Small… but perfectly formed | by Andrew Frankel
In one respect it is almost nothing, the tiniest of details most owners might never notice. In another, it is everything. Sit in the new Mazda MX-5 and allow your feet to find their natural resting place. Then place the left side of your right foot on the brake pedal and depress as if braking hard for a corner. As you do, articulate your ankle to the right and feel the throttle pedal waiting to greet the hitherto redundant right hand side of your foot. In laboratories, on test tracks and public roads all over Japan, engineers will have spent hundreds, possibly thousands of hours, agonising over the precise relationship between these two pedals, and how to offer the easiest heel-and-toe downshifts. And I kid you not, their solution is better by far than Porsche’s. If ever you wanted to prove that all Mazda has said about the new MX-5 recapturing the spirit of the original is not just marketing guff, there is no evidence more compelling than that lying in its footwell.
The original MX-5. When we first heard about it back in the 1980s many hacks like me were sniffy about this Japanese Lotus Elan rip-off. Why could they not have a good idea of their own, rather than appropriating one of ours and, presumably, making a pig’s breakfast out of it? But then I drove one and thought again. It wasn’t a rip-off, but a homage to the Elan, except it was properly built and would go 100,000 miles or more without anything falling off. It was the least intimidating sports car you could buy, but in its sublime balance, whip-crack gearshift, steering feel and endlessly enthusiastic motor lay more than enough talent to keep professional pedallers endlessly amused. You can tell how good it was by the reaction of other car manufacturers: a few tried to follow its lead (remember the Fiat Barchetta and most recent Toyota MR2?) but most ran and hid, knowing that whatever they did, they could do it no better than this. It has been on sale here for 25 years – and without a single credible rival for the majority of them.
Even Mazda struggled, neither of the two generations of MX-5 quite capturing the essential magic of the original, good cars though both undoubtedly were. They were more comfortable but felt less taut, less alive than their forebear.
It seems strange, doesn’t it, that Mazda is still trying to get back to a place it occupied a quarter of a century ago. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Since then the customer has demanded airbags, hefty crash structures, myriad electronic safety systems, more rubber, bigger wheels, larger brakes, better quality materials and ever more equipment, which together and if left unchecked would add hundreds of kilo grammes to the car’s weight, every single one of which makes it more cumbersome and less rewarding to drive.
Back in 1990, the first MX-5 I drove weighed in at 949kg, and on that basis, you might expect the current car to weigh about 1200kg, a mass that even with the base 1.5-litre would still allow a better power-to-weight ratio than the 1.6-litre motor in the original. In fact it weighs just 975kg with air-conditioning, air bags and all the accoutrements required by the 21st century punter. That is a staggering achievement. What’s more, by investing in aluminium crash structures front and rear and reversing and lowering the engine, Mazda has not only achieved equal front to rear weight distribution, but polarised that weight around the middle of the car.
So it really doesn’t need huge power. The car I drove had a little 1.5-litre motor offering just 129bhp, which still provides a far better power-to-weight ratio than, say, a new Mini Cooper. In this regard, the 158bhp 2-litre version beats the Lotus Elise too.
Driving it reminded me why I fell in love with cars in the first place. It is a 1960s sports car built with the benefit of half a century’s hindsight. First, it fits snugly enough to feel like you’re wearing it. The driving position is not perfect because there’s not quite enough rearward seat travel and no reach adjustment for the steering, but as you rest your left arm on the transmission tunnel, grip the thick wheel and place your feet on those perfect pedals, it feels intimate in a way the fastest, most expensive hot hatch of all could not hope to emulate.
The dials are simple, clean and clear and all other functions from navigation to the radio are displayed on a colour screen in the centre of the car. Heaven be praised, there’s even a normal handbrake.
The engine sounds like the eager twin-cam unit it is. Even today I’d expect a 1.5-litre engine with almost 130bhp to be peaky, but it’s not at all. It pulls sufficiently strongly from low revs for me briefly to wonder if they’d actually slipped me a 2-litre by mistake, and it’s still pulling when it gently collides with its limiter at 7500rpm. The gearbox is better still. If you don’t drive old cars regularly, you may have forgotten there was a time when changing gear felt exactly as described: as you pushed or pulled the lever, you were aware of a mechanical process, of cogs being released and engaged. In the MX-5 you are again.
You may also have forgotten what a sub-tonne car feels like. You notice first how little it needs to be slowed for corners, how effortlessly it carries speed, particularly in the wet. The brakes are brilliant because they have so little work to do, but actually you need rarely do much more than brush the perfectly weighted pedal on a good road.
If anything I think it might actually have a touch too much grip, even from its very modestly proportioned 195/50 section, 16in wheels. There is little or no understeer but when the limit arrives the lateral glide of the car’s tail is so gentle, linear and easily judged you never find yourself grasping at armfuls of opposite lock, just unwinding the steering a touch. If that steering had a little more feel to it, I would struggle to criticise the dynamics of this car, probably resorting to the fact that the gear ratios while adequately close, are just too high.
The only reason a car with a top speed of 127mph will do 85mph with half its gears still to go is to try to fool the official test from which fuel consumption and CO2 figures are deduced. They have nothing to do with real world consumption and even less with driving.
But that’s about it. Make no mistake, the new MX-5 is a true joy to drive, a car that reminds us all that fast and fun are only distantly related and that light weight trumps big power every single time. Mazda might only be back where it started 25 years ago, but to get there now is far harder than it was then and I applaud its engineers for their vision and determination. The MX-5’s success will not come courtesy of lightning performance figures, a swanky badge or plush interior for it has none of those things: for once, just being bloody good to drive will be enough.
Mazda MX-5 1.5 Sport
Engine: 1.5 litres, 4 cylinders
Power: [email protected]
Torque: 111b [email protected]
Transmission: six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power to Weight: 132bhp per tonne
Top speed: 127mph