Three decades after Mazda's MX-5 first captured mainstream public affection, we look back on what makes it so great – by converting a nonbeliever
I'm going to start with a confession; I hate the Mazda MX-5. Or, at least, I certainly used to.
Offering a potent blend of handling, reliability and heritage that defies time’s onward march, the diminutive roadster remains a stalwart in everything a sports car should be. That’s a mantra the British MGB never managed to pull off – and I admit despite being a huge MGB fan. I even have a beard.
Frankly, it all boils down to jealously – an overwhelming, gut-wrenching sentiment that’s highlighted each time I find myself behind the wheel of any MX-5. The Japanese 'imposter' shares some common attributes with the B, yet refines them to near perfection. It all leaves a reticent taste on the palette.
The Mazda’s exhaust and drivetrain omit a stringent, overly familiar tone so intoxicating to those of a British sports car persuasion. Even the interior styling, right down to the dim map-reading light, is laced with the same sense of occasion. The direct handling transmits uninterrupted feedback to the palm of your hand, the throttle response is uncanny, and there’s a slick gearchange to boot. This is everything the B, or even the MGF, should have been; yet wasn’t.
On paper, Mazda revised the age-old formula responsible for MG’s trademark model, and transformed the humble MX-5 roadster into a cultural icon. The reason for my trepidation is simple; the Japanese succeeded where the British failed.
As the MGB rusted into the ether of antiquity, sealing its fate within the global status chamber as a further British Leyland calamity, the MX-5 seized and restored faith in affordable soft-top motoring. The cutesy face – incorporating oh-so-cool pop-up headlamps – became the hero of the day.
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, this success story shows no sign of abating. It lays claim as the biggest-selling sports car ever to grace the planet; over 1 million have rolled out the factory gates, each generation enhancing the recipe, while ramping up the power and beefing out the bodywork.
Modern incarnations cut a fierce stance on the tarmac, whereas previous generations present a staple in time. If you want to know what was trendy when rewinding the clock, simply take a look at each incarnation within the MX-5 lineage. That’s exactly what this non-believer was sent to do.
Clattering over the Silverstone bridge and down into the car park, like the battle-ready huddle of a rugby scrum, there they were – each generation of Mazda’s revolutionary market-changer. Haunches and curves framed by the pit walls, three decades of sporting pedigree were lined up ready for inspection. At this point, it was like confronting the enemy. Making a beeline for the vehicle initially responsible for tarnishing the MGB’s reputation, I set out to find flaw with their ringleader – the Japanese import Eunos Roadster that became the MX-5 in Europe, or Miata in America. Except, I couldn’t find a single failing.
Mk1 1.6 and 1.8-litre MX-5
I rarely reflect upon personal stance when trying a new vehicle for the first time, but the Eunos bowled me over from the moment I dumped the clutch. As I pointed its nose into the first roundabout on the pre-planned test route, the car swung itself round without protest and barely a tyre yelp. Snatching third gear and kerb stomping the accelerator resulted in a tight manoeuvre laden with raw adrenaline. Within less than a mile, I was starting to get the appeal of this little sports car.
The Roadster's lean frame took each bend with the steely determination of a scalded greyhound, the rear end remaining firm and planted where the MGB offers all the skittishness of a curry-addicted IBS patient.
Words cannot express how ridiculously playful the genesis model remains. Even a raving moron such as myself can be made to look competent, from powering out of corners with a touch of opposite lock, to clipping the apex and charging the exit at 6500rpm.
Those heady heights of the rev band are where the power hides. The 1.6-litre offers all 115bhp only 500rpm from the red line, yet with such short gearing it’s remarkably easy to propel the needle up the scale. Work the gearbox carefully and you can even inject a dose of exhilaration within the boundaries of a 30mph speed zone. Lord knows, this naysayer certainly enjoyed himself.
Even the lack of power steering didn’t deter my progress, despite a low-speed reversing exercise after getting hopelessly lost within the leafy suburbs of a British village.
You don’t seem to sit in an early MX-5 so much as sit on it. The diminutive raked windscreen barely protected the top of my head, and I’m no leviathan. You almost feel at one with the tarmac, poised mere inches above it and able to read every undulation and imperfection akin to the large print in a child’s book. It all helps to inflate that sense of speed, resulting in so much amusment that you'll be grinning like a child on Christmas Day.
Ride comfort may not be as silky smooth or refined as contemporary customers may demand, but it’s far from the abject terror offered by the MX-5’s rivals. Rattle over potholed roads in a second-generation Lotus Elan and you’d undoubtedly lose pieces of trim. Instead, the Mazda’s suspension and refinement delineate the characterisation of a sports car. Honestly, the competency of this 30-year-old design would put some modern counterparts to shame.
After ten miles of screeching corners and straight-line hilarity, I returned to basecamp where I traded keys for another MkI yearning for attention, its larger-engined stablemate. The concept of defending the dear old MGB was now a faded desire with the fly-splattered Eunos winking in the sun.
