The Mazda MX-5 gets new styling and technology but stays true to its roadster roots
A New Classic SOUL OF MOTION: The new Mazda Roadster - as it is called in Japan - is even shorter than the original convertible and almost as light despite more stringent crash safety standards

IT was a compact, lightweight and affordable roadster that went on to become an icon. More than 25 years later, the latest version of the Mazda MX-5 embraces its original brief, except that it looks less cuddly and much sexier now.

The first Mazda MX-5 from 1989 was a breakthrough open-top two-seater with a classic front engine, rear-wheel-drive layout that made it fun to drive.

The fourth-generation MX-5 retains this recipe but incorporates the Japanese carmaker's sensuous Kodo "soul of motion" design for a sharper profile with exquisite details. Intriguingly, the new Mazda Roadster - as it is called in Japan - is even shorter than the original convertible and almost as light despite more stringent crash safety standards.

At 3,915 mm long, this is the shortest MX-5 ever, thanks to minimised overhangs. Its 2,315 mm wheelbase is also 15 mm less than its immediate predecessor and with an ultra-low bonnet, contoured surfaces and sliced off rear corners for a tapered tail, its proportions are delightful.

Yet the cabin is slightly roomier with better leg clearance, thanks to a larger steering tilt angle and a smaller steering wheel. The seat also reclines an extra two degrees to 27 degrees and with the roof up, there is nine mm more headroom.

With the roof down, wind buffeting in the cabin is minimised by moving the A-pillar backwards and optimising the shape of the door trim. The soft-top is now easier to close with one hand when seated because of the increased spring assistance and roof stiffness.

At about 1,000 kg, the kerb weight is about 100 kg less than its immediate predecessor, the third-generation model, and only 10 kg more than the original car.

The MX-5 only goes on sale in June but because of overwhelming interest, Mazda gave a "sneak peek" in Barcelona last week. There will be two Skyactiv petrol engines - 1.5 and 2.0 litres - but only the former was previewed as Mazda says this captures the essence of the MX-5 for its pure driving pleasure.

SkyActiv technology combines efficient engines with a smooth transmission in a light but strong body. This 1.5 unit is naturally aspirated with 131 hp and 150 Nm - close to the original MX-5's specifications with a bigger displacement of 1.8 litres. Despite the relatively low output, there is surprisingly good low-end and mid-range torque. On the winding mountain roads, it is more than adequate for a rigid, lightweight roadster.

As expected, the power delivery is linear and the naturally aspirated unit revs smoothly all the way to redline at 7,600 rpm before automatic cut-off.

Attaining very high speeds is not the raison d'etre of the MX-5 but there is sufficient oomph to power out of a corner with superb body control. The small Mazda has perfect 50:50 weight distribution and the well-balanced roadster glides easily in and out of S-bends.

The handling is neutral with vice-free steering that embodies Mazda's Jinba Ittai philosophy of car and driver as one.

With front double-wishbone suspension, the nose obediently takes the intended path, while a rear multi-link set-up always keeps the tail neatly in check.

To improve driver dynamics, the driving position is now 15 mm closer to the centre of the car and 20 mm lower. The centre of gravity is further improved with the engine 13 mm lower.

All these mean the diminutive roadster feels even more stable and composed when going fast and braking hard. The vehicle response is predictable and the way the car reacts in a sweeping corner is natural.

The brand new six-speed manual gearbox (there is also a new six-speed automatic transmission) is lighter with new gear ratios. With a reduction in the gear lever height, the throws are shorter and faster. Even more satisfying is the precision of each gear change.

It may be brand new but everything about the latest Mazda MX-5 stays classic - from the way it handles to the way it is to be priced. The only thing that's not old-school is the styling. But who needs retro when you can have racy?