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Mazda MX-5

Mazda MX-5 Published: 22nd Feb 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Mazda MX-5
Mazda MX-5
Mazda MX-5
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The retro Mazda MX-5 is now, unbelievably, 30 years old. Yet the attraction of this ubiquitous sports car remains as strong as ever

It’s hard to believe that the game-changing Mazda MX-5 was launched 30 years ago. But it was indeed 1989 when the baby Mazda was created; a sports car in a world which had left such roadsters behind. It made the equally new but more advanced, front-wheel-drive Lotus M100 Elan redundant; here was a proper rear driver from Japan that looked like a traditional 1960’s classic and had the aura of a typical British sports car – albeit old Elan rather than an MG. More importantly, it offered something neither of our car makers could ever provide with regularity – reliability and dependability. At a stroke, Mazda had made the 24/7 sports car for all genders to enjoy, kickstarting a sports car revival during the 1990s. An instant hit, without this rather bold attempt by Mazda, we wouldn’t have had the MGF, BMW Z3, Mercedes SLK, Audi TT or the Honda S2000. But has the still original been left behind? Read on.

On the move

The shape has attracted mixed reviews over the years – some think it a little nondescript, but most see it as a simple evocation of 1960’s Britain and the Elan. After all, there’s more than a little Lotus about the car, including pop-up headlamps. No unexpectedly, it looks fantastic in British Racing Green, as well as the reds, whites and vivid blues seen on so many British sportsters from the decade of flower power. Look closer and there are several delicate touches – those alloys on the first cars look very like the traditional Minilite, the door handles are delightful, and while by the 1980s quarterlights were largely obsolete, the addition of such small glass panes in the manner of classic MGs finishes the look perfectly.

The interior, again, blends delicate touches with clear nods to the 1960s such as the chrome instrument bezels. The high backed seats are comfortable even for six footers – often hard-wearing leather, but even the cloth alternatives are comfortable and supportive. The centre console is high, hemming you in snugly, while the dashboard has a simplicity rarely seen since the 1960s. While it doesn’t specifically look like anything else, like an Oasis song, it seems familiar from the first time you notice it.

The driving position’s spot on – you sit straight, facing forward over a vertical steering wheel (Nardi in many special editions). The gear lever is short with a very short throw, making for quick yet precise changes – and given how nice the gearbox is, you’ll want to use it as often as you can. While there’s not an awful lot of power available, from its hatchback derived twin cam engine, the combination of relatively light weight and well-chosen gear ratios mean that, unless it’s one of the meagre powered steel-wheeled 88bhp 1.6s, never feels underpowered on the B-roads for which it was designed.

Round the corners

There seems to be a convention that sports cars must have firm suspension. The MX-5 flies in the face of such wisdom, and is all the better for it. Much like 1960’s Lotus, Mazda recognised that the key concept was weight, and that a lighter car could corner just as well on softer suspension. That in turn meant that greater speed could be carried on less than perfect roads.

Mazda used the term “jinba ittai” to summarise the MX-5s appeal – “horse and rider in perfect harmony” – and that really is how it still feels. Like all great drivers’ cars, the Mazda feels like an extension of the driver, with sharp steering, nice responses, and a ride that ensured you weren’t jolted about too much on the typical British back road.

That steering is a dream – especially with the optional power assistance. It’s sharp, it’s direct, and you’re never in doubt as to where the car might be pointing. While the chassis is superbly fluid and it’s possible for the aggressive to put an MX-5 sideways, as standard the low power output means that the grip will always have the upper hand to keep the car in line unless you do something especially ill-considered, particularly in the wet, as many have discovered. Yet while the Mazda is rear wheel drive, it feels like it was developed for those mostly used to front wheel drive cars – it’s set up with a slight bias toward understeer, though this can be offset by the right tyres.

In 1989, Motor Sport magazine felt that “Mazda has a success on its hands, and for having the courage of producing this car, good luck to them”, while “the sheer joie de vivre of driving it (is) exhilarating”. This view was echoed by other elements of the motoring press: when testing the Mazda alongside rivals in 1992 Car magazine reported that “None of the others feel so absorbing as the MX-5. It’s responsive and communicative, but never turns rude.” Both titles summed up what was so right about the MX-5 then and what makes it so right now in 2019; the sheer sense of fun you get from behind the wheel.

This car proves that driving entertainment is not all about rock hard suspensions and rapid 0-60 times, the joy of driving can equally be at its best with small, relatively low power engine, an open roof, and mile upon mile of twisting tarmac. Any MG Midget driver will no doubt tell you the same.

Go or no go

The MGB became popular as a classic for a number of reasons – it was cheap, spares were plentiful, and was easy to work on. All those attributes that have made us take the MG to our hearts over the last thirty years apply equally well to the MX-5 – and there is no doubt that the baby Mazda will occupy the same place in the world’s heart as that evergreen MG. Perhaps even more so as an ever increasing number of younger enthusiasts discover this modern roadster’s old fashioned virtues. Japanese style.

Quick spin

PERFORMANCE Enough to be entertaining.

CRUISING A tad short geared – but just right for a sports car.

HANDLING MX-5 drives like the MG Midget but with a better ride and higher grip levels.

BRAKES Adequate for the job.

EASE OF USE No harder than the 323 hatchback it’s based on.

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