The Mazda MX-5.
If you’re a car enthusiast, you must respect it. That’s just how it is, and don’t blame me because I didn’t make the rules. It’s the best selling 2-seat convertible car in the Universe. I’m confident that the last statement is true, because even if there is life on other planets the chances are very slim that they would stumble onto a design as brilliantly successful as the MX-5 has been.
As we speak, Mazda is closing in on the number 1,000,000. That’s how many MX-5s they have — nearly — built since it was introduced in 1989. Which is quite astonishing if you consider the low profile this car has. It just kind of flies under the radar, it’s almost invisible most of the time. And whenever it’s not invisible, first impressions are often not too kind. For people who aren’t into cars, the MX-5 looks like a car their hairdresser might drive. It’s not particularly «macho» looking in the same way that a Hobbit wouldn’t be a good choice as a bouncer at a night club. I may even have consulted our lawyers to make sure publishing an MX-5 article doesn’t violate some of the laws of the Russian Federation.
The MX-5 is basically a small convertible car with a small engine and it looks like it would still live with its mother well into its 40s. It doesn’t sound too brilliant if I put it like that I suppose, yet somehow they sold nearly a million of the things and even serious people who drive serious cars still respect it. So why’s that then? In one word: driving. This is a car made for people who simply love to drive. It doesn’t have a million horsepower or 20 inch wheels, and it won’t hold too many suitcases in the back, but on a small twisty road it’s the automotive equivalent of a pair of running shoes. They’re wrapped tightly around your feet and you’ve got to do most of the work yourself.
Mazda MX-5. Layout which works.
It’s a simple recipe for a simple car: engine at the front, manual gearbox in the middle, rear wheel drive. But as simple as it might be it really doesn’t have much in the way of competition. Somehow no other car manufacturer ever really managed to build their own MX-5 beater. In truth, Mazda probably borrowed the idea for this car as much as anyone ever has borrowed an idea. The MX-5 was more than a little inspired by the Lotus Elan. They took that concept and simply fixed the flaws. They made a Lotus Elan which not only worked when you wanted it to — something no British built sportscar could manage in the 1980s — but it was also pretty cheap so everyone could have one.
At this point I’ll ask you to forgive me for writing four paragraphs worth of introduction, but the real news is that there’s a new MX-5. The fourth generation is upon us, and I suppose every time a car like this gets reinvented from the ground up we’re really just checking if they’ve managed to screw it all up. That’s it really. Whenever you open a car magazine and there’s a new BMW M3 or a new Golf GTI there are only two possible outcomes for the article. Either the manufacturer has lost the plot and ruined the car we loved or they’ve blown our minds by somehow making it even more fantastic in ways we could not imagine beforehand. Anyone who tries to be in the middle of those two options is just stretching himself to not upset the kind people who let him drive their newest car. The reality of cars is black and white more often than not. So I’ll skip the small talk and let you know what colour it is right away.
It’s white. Or if your favourite colour is black, then it’s black. Not that either of these are actually colours come to think of it, but you get my point. The new MX-5 is as good as any MX-5 before it.
The base engine is only 1.5 liters in size and lacks any kind of turbo or supercharger. It produces about 130 horsepower which is just about enough to have fun with. You have to keep in mind that this is one very light car, so the power to weight ratio isn’t as terrible as it sounds. Still, you’re not going to be winning many races at the red light. Not unless you get into an ill advised duel with a tram or other forms of public transport.
The real benefit of fitting such a minuscule engine to the front of the car is that it’s very light. Which means the car handles like an actual go-kart around tight corners. I know we often use the go-kart cliche but this might be the only mass produced car in the world where it’s actually true. Weight is the enemy of cornering speed and car handling, and this is a car which makes a Mini Cooper S look fat. You can put two pretty heavy people in the MX-5 before it weighs as much as an empty Mini!
If you want more power at the expense of a few kilograms more, you can still get the 2-liter 160 horsepower engine as well. Again, 160 horsepower doesn’t sound like much these days, but in a straight line this car really has no trouble staying with a Toyota GT86 which gets 200 horsepower out of its 2-liter 4-cylinder boxer engine. But the GT86 is purposefully built with reduced grip to be more «lively» with the limited amount of power available. The MX-5 by contrast just wants to grip. It hooks into the road like a small kitten hooks into your brand new sweater. It’s a very popular car for track racing as a result. And because the cars are pretty cheap, the racing is often absolutely mental and great to watch. Even in the virtual world, whenever I feel like racing in a safe online environment I fire up iRacing where you can race the MX-5 against people from around the world.
But let’s take a moment to look at the new MX-5. What is immediately obvious is that the car isn’t as «smiley» as it used to be. Remember, the previous model seemed to be in a state of constant happiness whenever you looked at it which could be a bit weird sometimes. When someone smiles at you literally all the time you start wondering what’s in those vitamin pills. Apparently Mazda also figured the car could use a more serious look and went for rather angry looking headlights whilst keeping the smiley mouth grille. I’m not sure it’s an improvement per se, but the MX-5 was never a bad looking car and I don’t think this one is either.
The previous MX-5 might have been a bit too cheerful sometimes to drive to work on a Monday morning.
The new MX-5 has a slightly more serious looking personality.
Of course it’s never going to compete with something like a Porsche Boxster, but it’s not supposed to either as you can buy several MX-5s for that kind of money. Sometimes, less can be more. Though that hasn’t stopped people from fitting turbochargers, superchagers and even huge V8 engines to their MX-5 over the years. YouTube probably has more videos of tuned MX-5s on it than Justin Bieber has Twitter followers. So there is still some justice in the world. Like I said earlier, it’s just impossible to hate the MX-5 as a car enthusiast. Fair play to Mazda for making them. I honestly can’t say that I feel inclined to actually buy an MX-5 myself, but I would never turn down a drive in one.
Yes, you can put a Corvette engine in your MX-5 if you like. But you'll void the warranty.
The fact is that most people probably don’t even know what it means for a car to offer a pure driving experience. But the good news here is that money can buy it, and you don’t even need very much.