If Lionel Messi was a sports car...
It might be small, lightweight and modestly powered but the latest Mazda MX-5 is a joyful, life-affirming motoring colossus, writes a smitten William Scholes
SMALL, lightweight, beautifully balanced and routinely hailed as a 'world's best', if the Mazda MX-5 was a footballer it would be Lionel Messi.
Or, should Swan Lake be more your thing than Camp Nou, if the little roadster were a ballerina it would be Darcey Bussell.
For 25 years, this humble sports car has been the ultimate retort to those who think that the quickest route to driver enjoyment involves oodles of power and chasing ever-higher top speeds.
Against these irrelevancies of brute force and ignorance, Mazda instead prioritises the sort of tactility that means driving an MX-5 is fun at both 5mph and 55mph.
This is an unusual quality indeed, but one that is increasingly in tune with the road conditions encountered by most of us, most of the time.
When the roads are clogged with traffic or bumpy of surface, the opportunities to exploit the performance of your average hot hatch are few and far between, and it's also getting harder to let other, more powerful, sports cars really stretch their legs.
What you need then, if you truly enjoy the craft of driving, is something that engages you at sensible speeds - in other words, you need an MX-5.
Mazda is not alone in seeing the potential of a modestly powerful, fun-to-drive sports car - the joint venture which resulted in the Toyota GT86 and Subaru BRZ follows a similar template - but it is by far the most successful.
Around a million MX-5s have been produced since its debut in 1989, making it the world's most popular two-seater roadster to date.
British companies used to own the roadster market - think MG Midget, MG B, Triumph Spitfire, Lotus Elan and numerous others - so it perhaps unsurprising that a car which channels their spirit of roof-down, fun motoring while also addressing their chronic unreliability has been a big hit in the UK, which accounts for more than half of European sales.
That popularity is sure to be enhanced with the all-new fourth-generation MX-5, which has just arrived in Northern Ireland.
More sharply styled than ever - you could cut yourself on some of the bodywork's creases - all the traditional MX-5 ingredients are present and correct.
That means rear-wheel-drive, a revvy engine, soft-top roof, perfect roadster proportions and so on, but the demands of 21st century customers and legislation mean all the latest safety and infotainment kit is also available.
All those airbags and so on can be quite heavy but the new car is still 100kg lighter than the outgoing model, which could hardly be regarded as anything other than svelte.
It's a deeply impressive achievement, given the MX-5 weighs little more than a tonne, and is the most fluent expression of the ruthlessness with which Mazda has pursued the virtuous circle of its 'less is more' mantra.
There's no great secret to shaving weight from a car if you chuck out heavy items like soundproofing, seats and radios yet this isn't the Mazda way - the MX-5 is well appointed in all these areas, and whichever model you choose you get goodies like LED headlamps and alloy wheels, there is plenty of safety kit and all but the most basic models get Mazda's excellent multimedia system. Posher models even have speakers for the stereo integrated in the seats' headrests...
Nor is it rattly and unpleasantly noisy; it's actually more refined than its predecessors and is clearly solidly built from quality materials.
The same magic is at work when you consider the car's packaging. The latest MX-5 might be noticeably smaller than its predecessor - the tape measure says that while it is a little wider, it is shorter by 55mm and lower by 10mm - yet it also has a roomier cabin and a bigger boot.
Mazda thanks its so-called Skyactiv technology, seen across its range, for this engineering sleight of hand. It means, for example, lots of aluminium and high-strength, lightweight steel in the body and suspension, and a slavish attention to detail elsewhere.
The fabric soft-top, for example, is even easier to fold and erect than the last car's - a child could do it - yet is more insulated and weighs 3kg less. Similarly, the seats are lighter and thinner but manage to be more comfortable and supportive. Shorter front and rear overhangs mean that what mass there is finds itself concentrated within the wheelbase
It's clever stuff. Importantly it's also the right sort of clever stuff, and because the MX-5 retains its 50/50 weight distribution - a figure regarded by many enthusiasts as the ideal - it translates directly into driving enjoyment.
Mechanically, all MX-5s now get a six-speed gearbox - manual, naturally - as standard, with a shift stroke measuring a mere 40mm. It may be the sweetest manual gearbox on sale today.
Indeed, the same can be said of any element of the Mazda's major controls. The pedals are perfectly weighted and the steering - with electric rather than hydraulic assistance this time, though you'll not be able to tell the difference - delivers incredible feedback.
Suspension is reassuringly sophisticated and expensive sounding, with double wishbones up front and a multi-link arrangement at the back. Mazda's damping expertise means suppleness does not come at the expense of control.
It's a well-judged set up and encourages you to really lean on the car in enthusiastic cornering because the feedback delivered to your hands and seat of your pants is so clear and consistent. This allows you to play with the grip levels of the MX-5's modest tyres - grab it by the scruff of the neck, as it encourages you to, and the chassis delivers a constant stream of information. When so many modern cars insulate drivers from the road to the point of isolation, the MX-5 puts you at the centre of an information superhighway; it feels fizzy and alive, when other cars are inert and dead.
Two engines are on offer: a 1.5-litre with 129bhp and, for an extra £850, a 2.0-litre with 158bhp and more torque. Both are crackers, delivering superior power-to-weight ratios to the comparable units in the old car. And - back to the engineering virtuous circle - Mazda has shunned turbocharging for simplicity, less weight and sharper throttle response.
Don't be fooled by the modest power outputs. The MX-5 has never been about outright power - back to my introduction - but either engine is plenty brisk enough for Mazda's aim of delivering driver-focused fun.
I would probably opt for the smaller unit. More rev hungry than the 2.0-litre, it is also lighter, which seems to somehow perfectly chime with the ethos behind the MX-5.
Whatever engine you opt for you get an eager and raspy exhaust note, plus a guarantee that you will have fun.
On sections of the test route on the launch event in the Scottish Highlands, the MX-5 displayed an almost otherworldly ability to put man and machine as one - a flex of right ankle here all that was required to adjust the car's line through a sequence of flowing bends, a couple of blink-and-you-miss it gear changes and a flick of the wheel there all that was needed to negotiate a hairpin bend...
It was exhilarating stuff, enhanced by the roof-down, wind-in-the-hair sensation, and the feeling that you could drive any favourite back road with your foot to the floor, the engine singing and with complete confidence that the MX-5 would never spring any nasty surprises on you.
Of course, a two-seater, soft-top sports car with a small boot is not going to suit everyone but the Mazda is a joyful reminder that, at its best, the motor car is about more than simply getting from A to B.
Drive one of today's crop of hot hatches like that and you will soon lose your licence and endanger either your own or someone else's life. But in an MX-5, all this fun arrives at safe, sensible speeds; like watching Lionel Messi dazzle on the pitch, the MX-5 is fabulous and life-affirming - and I want one...