Whether you’re pedal to the metal on an open road or maneuvering your Mazda around a difficult corner, the thrill you feel when you’re behind the wheel is like nothing else.

Driving tests our responses like no other adrenaline fix. We need to react to a rapidly changing environment, adapt to external g-forces, and make snap decisions in a free-flowing labyrinth of other drivers and obstacles on real roads.

And it’s perfecting these complex skills, aided by the finely tuned responses of the car that sends a buzz through your body and makes you feel like you’re on top of the world.

“Driving is an incredibly complicated human behavior, demanding a range of high-level responses,” says Fran Ebling, professor of neuroendocrinology at Nottingham University in the UK. Studies show that our brains engage in a host of cognitive functions such as perception, attention, motor control, working memory, and decision-making—and they all happen quickly and fluently.

Our bodies set us up to the task. When we’re excited, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol rush through our system, our heart rate and blood pressure soar, and our muscles tighten. It’s a process we’ve perfected through generations, going back to our cave-dwelling forefathers: the “fight or flight” response.

This is precisely what gives us the kicks. It’s what has us laughing, literally, in the face of danger. “We get pleasure from risk-taking; our body allows us to take risks to cope with stress,” Ebling explains.

It all comes down to the part of the brain called the limbic system, which controls our emotions. When we get a rush of excitement, our brains release natural opioids that stimulate the release of dopamine, which in turn stimulates the limbic system, giving us the feeling of pleasure.

“The limbic system is the seat of our emotions, our innate drives—our feelings take precedence over the rational part of the brain. And this is what’s triggered when we enjoy driving: the part of the brain that drives our motivations, our desires, our fears. It’s the same reward system that’s activated when we drink, eat, or do physical activities.”

We also get pleasure out of knowing others on the road are admiring our moves, and even play up to it, according to Vince Calhoun, professor of neuroscience and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico. “There have been studies that showed a greater experience of reward is found when peers are watching you drive.”

Having fun at the wheel, though, takes more than that; we also need to feel completely at one with the car. And this is where the “brain” and “body” of the car come into play. This complex machine has to read the driver’s intentions via just a brush of the pedal or a twitch of the steering wheel, and respond as naturally as if it were an extension of the driver. And it’s this sense of total harmony that makes Mazdas fun to drive.

“The key is the harmonization of performance feel, steering and handling, and braking,” says Yoshiaki Yamane, leader of the SKYACTIV-D Performance Team at Mazda HQ. “It’s so that when the driver controls each of these elements, not one feels too light or too heavy. It’s the same with the response from the car—not one movement is too quick or too slow.”

The experts at Mazda can get pretty obsessive about it all. David Coleman, vehicle development engineer at Mazda USA, gives us an insight by describing how Mazda test drivers assess body roll: “In a fraction of a second, they notice that the left front wheel compresses first, then the right rear extends, then the left rear compresses, and the right front stays put. They can sense this rapid-fire ballet of movements, and all have strong opinions about which specific type of body roll gives the most confidence.

“We even have guys who’ve figured out that the right kind of door latch lubrication can make the steering feel more direct,” Coleman adds. “A car body is a complex structure, so it flexes slightly when you apply a force to it. We discovered that the way forces are transmitted through the latch structure of a closed door can have a subtle impact on the way the steering feels. Seriously, I’m not making that up.”

Thanks to such perfectionists, cars remain the ultimate toy for grown-ups who like to have fun.

“Drive a lifetime of boring cars and you start to take this magic machine for granted,” says Coleman. “But driving a car really is like putting on an Iron Man suit. Suddenly you are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before.”

With a cocktail of chemicals coursing through your veins, it’s no wonder driving a great car can make you feel like a superhero—Mazdaman or Mazdawoman, perhaps.

From Mazda Canada Tumblr: