Road To Joy

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The second of several interpretations of ‘objective’, in Collins English Dictionary, reads as follows: “Undistorted by emotion or personal bias.”

When it was first launched, in March 1990, it wasn’t easy to be objective about the MX-5. Even though it was a shameless copy of the minimalist two-seater concept that used to be a British way of life, it looked so right, even 20 years after the original Lotus Elan, with which its appearance made it ripe for comparison. Ironic that, for the new, front-drive Elan was on the market not long after the MX-5. Both received widespread press acclaim, but Japan’s more cost-effective mass-production techniques have meant that the MX-5 is still being turned out and sold in high numbers, while the more expensive Lotus has recently been axed for financial reasons.

Fine car though it was, the Elan of the ’90s is now no more than a collectors’ item. Fine car that it is, the MX-5, so redolent of the ’60s Elan, goes from strength to strength.

So was all that press reaction hype? Was it simply a case that a possee of hacks had rediscovered lost youth?

The recent launch of the Mazda MX-5 SE (Special Equipment) offered us the opportunity to take a more measured look… and it hasn’t altered our outlook one jot. The little Mazda is still a supremely balanced little sports car. It is not brutally fast in the TVR mould, nor does it have the kart-like reflexes of a Caterham, but it is quick, and nimble, enough to be fun. On a slippery surface, it does not have that much grip, but it does not have that much power, either. If you enjoy driving, rather than wafting along on cruise control, the balance is about right. It is also blessed with one of the finest power-assisted steering systems of our acquaintance, although the wooden wheel that adorns the SE cockpit is particularly prone to becoming slippery in warm weather, as clammy palms lose their cool.

Designed as a convertible from the outset, the MX-5 is devoid of the rattles and body flex that often besets cabriolets that have been adapted from coupe originals. Build quality is first-rate.

Priced at £17,788 (the base model will leave you enough change from £15,000 for a half-decent bottle of champagne), the SE differs from its progenitor on account of black paintwork (the standard car comes only in blue, red, white and silver), tan leather seats and trim, 7x 15 alloy wheels, the fitment of ABS, the aforementioned wooden steering wheel, wood-capped gear lever and handbrake, polished chrome scuff plates and an electric aerial.

Unlike previous MX-5 variants (250 BRG examples were produced to celebrate the car’s first anniversary, and there was a special run of 24 issued in the wake of Mazda’s 1991 Le Mans victory, all of which looked like a slice of battenberg on wheels), the SE is available to whoever wants one. Like its forebears, however, the only showroom advantages it has over an ordinary MX-5 are cosmetic.

The lustrous black paintwork looks fantastic, and Mazda’s comprehensive painting process which involves something like 18 coats does have hidden plusses. Recently, a lowlife (IQ reckoned to be on a par with the MX-5’s seating capacity) passing through Sidmouth attacked one of MOTOR SPORT’S test Mazdas with a key. Although the damage looked quite severe, Mazda’s Tunbridge Wells bodyshop eliminated the eyesore with little more than 30 minutes of buff and polish. A nuisance, certainly, but it could have been worse.

Whether or not one requires the SE pack is purely a question of taste and, perhaps, of budget. The bottom line is that the MX-5 remains a joy to drive, however you care to dress it up. S A

Seat would like its automotive products to be taken seriously. Its problem, previously, has been one of image, Spain’s only car producer having been known largely for its ability – particularly in the ’70s – to churn out rebadged Fiat cast-offs. And despite the lure of Giugiaro design and its ‘System Porsche’ engine, a nondescript carrot if ever there was one, the Ibiza has never been perceived as the shining knight to put the Spanish motor industry on the road to global domination. In its most potent form (the 1.5 SXi), the Ibiza wasn’t a true GTi, more a slightly-perkier-than-usual hatchback in the same mould as Peugeot’s 205 XS, filling a gap somewhere between the mundane and the mouthwatering.

But times are changing.

Volkswagen took an interest in Seat five years ago, and now has full parental control. That Teutonic influence is apparent in the Seat Toledo GTi 16v – the first new Seat since VW took the reins and not simply because you’ll recognise most of the switchgear from any Passat or Golf you care to mention.

Indeed, such is the level of ‘borrowed’ corporate instrumentation that, from the driver’s seat, you’d think you were in a VW. Shut the door, however, and the accompanying ‘plink’ gives the game away. Traditional VAG doors close with a seismic ‘thunk’.

Don’t imagine, however, that Seat has junked its rebadged Fiats in favour of rebadged, lightweight VWs. Some 55 per cent of the Toledo’s constituent parts are Seat’s own, and the Toledo does have more than a dash of individuality. Whether or not you actually approve its solid looks, you have to admit that this is no Euroclone. In this age of increasing auto-anonymity, that alone is a welcome plus point.

Improved quality control comes hand in hand with the interior fittings. The Toledo Clii feels reassuringly solid on the road, and the cabin is free of aural irritations such as trim rattle. At high cruising speeds, its progress is serene. Tyre roar is negligible, wind noise virtually non-existent.

(Seat has paid close attention to the Toledo’s aerodynamics, tucking everything from exhaust pipe to windscreen wipers out of the main airflow.) Occupants are further cossetted by a supple ride, though this is offset by harder than average front seats which lack lateral support.

The engine is the proven 1.8-litre 16v unit that used to pull along Golfs and Corrados before WV waved a two-litre wand in the direction of the latter pair. Seat has incorporated a couple of tweaks of its own, modifying the fuel injection and choosing gearing that will come as a welcome surprise to anyone familiar with the yawning chasm between second and third gears that is such an irritating aspect of A-and B-road progress in most VAG products.

Maximum power is a reasonable 136 bhp at a slightly vibrant 6100 rpm, while peak torque is 122 lb ft at a slightly quieter 4500 rpm. Seat claims a top speed of just over 125 mph and 0-62 mph acceleration in 9.4 sec, which is plenty brisk enough for the UK’s largely overpopulated byways. The powered steering provides a reasonable degree of feel and accuracy, and there is good retardation from a quartet of discs (ventilated at the front), which are mated to a Teves ABS system. For a medium-sized, frontdrive saloon, the Toledo handles with admirable neutrality, the nose pushing gently wide until the throttle is closed, at which point it tucks back in. At normal speeds, it’s utterly predictable.

ABS apart, the range-topping GTi also incorporates electric windows, tilt and slide sunroof, electrically operated heated mirrors, alloy wheels, Philips stereo with extractable chassis (though speaker quality was suspect on the test car), central locking, height adjustable steering column, front fog lamps and trip computer within its £15,299 price tag. Options are few, a £500 catalytic converter topping the list. The Toledo also boasts a couple of useful features for the non-gadget minded, but which are none the less welcome, such as a capacious boot (19.42 cubic ft, stretching to 45.80 cubic feet with the rear seats folded) with low loading platform.

Seat quotes urban fuel consumption of 25.0 mpg on a diet of 98 RON super unleaded, rising to 42.8 mpg at a constant 56 mph. In a week which included conditions ranging from 30 minutes’ eye-contact with the same stretch of M4 arrnco to unfettered progress along Welsh A-roads, we returned a reasonably thrifty 31.3 mpg. The Toledo range has several cheaper options, ranging from the sub-£9000 1.6CL to the £13,508.66 two-litre, eight-valve GTi, and also includes a 1.9 diesel. It marks a quantum leap for Seat. Despite the obvious VW influence, the Spaniards have some way to go before they match German build standards, but this represents a pretty good effort. S A