There was disquiet among diehard Mazda MX5 fans when it became clear the Japanese car maker was going to launch an all-new version of the best-selling sports car of all time.
There were fears that the spirit of the original would be lost - its relative simplicity, its cutely compact size and looks, its agility. You see, the general feeling among the MX5 afficionados was that their car was perfect and that any updating would inevitably result in a car that was bigger, more sophisticated and have less character. Some of the same objections had been raised, of course, when the second generation appeared, with integrated headlights in place of the original's pop-ups and an 1800cc engine alongside the 1600. The bodywork and its lines, influenced by Lotus' mid-1960s Elan open-topped roadster, remained essentially the same in generation two.
Mazda kept a pretty good lid on the new MX5 until its launch earlier this year. There were the usual somewhat lurid speculative stories on what had been done to it. Even when Mazda released the first official photograph of the new car, it was somewhat distorted and gave no real impression of what the all-new roadster was like.
Diehard MX5 fans need not have worried. The new car was in good hands, as it turned out, the best hands possible.
In charge of the project was an enthusiastic, exacting and uncompromising engineer who loves to drive and who has lived and breathed MX5, virtually from the outset.
Takao Kijima had worked on earlier MX5s, and owns one of each: his only concern is that he doesn't have the parking allocation to add a generation three car to his line-up.
His slogan for the new car was Jinba Ittai, a Japanese phrase that summed up the spirit of the original MX5 and translates as "rider and horse as one."
The car had to feel, in effect, like an extension of its driver's will, a vibrant living entity that would perform its driver's commands with flair, precision and passion.
It had to be so nimble and fun-to-drive that the driver and car achieved true unity.
The new car is bigger than the original: 40mm longer at 2330mm; a telling 40mm wider at 1720mm, giving vastly improved elbow room; but 15mm taller, at 1245mm. Crucially the wheelbase is 65mm longer, at 2330mm, giving a roomier cabin.
Those bigger dimensions might suggest a much heavier weight, but when we described Kijima as an uncompromising engineer, that's exactly what we meant.
He put in place what he called a gram strategy, or the ultimate weight-saving imperative. Put simply, engineers and stylists had to justify their choice of materials, components and engineering solutions in terms of weight. They had to justify every gram of weight in every part. Doubtless there were many discussions, many rejections but in the end Kijima came close to matching the weight of the smaller original.
That was despite significant improvements in chassis rigidity, and despite using a bigger, 2.0-litre engine, a motor shared by the Mazda 3 and Mazda 6.
Clever engineering solutions allowed Kijima to deliver a completed car that was only 10kg heavier than the old MX5, while delivering much improved cabin space and structural strength.
Clever solutions? Mounting the power steering pump and the air-conditioning compressor to the engine block eliminated separate brackets weighing 3.2kg; using a hollow tube in place of solid rod for the front anti-roll bar saved 2.4kg.
In his quest for Jinba Ittai, Kijima also turned his attention to weight distribution and centre of gravity.
The battery and fuel tank were moved forward and the tank was mounted lower; the engine - now with an alloy rather than cast-iron, block was moved further back in the chassis and also mounted lower. The result is an ideal 50:50 weight distribution.
The new MX5 motor is the MZR 2.0-litre, a 1998cc unit with Double Overhead Camshafts and four valves for each of its four cylinders. It develops 118bhp at 6700rpm and peak torque of 188Nm at a highish 5000rpm. However, 90 percent of that torque is available from 2500rpm.
Gearbox choices are a stunning, short-throw, six-speed manual and a six-speed automatic with Activematic manual shift operated by steering wheel-mounted paddles or a lever on the centre console.
The engine is free-revving and has a superb exhaust note, sharp and cammy and the epitome of sporting. Nail the throttle and let out the clutch and the 1090kg MX5 (1107kg with the auto, which we've yet to sample) leaps forward.
It's certainly quicker than its predecessor with sub-eight second 0-100km/h capability, and a top speed in the region of 210km/h. It feels quick, even at 100km/h, an impression reinforced by the evocative engine note and the lowness of the seating position.
Handling? Do you need to ask?
The old model MX5 was a consistent winner of British magazine Autocar's best-handling shootout, yet the new car manages to seem even better. The rear-wheel drive chassis is absolutely phenomenal, the car going precisely where you point it, and refusing to get flustered even if you get it wrong: truly Kijima and his engineering crew have achieved Jinba Ittai.
We've driven the new MX5 in a variety of settings, from the demanding roads between Christchurch and Akaroa to more familiar terrain close to Auckland. On open roads where challenging corner follows challenging corner, it's in its element.
