For those of us who spend a wholly unrealistic amount of our lives charging around in hugely powerful cars, there is no reality check more effective than a new Mazda MX-5.
It had been a while, years maybe since I’d last driven one on the road and this all new version, smaller, simpler, lighter and stiffer than that it replaces, promised to recapture the magic of the original which first came to the UK 25 years ago.
It doesn’t seem that long. I can remember as if it were last week driving that little red roadster and being absolutely dumbfounded by it. Around the same time Honda had redefined the supercar with the NSX, Toyota had done the same to luxury cars with the Lexus LS400 and Nissan to shopping cars with its new Micra. Then Mazda came along with the MX-5 and final proof if ever it were needed that Japan’s car industry was going to take over the world.
Except it didn’t happen. The NSX failed, the LS400 remains the best saloon Lexus ever launched and as for the Micra, well if you’ve not driven the latest I’d strongly recommend leaving it that way. The MX-5, however, endured.
From the archive: Motor Sport reacts to the original MX-5 (1990)
In fact it did more than that. Through what is now four successive generations it has thrived far beyond even Mazda’s expectations. Some cars are so good that when they appear an entire class of car springs up around them as rivals desperately try to follow the lead, but just a few are so exceptional they actually scare the opposition away, and the MX-5 is such a car. There have been a few attempts to steal its thunder, such as the most recent Toyota MR2 and Fiat Barchetta, but mostly it has existed in a class of one. Even the mighty VW recently canned its own roadster presumably because the chances of actually out-MX-5ing the MX-5 were negligible.
And the bad news for anyone still seeking a slice of its action is that job just got a whole lot harder.
I got up at dawn to drive it because, at this time of year, why wouldn’t you? If you live anywhere near decent roads, you can have more fun in two hours than a month or more squirting between clumps of traffic during office hours. It’s safer too because you don’t have to overtake anyone. I took the Mazda to the mountains because I felt it deserves that kind of examination. These are the roads I have recently visited in McLarens and Ferraris and now I was returning in the less powerful of the two MX-5s that will be sold, with a humble little 1.5-litre four under its bonnet.
Those expecting me now to say it was as much fun as a supercar on such roads should be prepared to be disappointed, not least because when you’re charging up a steep hill, 600bhp will trump 128bhp every time. But it was still superb, better than any other MX-5 I’ve driven, almost certainly including the original and as stark a reminder as you’ll ever find that fast and fun are but distant relatives.
Certainly you’d need a Porsche Cayman before you’d encounter a better gearshift and a Toyota GT86 if you wished to experience better inherent balance. There are sporting BMWs that are nothing like as well damped as this and if you want a chassis with more seat of the pants feel than this, you’d better buy a Lotus because nothing in mainstream mass production comes close.
Indeed, when you drive the MX-5 it is a Lotus it feels like most, but not a new Elise, but an original Elan, the car the first MX-5 was accused of ripping off 25 years ago. Like the Elan it is narrow, softly sprung and by the standards of the day, exceptionally light. Unlike the Elan, the MX-5 is superbly built, perfectly civilised with the roof up (it can be raised or lowered in less than 10sec without even getting out of the driver’s seat) and will I have no doubt do 100,000 miles without a significant failure.
If a car has a bespoke design, is light, rear-wheel drive, has perfect weight distribution, independent suspension at every corner and is properly engineered, it will provide a purity of driving experience no imbalanced, front-drive, beam-axled hatch could ever approach. Yet the MX-5 has all that and can be bought for the same money as a mid-spec Ford Fiesta ST. This is world class engineering, impeccable clarity of vision and unalloyed passion for driving wrapped up in an attractive and, above all, affordable package. It will succeed outrageously, and deserve to from one end to the other.