Mazda MX-5, Alfa Romeo 4C share the same goal: fun

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

Most of today’s cars compete for consumers’ attention by adding more and more features, so it’s unusual to find two newcomers that focus on the basics rather than bells and whistles.

I’m talking here about the Mazda MX-5 and the Alfa Romeo 4C, both brand new sports cars that share a goal of being fun to drive above all else. Though this duo has that quality in common, the Mazda and Alfa present quite different personalities.

The 2016 Mazda MX-5 is now more edgy and dynamic-looking.

Starting at $24,915, the MX-5 is much more affordable than the $53,900 Alfa, and builds on 25 years heritage as the world’s most popular and successful two-seat roadster. Now in its fourth generation, the Mazda is actually smaller and lighter than its predecessors, a welcome move at a time when most cars get bigger and heavier with each re-design.

Keeping the MX-5’s weight down was not easy, given the need for more safety features and other equipment, but the Mazda engineers made sure every single part of the car was as light as possible. Another positive development was the design, which is now more edgy and dynamic looking than the rather anodyne third generation model.

At the wheel, the MX-5 lives up to its crisp new looks. Handling and performance capabilities are modest in absolute terms, but well suited to the car’s mission: that is to be a compact, nimble, reasonably fast and easy to drive roadster. Mazda engineer, Dave Coleman, explains: “Our aim is to make the MX-5 fun to drive for a wide variety of drivers, rather than just those who are highly skilled.”

The new version’s 2.0-liter engine is actually slightly down on horsepower compared to its predecessor, but the combination of lighter vehicle weight and superior torque gives the MX-5 snappy acceleration when you need it. And the Mazda retains the quick shifting manual gearbox, now six-speed instead of five, that has always distinguished the MX-5.

Putting the manual top up or down is easier than ever, with a new design that is better insulated and thus quieter than before when raised.

The MX-5 does have its flaws. The steering wheel rim is too thin and it could do with more on center effort and feel. The left hand gauge in the instrument panel is hard to read, the navigation screen display is grainy and passenger knee room is compromised by the thick dashboard padding.

Overall, though, the MX-5 is a sharp looking, affordable sports car that’s every bit as appealing as the 1989 original.

By comparison, the case for the Alfa 4C is not as easy to make. There is no question that this is a jewel of a car to look at. But while the Alfa shares the Mazda’s dedication to lightweight, punchy performance and responsive handling, the compromises it asks of the occupants are hard to accept, especially at its price point.

The Alfa Romeo 4C Coupe turned heads everywhere it went.

The wide door sills make entry and egress a real challenge.The video game-like dashboard and cheap looking radio are distinctly underwhelming.

If you accept that this is intended to be a track car that gets occasional public road use, rather than the other way around, then such drawbacks can be overlooked. But the driving experience also leaves a lot to be desired. For a start the turbocharged 1.7-liter engine, coupled to a dual clutch transmission, hasan unrefined, crude sounding powertrain.

Acceleration is strong, for sure, but it is accompanied by wild shrieks and whistling from the turbocharger as it boosts the engine. It would be one thing if the engine sounds were entertaining like a high-pitched Ferrari, but they are not.

On a positive note, the 4C’s handling is taut and responsive, ably fulfilling the Alfa’s calling as a thinly disguised racecar. The 4C is fun to drive but the fun is too short-lived to justify such an expensive car’s shortcomings.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com