On the run up and over the ridge to Akaroa I passengered with Richard Bosselman at the wheel. Now Bosselman is a big man, John Wayne kind of big, solid and tall; but he declared himself happy with the amount of cockpit room, noting that in old model MX5s he had to nearly bend double to get in and then was cramped while driving. After getting out he almost required traction to straighten up again. But he gave the new MX5's cockpit space the thumbs-up.
The efficacy of the seats' lateral support was reinforced during this drive, and I had to do no more bracing than light-pressure knee-against-the-door as Bosselman threaded the car through the tight turns that make the Akaroa hill road such a driver's delight. The MX5 can generate high g-forces; US magazine Road & Track measured 0.86g on the skidpan (it has since recorded Porsche's new Cayman at 0.9g).
I drove on the run back towards the Port Hills, and the car was an absolute delight. Literally, you could think it into a corner. For the first few kilometres, frankly, I overdrove it, using too much steering lock, revving too hard in the lower ratios.
Once I had a talk to myself and started guiding rather than steering the car, finessing it rather than manhandling it, the MX5 blossomed and showed its sublime character. This, indeed, is one of the finest cars you're ever going to drive, regardless of price. Anyone who dismisses an MX5 as a lady's car not worthy of the attentions of a hairy-chested male, clearly hasn't driven one to anywhere near its potential.
Interestingly on that run back towards Christchurch we ran behind Kijima himself, getting a rare chance to unleash his creation. Bosselman, riding with him, said the Japanese engineer was a superb driver, totally in tune with his creation. He always had the car in the right gear to make the most of the engine's sweet torque.
The handling is vice-free and you can enter corners at speeds that once you arrive there suddenly seem optimistic. Flick the steering wheel, nail the throttle again and accelerate out of even a chicane-like left-right-left with just a quick wiggle of the tail before the MX5 delivers you to the next straightaway: this horse is surely in tune with its rider.
Practical considerations? The hood is easy to lower and raise. You can lower it easily from the driver's seat, though we preferred raising it from outside the car.
Visibility with the hood down is excellent; things are much cosier with the hood up, but we didn't think visibility was too bad. The rigidity of the new bodyshell is admirably shown by the absence of that bane of sports cars, scuttle-shake as the car flexes aft of the firewall.
The draft-excluding mesh screen behind the passengers' heads and the rollover hoops are nice touches. The seating position is very low. I lowered myself into the car to where I though the seat cushion might be and promptly fell several inches before landing on the seat.
The old model MX5 is a practical everyday driver, though I'm not so sure I'd like to drive the new one quite that frequently. It has a special, indefinable, quality that I fear might be blunted doing battle each day with Stagecoach buses on the to-and-from-work commute.
It seems to me to be much too special a car for such a mundane task as commuting, which is not to detract from it at all, and may have much to do with my age - as you get older low-slung cars become more difficult to use if you have to climb in and out of them several times a day. No, to me, the MX5 would be the ultimate tonic against the mundane and humdrum: a car in which to get back in touch with what driving is all about.
Takao Kijima has truly achieved Jinba Ittai in his third-generation MX5, a car in which car and driver really are as one.
What you get
Forget about a bare bones sports car if you're envisaging the new MX5's spec. You get air-conditioning, in-door and central console cupholders, sunglasses holder, power windows and door locks, leather-wrapped steering wheel, gear lever knob and handbrake lever, and green windscreen and side and rear glass (the rear window in the softtop is glass complete with heater elements.
There's cruise control, sound system controls on the steering wheel (plus gearshift paddles on automatic gearbox versions), lockable glovebox and storage bins, a standard six-disc Compact Disc sound system, and a choice of cloth or leather upholstery, depending on the model.
Some critics think Mazda has strayed too far from the original MX5's bare bones spec (cruise control on a sports car?), but it's really a sign of the times.
And these good creature comforts have been provided without compromising the car's real purpose - a peerless driving experience.
Safety kit includes ABS anti-lock barking with electronic brake force distribution, and front and side airbags.
MX5 prices range from $44,950 for the cloth-upholstered manual gearbox car to $48,950 for the automatic version with leather trim.
MX5 project leader Takao Kijima says the principal of Jinba Ittai, the aim for the new sports car's dynamics, can be illustrated by a Japanese ritual.
"In (the Jinba Ittai) ritual, an archer mounted on a horse gallops past a target and shoots an arrow. To hit the target's bullseye, the archer and horse must move as one," he says.
"A natural two-way communication is essential and the horse and rider alliance must also exhibit a high degree of synergy."
Updated and applied to the MX5, Jina Ittai stands for the "cozy driver-car relationship targeted for the first-generation MX5. Instead of aiming for sheer speed, the goal was establishing fun-to-drive attributes as the top priority."
The same principles were applied to his third generation MX5.