind us, with the road opened up a bit, and we got to drive at speed and suddenly we got it. The little pieces of this car began to make complete sense, and with the roof down and suncream smeared on like a pasty Brit needs we were flying along the roads.
Did our new-found love stick, or was our relationship with the MX-5 more of a whirlwind romance with highs and lows?
The acceleration in the MX-5, especially this 2-litre version on test, is nothing short of brilliant. But like a lot of cars - and all Mazdas - it begs to be pushed up the rev range and rewards those who do with some wonderful noise and exciting speed.
The whole MX-5 package is greatly enhanced by its being a roadster. You sit just forward of the rear wheels - which, being rear-wheel drive, are what push the car along - and behind a long bonnet that contains that simple, large-capacity petrol engine. It's a tried and tested format that has worked since the early days of sportscars. It's also a design that's popular with British drivers.
The layout is a near 50-50 weight distribution and the low weight of the car means it feels grounded. It's not all perfect of course, because the steering isn't perhaps as "direct" as you might like. We didn't have any real problems with it, but we can see that more skilled drivers who like track driving might not totally love it.
Like the Mercedes SLK and SL, this driving position and the rear-wheel drive just make for a magical experience. The car lets you have some fun, but keeps you safe with traction control. It's good for those of us who love driving, but haven't got racing driver skills to feel like we're on the raggedy edge, when the truth is, for the most part, the car has your back.
Get onto the tiny roads in the country, and the car comes alive and infects you with a love that will probably never go away. It's noisy in a good way, it's just wonderful for driving at the national speed limit.
It's also a good-looking car. The older MK1 and MK2 are classics, if you ask us. The newer models are a bit more generic. It is, for example, possible to look at the MX-5 and confuse it with something like a Honda S2000. That isn't the case with the earlier, more compact-looking model.
Sit in the MX-5 and look forward where what you see is what you need to know. There's a rev counter, speedometer, a fuel gauge, and engine temperature reading and an oil pressure gauge. You also get a small digital display for trip and odometer counts. This is the sort of thing that you will have found on dashboards for many years. There are no LCD panels in front of you, just the things that you need to pay attention too.
On the centre column, there's some more modern stuff. In this test car we had the sat nav fitted, which is very, very good. It's powered by TomTom and has everything you need to get to your destination. It also integrates the radio, which we liked. You can hear the radio clearly with the roof up, and reasonably well with it down, but don't expect to love the sound system because it's really there for when you're pootling about in town and not pushing the car with that engine screaming.
The only thing that baffled us was how to open the petrol filler cover. This is the sort of thing you laugh about while other people struggle with it, but when you're on a forecourt reading the bloody owners' manual, you rue not having spent a bit of time looking it up before you set out. To save you similar blushes, it's in the little cubby hole that sits between the two seats, on the bulkhead of the car. Yes, that's right, you would never guess that in a million years unless someone told you.
The roof on the soft-top version of the MX-5 is a simple fare. It clips on to the body when it's up, and a single button press releases it to fold back. We found that if you give it a good shove, it will lock into its open position without further intervention. It's possible to put the roof up from inside the car too, but it does strain your arms a bit and we don't recommend doing it unless you're sure you've got time in a traffic jam, or by pulling over. We opened and closed the thing numerous times when we were cooking on the motorway.
When it rains, you can keep driving - at least on the motorway - without getting wet. It's only in heavier rain that you need to pull over a flip the lid up. Even in a decent downpour though, you don't get soaked, so that makes it ideal for British weather. Driving at lower speeds will make this less true we assume, so that's worth remembering.
We didn't find the inside of the car loud either with the roof up, or down. Obviously, at 70mph on the motorway with the air rushing in, there is some noise, but it's surprisingly moderate. The roof up is a less pleasant experience, because it feels cramped for no pay off, aside from being dry. The heaters can keep you warm even in winter though, so we'd have the hood down all the time, unless it was raining. We also wouldn't suggest going for the hard-top version, as it adds weight and complication, and the manual "cloth" hood is terrific and far quicker to open or close when you're in a rush.
Also, convertibles mean that you never get that motorway tiredness that can be deadly. On our way back from the wedding, we'd closed the hood for a rain shower, but began to feel sleepy. At the next available services we pulled over and popped the hood and it was like mainlining caffeine. Suffice to say, we got home safe and sound and happy as Larry.
Let's face it, the MX-5 isn't for people with big families, at least not as their main car. It seats two in comfort, and while the boot is of a good size - you can fit a decent amount of luggage in there, certainly enough for a weekend away, and probably a week if you travel with someone who can survive on a reduced wardrobe - it's not exactly got space for a family of four.
What you can do is fit a child seat in the passenger side, using the ISOFIX mount, and you'll have one of the happiest toddlers in the world. Our three-year-old was wide-eyed and thought it was the best thing ever. And having your grinning child next to you is a rather lovely experience too. You probably wouldn't want to do this a lot, it's hard to imagine it's as safe as a saloon, but for an occasional cautious journey it's just superb.
In terms of fuel economy, we expected the worst but the MX-5 isn't horrible. The tank is smallish, and we think you could get 300 miles out of it, but we drove through traffic constantly, and when the roads were clear we were hardly trying to save money. But we certainly wouldn't say it's a greedy car, not for the fun it generates.
In 2015 there will be a new MX-5. It's being built as part of a venture between Mazda and Alfa. Initially worried us because changing the MX-5 much is both unnecessary and just likely to cause anger among the car's committed fanbase. The good news is, the commonalities of the two cars - Alfa's will be a return of the Spider, which is very exciting - are apparently small though, so our faith is restored. We'll have to wait and see what comes to be.
A new car coming might mean some great deals on the outgoing model too. But whatever the price, if you're looking for a roadster, a bit of weekend fun or a day-to-day car for the single man or woman about town, the MX-5 is a choice that you'd be wise to make.
This is a car that's affordable enough and practical enough to be a reality for lots of people. You could buy an older one for next to nothing, or a new one for the full whack. Either way, what you're getting is a car that, for us, developed into something we'd describe as almost perfect. It's got a solid engine, solid design, solid bodywork, all of which play their part in delivering such epic levels of fun, you won't believe it for the cash outlay.
Love him or hate him, when Jeremy Clarkson said: "The only reason I’m giving it five stars is because I can’t give it 14," he hit the nail on the head. It's rare to find anything totally perfect, and even though we didn't think it was at first, after just pushing the three-figure mileage we realised that the MX-5 is so close to perfection that we haven't been able to stop thinking about it since we handed the keys back to Mazda. Truly, there's a reason MX-5 owners are always grinning when they're driving, it's because this car has got everything just right.