Affordable, rear-drive sports cars are a rare thing. Ones with Japanese quality and reliability even more so. Until recently there was only one, the Mazda MX-5.
Now there are two, with the arrival of the Toyota 86 last year. Or perhaps three if you want to include the virtually identical Subaru BRZ.
Because the MX-5 and 86 hail from the same country, cross over on price and aim to do basically the same thing – entertain the driver in the purest possible form, as much as possible – in the same chassis format, I must confess I'd come to think of them as very similar vehicles.
Time in the facelifted MX-5 has changed my mind. Not about how good the car is. Even after all these years (since 2005 for the current third-generation model, a whopping 23 years in production total) it's still a superb sports car that any serious driver cannot help but love. The steering, gearbox and chassis are sports-car-pure.
But in truth, the MX-5 is not really anything like an 86. It's not merely that it's a two-seat roadster versus a two-plus-two coupe (a convertible 86 is on the way, by the way). The 86 is a grown-up sports car that rewards smooth driving and millimetre-perfect cornering technique. The MX-5 is more of a carnival ride: the steering bombards you with information, the chassis telegraphs every change in cornering attitude. In the MX-5 you're busy all the time, so you'll have an even more special experience if you're in the mood to chuck the car around.
That makes sense, as the MX-5's design roots are in reinterpreting the classic British sports car format for the 20th (and now 21st) century. It's a tiny car that really comes into its own on tiny, twisty roads. You've got to love it for that.
What's changed for the facelift model? There's a new face that looks a lot more, shall we say, masculine than any MX-5 before it: the grille is 47mm deeper and the front flares out more. It looks quite aggressive from some angles, especially with the new gunmetal-finish 17-inch alloy wheels. Some of the more blingy cabin trim has also been replaced with a dark grey colour.
Mechanically, the MX-5 remains pretty much unchanged. This is a car getting very near the end of its life (a deal has just been signed for the next model to be developed in conjunction with Alfa Romeo) and sales have slowed. But Mazda has made a small adjustment to the throttle on the six-speed manual-gearbox car, to give a more linear feel. The brake booster has also been revised on both manual and automatic cars, to give a smoother transition between coming off the stop pedal and onto the go pedal.
The $55,190 MX-5 is offered only in folding hard-top form for New Zealand, with the soft-top available by special order. The 2.0-litre engine makes 118kW/188Nm, and the car comes with leather upholstery and a Bose sound system. You don't rough it in a roadster these days.
Despite the above, Mazda claims that its campaign for weight reduction continues in this facelift, although it only applies to one part: the new front bumper, which is now slightly thinner and therefore 400 grams lighter. Every bit counts I guess – that's why they call it "gram strategy".
I've always thought I'd love to own an MX-5. For the long haul I think I'd now opt for the 86/BRZ, simply because it combines that exquisite chassis balance with more relaxed cruising ability when you want it.
But for a backroads blast when you really want to get busy – or, of course, get wind in your hair – you still can't beat the little Mazda.