Mazda MX-5 - a sports car for all seasons
WINTER - particularly the dark, chill permadamp of an Irish winter - might seem like the worst time of year of all to be putting any car without a steel roof to the test, writes William Scholes.
And when the car in question is a two-seater roadster of Lilliputian dimensions, such as the Mazda MX-5 on these pages, it must surely be folly. Mustn't it?
You would be wrong, though. Winter is actually the best time of year to test the mettle of any convertible.
Let me explain. Even when a car like an MX-5 - and I say "like an MX-5" as if there were a plethora of alternatives, when in fact there is almost nothing else like it... - is bought as a family's second or even third car, or with the notion that it might only come out in the summer, the chances are that you will want to use it all year, so manifest are its qualities, so fun is it to drive.
There is no point at all in a car that cannot be driven if you think the roof is going to leak and you'll get your hair and shoes wet, or the heater so feeble that your frozen fingers will have to be prised from the steering wheel with the aid of a hair drier - which is why the winter test is the toughest test of all for a soft-top.
The summer is easy for decapitating cars; it's during the winter that, like your hot water bottle, they really show their worth.
Mazda's MX-5 passed the test easily. I had the car a few weeks ago, when there was thick snow round my neck of the woods for a day or two and heavy frost every other morning.
A powerful, fast-warming heater and heated seats - every car should have them -meant the MX-5's snug cabin was a welcome refuge from the cold. The cloth roof was effective too; these are all thickly insulated, like a posh duvet, nowadays, and really don't feel inferior to a steel roof in the insulation stakes.
Clear winter skies do allow the sun full rein between the rain, so another key test of any convertible is how easy the roof is to fold down - and up again, of course.
The MX-5 shuns an electric roof - it's in keeping with its minimalist, lightweight philosophy, you see - and instead bestows upon the occupants one of the greatest soft-tops yet invented. It's so easy to operate, so quick to flip back that a six-year-old can do it, one-handed - though for the final push to lock it flat he needed both hands...
All this means that at the first glimmer of sunlight, there is no excuse not to drive top-down, especially if you crank up the heater and turn on the seat heaters.
Thus deployed, the MX-5 is one of the most life-affirming experiences that sensible money can buy on four wheels. The sensations - the smells, the sounds, the fresh air - are the same as that offered by any other convertible, but the Mazda wins by being so much fun to drive.
Everything about the way it drives is nigh-on perfect; the telepathic steering, the super-short throw of the gearchange, the way the pedals are perfectly weighted and their responses accurately measured, even the exhaust note. It's so responsive, so alive to your bidding, so eager to tell you what is happening under its wheels; you feel like you are wearing it.
Mazda has been doing the MX-5 for more than 25 years, and everything about this latest model shouts that it knows exactly what it's doing.
Mazda offers the MX-5 with two petrol engines: a 1.5-litre which thrives on revs; and a 2.0-litre with more power and torque, though a lesser red line.
There is some debate among motoring journalists as to which is better. Normally, the more powerful engine is the obvious choice but with the MX-5 I am not so sure.
The 1.5-litre was my preference when I drove the two engines back-to-back last year, and my time with it again this month has done nothing to change my mind.
It doesn't feel particularly underpowered - and the MX-5 experience is not about ultimate power, in any case - and the rev-hungry nature sits perfectly with the idea of a small, perfectly-formed sports car. There is something about being able to thrash a car that makes you feel this alive without reaching silly speeds that is deeply intoxicating. The 40-plus mpg real world fuel economy is a bonus, too.
Eager engine aside, the MX-5 is a joy to drive. If I were being fussy, I would point out that the front axle feels a little soft and that it takes a second for the car's nose to settle into a corner; but actually, that plays to the Mazda's fun-at-low-speed philosophy and the idea that, if you want to play, you have to work at it.
So, as the nice man came to take away 'my' MX-5, the two-and-a-half tanks of petrol in a week and mud smattered paintwork told their own story. The little Mazda had passed the winter test with ease, and I love it. I want one...
:: At a Glance
Mazda MX-5 1.5 131PS Sport Nav
Price: £22,445. As tested £22,985, with metallic paint £540
Engine and transmission: 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol, six-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel-drive; 129bhp, 111lb/ft
Performance: Top speed 127mph, 0-62mph in 8.3 seconds
Fuel consumption: 47.1mpg (EU combined); 42.2mpg (real world)
CO2, road tax and benefit in kind: 139g/km - £130 annually - 22 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Four stars (84/80/93/64)