Remember how concerned people were when the Mk3 MX-5 was announced? Even before anyone outside of Mazda had turned a wheel in anger, engineers were having to justify the technical decisions behind the 2005 model. Where the Mk2 was very clearly a cute-faced evolution of the already legendary Mk1, the third gen was a more modern take on the roadster formula, with its bigger footprint and heavier kerbweight the unwelcome (to fans of the older cars at least) results of a broadened focus. Its inflated size suggested we were now in a world where not even the MX-5 could avoid an inevitable fattening up; the mid-noughties Mazda was evidence that the old days of bare bones driver's cars were done.
Those were the thoughts of people who at first believed Mazda's once unique two-seater had let go of its USP, an accolade that had earned it millions of global fans through two generations. Compared to similarly priced but evermore powerful hot hatchbacks, it offered lesser outright performance and at launch, the NC was labelled by journalists as too soft, too loose and simply not keen enough to pick up the baton from the sprightlier NB. It was safer and more practical than ever, yes, but for the simple act of mimicking the sixties Lotus Elan, an edge had been lost.
Except it hadn't, the Mk3's untapped potential just hadn't quite been found on the first attempt. It took minor alterations to unlock the NC's best, mixing its newfound (relatively speaking) refinement with the pluckiness and adjustability of those forebears. The Mk3.5 facelift was when things really got going; it received stiffer springs and a firmed up anti-roll bar to lower the front roll centre, while engine and throttle map tweaks brought back some of the eagerness that was lacking in the earliest NC examples. Once these fixes had been noted, only then did longstanding MX-5 fans really begin to welcome it to the family.
Equally as important was the added gusto extracted from the car's top 2.0-litre engine. Within the naturally aspirated four-cylinder was a new forged crankshaft that helped give the motor its 7,200rpm redline and 7,500rpm limiter - gains of 500rpm on before. The peak of 160hp came at 7,000rpm, too, so there was reward in exploring the upper realms of the engine. Even though it still couldn't quite match the outputs of other enthusiast favourites in this price bracket, including Renault's Clio 200 RS and Honda's FN2 Civic Type R, the 2.0-litre MX-5 arguably offered an equally exciting driving experience alongside an unrivalled purity.
Unfortunately for the Mk3, the newer ND's arrival has only cemented its ranking as the heaviest, largest MX-5 of the family. But that doesn't mean the third-generation machine has fallen by the wayside, as it remains a vastly more usable option than the models that came before it and only sacrifices a few clicks of performance to its successor. Where the early cars are now deep into the realms of the modern classic - and come with all the rust and risks that such an age often brings - the Mk3 feels very much like a product of the 21st century, one that can go into full-time use all year round and fly through MOTs.
That being said, the Mk3 also manages to retain enough of an old school sense of occasion to feel special. While owners of NA/NB gen cars can still argue that it falls short of the fingertip connectivity of their cars, in the context of today's affordable driver's cars, it's still comparably raw. The engine needs to be worked to achieve its best, the limits of the 205-width tyres are well within reach and the chassis balance itself can suddenly switch if you're careless, so it's got all the makings of a proper sports car. It's just that if you want to leave the roof up and travel a couple of hundred miles up the motorway, it'll do that rather well, too - and in more comfort than its predecessors by a fair margin.
Still, the 2.0 NC is at its most rewarding when driven quickly on a bendy road, where it can flaunt the pointiness of the facelifted car's front end and rear-drive adjustability if you're quick enough on the throttle. The ride and body control are decent in the Mk3.5 model, if not ultra-tight, the hydraulically-assisted steering provides actual feel and the gearbox is slick to use. With the roof down, there's an added visceral layer to the experience that no similarly priced used alternative can replicate, meaning those who want an MX-5 are unlikely to be lured away by the coupe-only GT86/BRZ combo, even if they're ultimately the sharper machines.
The most generously equipped NC was the 25th Anniversary, which came at the end of the NC's production run as a kitchen sink special. It mixed the 2.0-litre engine with a standard-fit LSD, 17-inch wheels and top-spec cabin, including a folding metal roof, so if you're presently looking for the most up to date take on the Mk3, this is undoubtedly it. With all that kit on board, though, it does tip the scales at 1,115kg - not exactly obese by modern standards, but enough to earn it the title of lardiest MX-5. Still, many will appreciate the functionality provided by a car that has a 6.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system, Bluetooth connectivity and button-operated lid like this.
Given the value for money now offered by well-specced Mk3.5s, it'd be hard to recommend the 25th Anniversary as the best value offering - and that's assuming you'd be able to find one for sale, as only 749 of the 1,099 examples came to Britain. Those not after the plushest NC would find plenty right with a late, non-special edition car using the same 2.0-litre and limited slip diff. Of course, you can bag a healthy early car for little more than £3k to provide the cheapest step into Mk3 MX-5 ownership, but those after the ultimate experience in a lowish mileage package should best set out with around three times that number in mind. That makes even a well-specced MX-5 NC cheaper than the equivalent GT86 but costlier than the likes of that Clio 200 and Civic Type R.
Even so, the biggest threat to the Mk3's desirability comes from its successor, which can be had from around £13k on the used market. We won't need to outline the extra desirability of a later model - let alone one that's as universally loved as the ND. Handily for the 2.0-litre Mk3, you'll need close to £4k more to access the 160hp ND, so it's not quite treading on the earlier car's toes just yet unless you're prepared to take a power cut. Right now, it means the 2.0 Mk3 sits happy in its own space, unrivalled in its mix of modern usability and authentic roadster experience. That only its successor can threaten that title emphasises just how unique this brilliant lineage remains.
SPECIFICATION - MAZDA MX-5 NC 2.0
Engine: 1,999cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 160@7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 139@5,000rpm
0-62mph: 7.6 secs
Top speed: 132mph
Price new: £16,600
Price now: c. £4,000
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