Ahead of its Goodwood debut, GRR gets a sneak first go of all-new MX-5 (and all its predecessors).
Mazda MX-5: take four. Yes, it’s the latest, brand spanking new, fourth-generation version of the world’s favourite two-seat roadster. And it makes its UK debut at the Festival of Speed at the weekend.
But is it up to the task? We know the new model looks great – a bit more aggression in the looks now, and a simple but effective fabric roof rather than all that convoluted electric folding metalwork of its direct predecessor. It’s actually smaller and lighter than it used to be too, and that gets our vote. As does a price starting at £18,500.
The big question though is: does it drive like it ought to? Some lucky souls will find that out for themselves on the hillclimb at FoS in a few days’ time, but GRR couldn’t wait – so we baggsied first go in one, both down at the circuit and around the country lanes where any MX-5 has always been in its element.
And just to keep it honest to all those MX-5 values that have defined roadster appeal for the past quarter of a century, we also got behind the wheel of a Mk1, a Mk2 and Mk3. Just to see how progress, MX-5 style, really stacks up…
The GRR verdict? If you love the Mk1, you will adore the new version. It’s a Mk1 with knobs on. And then some.
We started our driving with the daddy of them all. It’s a quarter of a century since this friendly little sports car with pop-up lights appeared, plugging a gap – nay, a yawning chasm – in the market that enthusiasts had been imploring the car makers to fill for years. The legacy of great British sports cars from Sprite to Elan, TR to MGB, was nowhere to be seen through most of the 1980s. Until 1989 (1990 in the UK) and the unexpected entrance of Mazda.
Mazda had done its sports car homework well, and from the snick-snick of the gears to the burble of the exhaust, the 50:50 weight distribution and the perfect (non power-assisted) steering, this resolutely rear-wheel drive car won hearts from the day it was launched.
And continued to, for the MX-5 didn’t leak, smell of petrol, break down or rust away like some of its British antecedents!
And today? The Mk1 is still a total delight to drive. With 115bhp it’s certainly no rocketship but when driver engagement is so complete the numbers on the speedo are of little consequence. There’s response, precision and feel from a time before electric steering, stability control and by-wire throttles, and the car is all the better for it. The gears still snick home and the handling is as beautifully balanced and adjustable as it always was.
As a real ‘seat of the pants’ car it’s still the perfect machine in which to hone your oversteer technique, but, handily in view of that, it feels just as trustworthy as it did 25 years ago. An absolute gem.
Mk2 and Mk3 did their best to keep the flame alive, and they certainly succeeded on the sales front: they collectively have taken the MX-5 production total to almost a million. But was some sporting purpose sacrificed on the altar of lifestyle? Perhaps. The Mk2, for example, was the first MX-5 with with cupholders. Four of them. In a two-seater?
With 130bhp the Mk2 – no more pop-up lights, boot lid spoiler, power steering, white-faced dials, and all those cupholders – is brisker but not as well resolved to drive. Less feel, less chassis balance and, judging from the example we drove on a wet Goodwood circuit, more sudden oversteer. Perhaps most disappointing of all, though, is the driving position: the seat’s too high and the wheel’s too low. And there’s not as much legroom as the first MX-5. You put on a Mk1, but you feel perched in the Mk2.
And the Mk3? Well, no MX-5 is what you could call spacious, but this one’s cramped, with taller drivers having to jam knees against the dash.
But the Mk3 did come with all manner of bells and whistles including an electric folding hard-top. Inevitably this lightweight two-seater wasn’t all that light anymore, at 1100kg or more (the new model in 1.5-litre form is back under a tonne). And on the circuit? With 165bhp the 2.0-litre Mk3 is quick enough but, after the Mk1, comes across more as cruiser than sports car. It’s still fast to change direction and obviously rear-drive, but it understeers more. We also found the engine very boomy.
Mind you, the all-new MX-5’s engine noise is not perfect. There’s no turbo here (Mazda’s take on efficiency is called SkyActiv and is refreshingly normally-aspirated) and no there’s no shortage of revs: red line is 7500rpm. It’s just that the exhaust could be… well, a touch fruitier. The good news is that after our drive on circuit and Sussex lanes, that’s the only criticism we’d make.
The new car’s driving position is back to its glorious best. There’s more legroom here than in any of the others, and an excellent footwell with perfectly sized and spaced pedals. The seats are the best yet. And yes, the gears still snick home with the stubby lever just a a handspan away from the chunky steering wheel, framing beautifully clear dials and overall ergonomics that we found completely beyond reproach. Once again here’s an MX-5 that you put on, and that’s a very familiar and welcome feeling.
But of course this is no old car. It bristles with high technology and, if you want them, driver aids by the bucketload. Even the steering is electric these days. Doesn’t all that take the edge off the ‘pure’ MX-5 driving experience? Inevitably the steering and engine response aren’t quite as whip-crack as the Mk1. But…
It is uncanny how this 21st century roadster has recaptured the essence of its forebear of 25 years ago with such authenticity and so few compromises. This is a sports car, no question: agile, light on its feet, neat and tidy (and, a bonus, super-smooth riding) on bumpy B-roads but also gloriously oversteery and predictable when the road opens up. Totally immersive stuff.
And all that was just the 131bhp model (there’s also a 2.0-litre with 163) which, to be frank, is probably all you need for top-down driving.
And the hood? A masterpiece of both design and execution. You can have it up and down in five seconds with one hand, without leaving the driver’s seat. And yet on the move at speed you have to double-take to see you’re not driving a coupé.
Everything considered, that’s a thumbs up from us. This car is going to be a serious hit, and with people who love driving. Mazda has never lost the MX-5 plot in the past quarter century, but it has been diverted. The way it has recaptured the spirit of the original with this new model is special indeed.