Regardless of what period reviews may have said, the 1.8-litre offers little advantage over the original incarnation. Yes, 10bhp extra sits under the curved bonnet, but it’s still located at the point where the tappet heads beg for mercy. Handling, poise and unquestionable ability remain steadfast, although there is certainly a smidgen of extra grunt when powering up through the rev band.
Needless to say, both the 1.8 and 1.6-litre powerplants stole my affections – which caused crisis upon jumping aboard the Mk2.
I must note that, despite its 'hairdresser' styling, this was no ordinary second-generation Mk2. Rather, it’s a tenth-anniversary special edition, complete with bespoke trim, six-speed gearbox, and Bilstein shock absorbers. It might have the look of a rejected automotive cast member of Mission: Impossible II, but unlike the Audi TT or Porsche Boxster, the Mk2 MX-5 had a big problem... The previous model had pushed the boundaries and become a legend in its own lifetime, could Mazda pull of a notoriously difficult second album?
Perhaps it was unwise for me to commence with such appreciation for the Eunos. If Mazda’s original brainchild was the automotive equivalent of Sean Connery, then this is Roger Moore. Smoother, more refined, more understanding and less likely to cause a riot. Except it somewhat diluted its predecessor’s tone of fresh magnetism, rather than followed it.
Yes, it’s faster, and yes, it’s slightly larger, but it feels as though everything is a touch more clinical, yet this doesn’t take away from the car’s inane ability to tackle a bend.
The biggest gripe is with that six-speed transmission, up until that point something of a mechanical novelty on such a vehicle of its age. It gives pleasure for the first few miles as you unavoidably slam into gear as though you’re starring in your own car chase, but after operating the ‘box through several tight, uphill bends the heavy-limbed sensation detracts from gratification. Strangely, despite the addition of power steering amid further amenities, you have to work harder to hit the sweet spot.
It’s less of a sports car, and merges towards a budget grand tourer, but this isn’t a complaint. If anything, it showcases the diverse range that Mazda’s platform can support. There’s more fun here than in a Jaguar XK8, but without the crippling service cost and grace. Besides, the new ratios allows for half a second to be dropped from a 0-60mph sprint – with a 7.6 second day remaining wholeheartedly respectable.
When admiring the two generations parked side by side, the advances in mechanical prowess and styling are obvious, yet the same charismatic underpinnings are present. While the Eunos reigns supreme for those seeking sheer exhilaration, the Mk2 presents a fine concoction for those hunting the image with improved practicality.
Its shapely figure may be devoid of pop-up headlamps, but can it be deemed inadequate? Hardly. It’s simply more grown-up, notwithstanding the flared wheel arches and throaty exhaust tone.
Mk3 MX-5 and current incarnation
There’s a stark contrast between the Mk2 and Mk3 MX-5 Miata, but for no sour reason. The increase in weight comes from improved safety and additional equipment. Lightning-quick steering and a precise, short-throw gearchange make sterling use of the power, but the third-generation model is eclipsed by the current incarnation...
Leaving behind the homely face and stance so admired by fans of the preceding MX-5 lineage, the present model wears an appearance more befitting of vehicles further up the price scale – akin to a Lamborghini that’s been shrunk in the dryer.
The irate lines scored above the headlamps seem to signal that innocence has been lost. That guttural tailpipe note snarling away with contempt for its ancestors seems far less friendly than the preceding Mk3 – which, by the way, was talented enough to see me sticking my MGB in the classifieds in order to raise funds.
However, the fourth-generation model takes everything one step further. There’s air-conditioning, heated seats and a competent sat-nav built into the dashboard; all the comforts from your humdrum saloon extracted and shoehorned into the current specimen’s athletic frame.
Acceleration is brisk, while stopping distances, road manners and refinement render older MK2 and MK3 examples feeling feeble and incompetent in comparison. This is just what you expect with a design that’s been three decades in the making, but what you might not expect is that the MK4 isn't coming home with me.
The latest incarnation of the MX-5 may be perfect for commuting and flaunting your taste and style, but out of the line-up offered today – and contrary to its aggressive aesthetics – the fourth-generation model offers the lowest danger factor here. As an everyday car in its sector it’s second to none, but as a weekend plaything it’s trumped by its elders.
Despite having initially been utterly against the MX-5, after sampling all ages and facelifts I’d say the original Eunos roadster / MX-5 / Miata is the one to have. It’s quirky, light, well built, reliable, exciting and – relatively speaking – classless. You could used to pick up a MK1 for less than £1,000 ($1,200) in the UK, but collectors have cottoned on to the little car's desirability. Today it is appreciating classic with good examples demanding far more cash.
A bit like Doctor Who, each (re)generation of the MX-5 has its own plus points and agendas. However, for experiencing the extraordinary talents that changed the course of millennial style, the simple lines and back-to-basics approach served up by Mazda’s initial innovative take on an already-proven formula, can convert even the biggest critics. I should know, as I used to be one.
Regardless of which MX-5 you prefer, the satisfaction of recognising that you are a custodian of the best in class – regardless of age – should highlight that you’ve made the correct choice. As for me, I’m off to scour the classifieds. Would anyone like an MGB? It’s just like an MX-5, but worse.