(Pocket-lint) - We live in a world where driverless cars will be a reality soon, where hoverboards and drones fulfil our childhood sci-fi fantasies, where we need never again get lost thanks to constant connectivity and Google Maps. That's all well and good, but welcome to the antithesis: Mazda's fourth-generation MX-5 roadster.
Here's the skinny: the MX-5 has got sat nav and a touchscreen interface, Bose speakers built into the headrests, and a blind-spot warning system. But none of that really matters because this diminutive red roadster is the antidote to the sofa-bed experience of modern driving, with all its electronic aids.
Today, car companies strategically tread a design and engineering path that sees each new model carefully build upon the qualities and design hallmarks of the last one. The MX-5 is Mazda's most iconic car – and represents the world's best-selling roadster no less – which has always had its own look. But the new one gets dressed in the family Kodo design language and it's fundamentally changed the look of the highly recognisable MX-5.
Yet unlike the third-generation car – where reputedly the designers considered all the proposals by standing 200m away from sketches and models while asking which one looked most recognisably like an MX-5 – the fourth-generation features a sharp and aggressive new front-end which has shades of the Honda S2000 and the most aggressive "face" ever seen on an MX-5.
At the rear, the new lamps and the trunk deck call to mind the last BMW Z4. Still, we'd far rather this approach than pastiche retro design. And beyond the aesthetics, Mazda's not so much ignored the intervening two generations of the MX-5 as gone back to the basic goodness of the first car. Therefore it's lightweight, affordable and fun to drive.
The latest MX-5 weighs a smidgen over a ton with a driver on board, which is less than any MX-5 before it, bar the first-generation model. The new model uses the smallest engine of any MX-5 too (the first-gen car started with a 1.6L, the new car kicks off with a 1.5L) and its footprint – rather than ballooning and bloating up like every other new car – is small at less than 4m long, 1.25m high and with a shorter wheelbase than before.
Casting aside clichés
History lesson over and what you really need to know is one thing: if you like driving, you'll love the new MX-5. Cast aside the tedious, clichéd "hairdresser" label and there's more fun to be had in any MX-5 at low speed than most hot hatches and comparably dull German saloons.
It's also bespoke. The MX-5, unlike so many convertibles and coupes, isn't some kind of hacked down Mazda 6 or Mazda 3. It sits on a unique, lightweight rear-wheel drive platform which is optimised for its type, and ultimately for driving pleasure.
You're not coping with the compromises of sharing underpinnings with Granny Dreiden's 1-litre shopping trolley here. Cliché it may be, but the MX-5 is a proper sports car and you can feel that within half a mile of taking it out for its first spin.
What we love is how grin-inducing the MX-5 is; think along the lines of most fun you can have with your pants on grin-inducing.
Best of all the MX-5 keeps that grin plastered to the face even at low road speeds, which won't risk you losing your license. Whether you choose the 1.5L (rev the nuts off it to keep the engine on the boil, while enjoying the oh-so-perfectly damped, taut ride) or the more muscular 2.0L (happy to rev, but you can ride the torque wave to make surprisingly rapid progress, with a much more keyed into the action feeling) we really don't think you can lose.
The hood takes about four seconds to put up and down, as it always has in any MX-5. Simply unlatch the central clip, push the roof up and back with you arm and then give it a good press down until it clicks into its down position behind your head. Simply perform the reverse to put it back up. Net result? You end up driving with the roof down more often, even while dodging shower after shower in a typically washout British summer.
Jump inside the MX-5's snug cockpit and you couldn't be anywhere except in an MX-5: the snug accommodation; those big round dials; the thin-rimmed, slightly too large steering wheel; the bulls-eye air vents; and that hand-brake sprouting up seemingly in-your way (don't worry, it's not when released) next to the stubby gearlever. It's all simple, pared back, functional – even with the modernising impact of MZD-connect floating screen and its centre console controller – and very much Mazda MX-5.
It's a more modern, brighter experience than before, though. You can have tan leather if you like, and Mazda has neatly twisted some colour into the cabin by visually running the exterior colour on to the door tops. The curve as it comes into the cabin at the windscreen, keying through to the top of the wing is a nice touch and makes the MX-5's cabin feel like it's part of the outside elements.
Which when the roof's down is absolutely the case. Top-down motoring is impressively refined though, and you won't ruin your barnet in an MX-5.
For we tech-junkies, there's more to play with than you might expect in a back-to-basics sort of roadster. Witness two USB ports, AUX port, music streaming, LED lamps, Aha and Stitcher integration, DAB radio, and LED lamps.
If you go for the Sport or Sport Nav spec, then Bose sound with speakers built into the headrests so you can still hear the tunes crisply with the roof down, plus parking sensors, heated leather seats, lane departure warning and keyless entry all come as part of the package.
Mazda has played clever though, balancing weight-saving technologies and giving you just what you need, with nothing you don't. So no electric hood (what's the point?), no HUD (you don't need a head-up display) and perhaps most contentiously, no passenger glove box. Instead you get two big cubby bins between the seats and a boot now big enough for two carry-on bags.
Small and sweet or big and punchy
There are flaws though. For six-footers, the seat doesn't go low enough so you'll be looking at the header-rail; there's no reach adjustment on the steering wheel, which is a weight-saving step too far; and you can't bring up the speed digitally as you can in the brand's own CX-3 et al, which perplexes us.
The 1.5L is lacking in low down torque – although the gear change is so nice to use, you'll love wringing it's neck to keep it on the boil. On its Bilstein dampers and bigger wheels, the 2.0 Sport / Sport Nav cars have a firmer, less settled ride. It's the price you pay for a sharper, more precise drive through corners when you're really pressing on.
On balance, at just £850 more model-to-model, we'd take the 160bhp 2.0L for the extra grunt. But the 1.5L will be fine for many and is a really sweet little sports car.
But really, we're nitpicking with these moans. On a day without rain, hopping in, slapping the roof back, firing up the rorty little engine and then heading off down your favourite road in an MX-5 is still one of life's great automotive pleasures.
That it's still so visceral, such a pure and ultimately a tactile experience – man and machine working together – is a credit to Mazda's ethos of not simply using technology for technology's sake. There's no sport mode, or switch to make the steering heavier or lighter; the MX-5 doesn't need such fripperies because what's there is setup just right.
If you really don't get why some people (yes, we're guilty as charged) bang on about the fun of driving, or if you really believe the future is just going to be about every single one of us sat idly in a driverless car, do yourself a favour. When the MX-5 goes on sale on the 28 August in the UK, get down to the Mazda dealer, and have a go. Suspend your pre-conceptions, and we'll eat our shoes if you've not got a smile on your face within 10 minutes.
From 18,495 for the basic 1.5L, and £23,295 for a fully kitted-out 2.0L Sport Nav trim, it remains a good value car. With Mazda offering a launch deal of 0 per cent finance, which means the basic car can be had for £265 month (£319 for the Sport Nav model), the main risk in going to try out an MX-5 is that many people might walk out of the dealer having accidentally purchased one.
The MX-5 remains one of the most accessible, affordable and visceral ways to put a smile on your face the auto industry offers. If you're sick of the daily grind and think all modern cars are dull, then this is the tonic – a car to charm, a car to romance you and to help you fall in love with the simple pleasure of getting from A to B again.
Ultimately, the MX-5 proves the ongoing relevance of an analogue experience in a digital world. Long may that continue.