We have the Americans to thank for the world’s best-selling two-seater sports car, the Mazda MX-5. It was their enduring passion for the concept of the classic English roadster that persuaded Mazda to update the formula, critically adding reliability to the mix. The company regarded it as a bit of a gamble at the time, but as the MX-5 celebrates its 30th anniversary and combined sales of its four generations top 1.2 million, it was obviously worth the risk.
What made the original MX-5 an instant winner when it was launched at the Chicago Auto Show in 1989 was the fact that Mazda got every element right. Its styling evoked the past but wasn’t a slave to it, and has since proven timeless. The detail touches are superb. Chromed finger-pull door handles. Teardrop door mirrors. Alloy wheels that perfectly suit the car. Pop-up headlights: who doesn’t love those?
The attention to detail continues under the bonnet – the camshafts’ cover is styled to ape that of the Lotus Elan, a further example of how the designers wanted everything just-so. The interior is basic yet not Spartan, and the early UK cars boasted electric windows and a Momo leather steering wheel, but no clock. The cabin is cosy but comfortable, and with judicious packing you can stuff a reasonable amount of clobber in the boot. And once you’ve unzipped the plastic rear screen, the hood can be flicked back one-handed.
What seals the deal for the MX-5 Mk1 (also referred to as the NA, Mazda’s internal code for the car) is that it’s a cracking good drive and remains as much so today as it did 30 years ago. At less than a tonne it’s light, which always helps, rear-wheel drive, which makes it entertaining, and it possesses quick, precise steering. And even though the 1.6-litre engine has a puny 114bhp, that’s enough in a car so nimble and thrilling. (The later 1.8-litre produced 128bhp.) The Mk1’s other great talent is feeling joyously spirited at low speeds, whilst also being composed and rewarding – and really quite quick – in the hands of experienced drivers.
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MORE OF THE SAME: THE MK2 MX-5 ARRIVES
We’ve detailed the core strengths of the Mk1 because they’re the fundamental building blocks of the subsequent three generations. At least, their dynamics and soul. The Mk2, or NB, debuted in 1997, and its underpinnings – chassis and engines – are updated versions of those of its predecessor. Unsurprisingly the driving experience is familiar but, thanks in part to a stiffer bodyshell, it feels more sophisticated and is faster point-to-point.
But with that refinement comes a sense that the original’s edge has been lost, a few degrees of driver involvement and purity. On the other hand, the Mk2 is more amiable on long journeys, with scant sacrifice in fun. It doesn’t look as charming as the Mk1, though, the pop-up headlights victims of safety legislation, the cutesy door handles ditched, and the overall styling evolved but not in an entirely successful manner.
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BRING ON THE MK3 MX-5 – OR PERHAPS NOT?
When the Mk3 (ND) was launched in 2005 there was outcry from the MX-5 faithful – it was wider, longer, heavier, plusher. A betrayal of the aforementioned core values. Mazda argued it was what buyers wanted, a roomier, more modern MX-5. Fans snapped back that despite more powerful engines (a 124bhp 1.8 and 148bhp 2.0), some of the car’s joie de vivre had gone walkabout.
Actually, it’s not so much a lack of sparkle from the engines that’s the issue with early Mk3s, it’s woolly steering that steals the immediacy from the handling. Facelifted models from 2009 onwards sorted out the chassis deficiencies and brought extra zip to the 2.0-litre engine – if you’re on the hunt for a sports car that gives the full MX-5 experience yet feels contemporary in terms of convenience (central locking, good air-conditioning, decent headlights, and on some versions a retractable metal roof), then these later Mk3s are the ones to look for.
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MX-5 Mk4: THE BEST YET?
The Mk4, the current MX-5, demonstrates the importance Mazda places on its popular little roadster in attracting attention to the brand as a whole. It’s even more compact than the original and almost as light despite a plethora of safety-related equipment. Its Skyactiv engines – a 1.5 and a 2.0-litre, the latter recently uprated to 181bhp – are refined and lovers of high revs, in true sports car fashion. They’re superbly economical, too: even when driven hard you’d be unlucky to see less than 40mpg. And the chassis is so flickable, so responsive to steering inputs, that you’re having a ball whatever the road, whatever the speed.
Downsides? The cabin is on the tight side for taller and bulkier folk, and the boot is bijou, but sometimes that’s the price you pay for an outstanding driving experience.
Three decades on from the MX-5’s rapturous arrival onto the world sports car scene, Mazda is clearly taking great care of its baby’s legacy. A limited edition 30th Anniversary model hits UK roads in the summer, bright orange in colour and packed with desirable goodies: if you fancy one, don’t hang about…
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