For autoTRADER.ca’s Best Performance Car Under $50K category, our jury of more than 20 automotive experts considered every single sports car and performance model on the Canadian market, whittling the field down to five finalists: The Mazda MX-5, Ford Mustang, Hyundai Veloster N, Honda Civic Si/Civic Type R, and Volkswagen Golf GTI. After all the votes were counted, the winner for the second year in a row was the iconic Mazda MX-5.

Our assessment process takes into consideration a wide variety of criteria. Some are purely practical: safety, user-friendliness, quality, efficiency and value. Others are more about the ownership and driving experience: design, innovation, technology/features, performance, and engineering excellence. Where the MX-5 really stands out is in two final criteria that are harder to define, trickier to achieve, and absolutely essential in the performance car segment: driver satisfaction and overall excellence.

The MX-5 is, simply put, a brilliant driver’s car. As regular autoTRADER.ca contributor Jeff Wilson explained in his First Drive review, “Its minimalist mass makes it oh-so-frisky in all its reactions, and the combination of free-revving engine, and sensational shift and clutch set-up make it joyful to drive.”

For 2021 the MX-5 comes in either soft-top or retractable folding hard-top (RF) versions, and in three trim levels. The soft-top GS is the most budget-friendly choice, starting at $33,200 before freight and taxes. The autocross-ready GS-P adds a Bose sound system, sport suspension, limited-slip differential and more, starting at $37,200 ($40,200 for the RF GS-P). The touring-oriented GT gets features such as leather upholstery, automatic climate control, navigation, satellite radio and traffic sign recognition for $40,300 ($43,300 for the RF GT). There’s also a GT-based 100th Anniversary Edition for $41,800 ($44,800 for the RF) that features Snowflake White Pearl paint, Red Nappa leather interior, 100th Anniversary badging, and Dark Cherry roof on the soft-top car.

This pricing doesn’t make the MX-5 the cheapest performance car option – both the base Mustang and Honda Civic Si come in lower – but the MX-5 still represents great value. As Brendan McAleer noted in his comparison of the MX-5 versus the Mini Cooper S Convertible, the MX-5 “does look more expensive than it is. If you park one next to a Jaguar F-Type, the Mazda comes off strongly.”

Power for the MX-5 comes from a naturally aspirated DOHC 2.0L four-cylinder engine. It’s a fun, free-revving little powerplant, topping out at 7,500 rpm to produce 181 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. These numbers may not look particularly impressive in print, but because the MX-5 weighs a mere 1,065 kg it feels more powerful than the numbers suggest, and will zip from zero to 100 km/h in a properly quick 5.8 seconds. A slick-shifting manual six-speed transmission is standard, and while there’s a six-speed automatic available as a no-cost option, it’s the manual transmission that’s best suited to the car’s character and purpose.

On the road, everything about the MX-5 feels very direct and connected, with the steering, brakes, and throttle all providing superb feedback and intuitive control. Mazda calls this connectedness jinba ittai, which it defines as “rider and horse as one,” and it has been a prime directive in the MX-5’s development over several generations.

Inside, the MX-5 is nicely fitted out in terms of materials and style, and it comes with a judicious selection of essential tech, including a blind-spot warning system, smart city brake support, and lane-departure warning, without being distractingly tech-heavy. The seating is comfortable and supportive, although given the car’s tidy dimensions storage space is at a premium and very tall drivers will want to check for fit before plunking down their money. A telescoping steering wheel, added for 2019, does allow a wider range of drivers to fit comfortably.

As Jil McIntosh noted in her First Drive of the MX-5 RF, “There’s a reason why the MX-5 has a cult following, along with a Guinness World Record for the best-selling two-seater sports car ever. The steering is beautifully precise without turning twitchy, it’s ridiculously fun to drive, and that shifter is just heavenly.” Above all else it’s these attributes, this strong focus on the driving experience, that make MX-5 a performance car standout.