Air max: The iconic Mazda MX-5 roadster is still the most fun you can have on four wheels for £30k
Mazda's MX-5 roadster might be the most life-affirming car you can buy, says William Scholes
The wind whips around your ears, your nostrils are filled with the fresh fragrance of the post-rainfall trees and you realise you are driving in surround sound, as you hear your own car, other vehicles and snatches of passing conversations in a way you simply don't in a hard-top; there really is nothing like roof-down motoring…
...Until, that is, a decrepit Vauxhall Zafira diesel chugs out up ahead, spewing thick clouds of noxious black smoke from its overworked exhaust.
The Zafira soon turns off and the air clears. Such encounters are one of the downsides of driving a roadster.
Another is our weather. Deep in the Co Down countryside, the rain starts. At first, the sporadic pinpricks of water which make it past the windscreen and into the cabin are invigorating - this is what open-air motoring is all about, isn't it? - but the rain soon intensifies to the point where speed and aerodynamics are no defence to a wet face and legs.
I pull over, and in roughly the same time it takes to put up an umbrella, the fabric soft-top has been secured into place, and we continue without getting soaked.
It's been a memorable journey, though. But then again, every journey in a Mazda MX-5 is one for the memory banks.
Few cars of any sort are, for that matter. The MX-5 is a brilliant, life-affirming device. Mazda has been building its little sports car for more than 30 years, and across four generations it has resolutely stuck to the classic roadster formula of two-seats, rear-wheel-drive and a roof you can fold quicker than you can click your fingers.
Beautifully weighted steering, faithful handling, a clutch and gearbox that seem to operate by telepathy and with the 8,000rpm-redlined 181bhp 2.0-litre fitted under the bonnet, an engine that is perhaps the most thrilling non-turbocharged petrol unit found in any affordable road car, all add to the Mazda's allure.
The gearbox, with its short snap of a shift, is, I think, my personal highlight. You feel as if you are actually manipulating mechanical components, an almost-vanished sensation among contemporary cars. That sense that your inputs make a material difference, and that the car in turn is always communicating about what's going on under its tyres and bonnet, is what makes the MX-5 such a special experience. It chats away to you, and is always friendly and approachable.
The Mazda remains the antidote to the heavy, over-tyred and over-powered so-called performance cars which are simply too fast to safely enjoy on the road. The MX-5 engages you in dialogue painted in vivid Technicolor when you're only on the way to the shops; you'd lose your licence in a Ferrari trying to have the same conversation.
As a counterpoint to the timeless brilliance of the featherweight MX-5 comes the CX-60, its big brother in the Mazda range.
We've driven the large SUV before in petrol-electric plug-in hybrid guise, but you can also get it in diesel form, with an all-new six-cylinder unit of 3.3-litre's capacity. It's a typically idiosyncratic Mazda move, coming at a time when practically every other car-maker has given up launching new diesels.
The family-size CX-60 is a drastically different style of vehicle from the shrink-wrapped MX-5 (its kerb weight is a practically twice as hefty 2,025kg v 1,127kg) but it is remarkable how Mazda manages to give all its cars the same dynamism and sense of being fun to drive.
Sure, it's no sports car but the CX-60 is more interesting to steer than a Volkswagen. It burbles along nicely, has a lovely interior and has the benefit of showing you've thought about the car you've chosen, rather than following the crowd.
As tested the CX-60, in range-topping Takumi trim with all-wheel-drive, costs £56k. That's a lot of money, however you look at it. The MX-5, in Homura trim as tested, was just over £33k.
You can get cheaper versions of both. But only one is a bona fide legend.