It’s difficult not to like the MX-5; near impossible if you’ve actually driven one. For the price of a humble family car you get a dedicated rear-wheel drive sports car and a constant reminder that grip and go doesn’t always equal grins.
And that’s proved a popular proposition. Almost a million have been sold since Mazda unveiled the first at the 1989 Tokyo motor show, making it by the far the most popular sports car of all time. Through three generations it grew faster, but also fatter. Now, for its fourth iteration, Mazda says it has gone back, if not to basics, then to the purity of the original.
What that means is the new car is not only shorter than even that first MX-5, but very nearly as light, despite packing in 25 years of progress in safety and creature comforts. Reducing the overall length to less than 4m helped cleave 100kg from the outgoing car’s kerb weight, as did increasing the aluminium content to include the wings and front suspension uprights. Mazda claims a kerb weight of 1000kg. Of cars not resembling something built out of Meccano and a dead Sierra, only the Lotus Elise and Alfa 4C are lighter.
The new MX-5 hits UK showrooms in late summer but we’ve joined a select group invited to try the car early on some twisty road above Barcelona. We won’t get to drive the faster 2.0-litre version with its 155bhp today, but Nobuhiro Yamamoto, the MX-5’s programme manager, and coincidentally the man responsible for the rotary engine in the legendary Le Mans winning 787B, tells us not to worry. In his view the car we’re driving today – base 129bhp 1.5 engine, optional limited slip diff – is the purest embodiment of the MX-5.
To whet my appetite, the Mazda guys thrust me into an original MK1 MX-5 for a brief squirt. I haven’t driven once for 20 years and think I chortled even more this time around. But the new one proudly shows where the progress has been made. The structure feels hugely stiffer, and the driving position dramatically better. For the first time in an MX-5, you feel like you’re sitting in, and not on, the seat. Pulling back the A-pillars has improved visibility, and the interior quality has clearly been given a huge shot in the arm too. Drivers who’ve specified sat nav get a dashtop screen that seems to share its software with the new Jag XE saloon, while all get to watch the revs rise on a huge central tacho ahead of the pleasantly thin-rimmed steering wheel.
I thumb the new starter button then reach for the sole roof catch on the header rail. Seems quite a novelty doing it by hand these days, but it’s no chore. The roof mechanism is incredibly light, and the seats have been designed to make it easy to twist round, meaning you can snatch roof-down moments in even the worst British winters. A folding hardtop version will follow, once again, storing neatly behind the seats without pinching valuable boot space (still of the squashy bag variety, incidentally, but ample for a weekend away), but I’d be wringing my hands with guilt at the thought of those unnecessary added kilos.
Barcelona is famed for its architecture, but the hillside roads behind the city are rather artfully drawn too, perfect for investigating the perfect 50:50 weight distribution Mazda realised by shifting the engine 15mm back in the chassis. The first corner is an eye-opener: I nudge the three-spoke wheel and the nose dives to the apex like the engine is mounted behind me, not in front. The last car was never this lively.
And its base 1.8 never felt as eager as this new 1.5. Borrowed from the latest Mazda 3, but retuned to deliver a more distinctively sporty feel and harder-edged soundtrack, it never feels what you’d call fast (reckon on sub-9 to 62mph, figures TBC), but it’s quick enough, you can paste it past 7000rpm all day long without getting into trouble, and there’s enough torque to let you bumble along when you’re not in the mood. And if Mazda meets its 139g/km CO2 target, it should be good for almost 50mpg.
It’s tempting to thrash the thing mercilessly on twisty road, but overdriving it is actually less fun, highlighting the 195mm tyres’ modest grip and relatively soft, long-travel suspension. Dial the pace back just a fraction and it works much better, my only gripe being a desire for some more texture to the responsive, but very light steering. Dry road traction is far more than the little 1.5 can hope to overcome, but thrown in some nice greasy winter bends and you’ve got the perfect L-plate drift machine.
The first MX-5 was a simple homage to great affordable Europeans sports cars of the past, but went on to inspire an entirely new generation, including the MGF and Fiat Barchetta. But where are they now? The most basic of BMW Z4s is closer to thirty grand than the MX-5’s twenty, and nowhere near as much fun to drive. This is a properly relevant sports car, smart in concept and execution, as fun on Monday as on Sunday, and a worthy next chapter in the MX-5 story.