Mazda MX-5

Henry Catchpole
23 Jun 2009

The MX-5 is 20 years old this year, and the latest Mk3 is a welcome return to form. But is it as much fun as an original?

Like paint and Dettol, the aroma of a hot clutch is one of those smells that seems to loiter in your nostrils. As the heavily laden Peugeot estate in front labours up the 30 per cent incline, it hangs thick in the afternoon air wafting over the top of the windscreen into the MX-5’s cockpit. Meanwhile the mk1 that’s following behind chirrups its way round another hairpin, inside wheel calling out its lack of a limited slip diff.

A French estate filled with the paraphernalia of a doomed Easter camping trip (including children) is not the ideal means to tackle the Wrynose and Hardknott passes. In fact not many cars are truly suited to this wondrous piece of road. Many are capable (including, eventually, the overladen 407) but few are actually enjoyable. The road is narrower than an Alaskan Senator’s world view, so anything that struggles in a normal parking space (ie most modern hatchbacks) feels slightly too big. A Lambo simply wouldn’t fit. The Lakeland tarmac is bumpy too. Bumpy enough that speed has to be tempered considerably for the sake of splitters and sumps. Try to reach the national speed limit and in most stretches all you’ll achieve is the sound of graunching metal or plastic, the road grazing your car as wincingly as it did your knee when you were a child.

All of which was a bit worrying when we turned up here. The last time I came this way I had my nose pressed against the glass of the back window of a car during the school holidays. The awe-inspiring fairytale scenery of the place obviously made an impression that meant I was drawn back. However, I was now seeking out a road that my memory had transformed into two perfect natural hillclimbs. The reality is a road that is the steepest in Britain (the Hardknott) and potentially a nightmare to drive.

But as luck would have it (and I assure you it is luck) we have brought the perfect cars here. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Mazda MX-5 and we could think of no better way to celebrate than by bringing together the original and the latest incarnations of the little roadster. It helps that the recently face-lifted mk3 (already dubbed 3.5) sees a return to form after an inexplicable blip.

The MX-5 was designed to invoke the joy of motoring in its simplest and most uncomplicated form. It sought to recapture what people remembered motoring being like: freedom and fun, deserted roads, the carefree attitudes of the 1960s, Spitfires and Midgets. Mazda wanted to take all that and then rose-tint it with reliability.

The result was the mk1 MX-5 (or Eunos in Japan and Miata stateside). With its 1.6-litre in-line four designed to look like a Lotus twin-cam and sound like an MGB (though people forget that it also went into a 323 saloon) the little roadster would reach 60mph in a leisurely sounding 9.0sec. Twenty years later and the new 2.0i Sport has brought that down to 7.6, but as we’re about to be reminded, 0-60 has never been what the MX-5 is all about.

The road is well-sighted (as well as well-sited) so you can see all the meanderings ahead as they follow the course of the river along the valley floor. Both the Momo in the mk1 and the own-brand multifunction item in the mk3 seem slightly big for such small cars, but whichever one you’re behind it gives you all the accuracy you need to thread the car inch-perfectly through the bumps and yumps of the bends. The newer car has the more instant reactions, allowing you dart one way then the other through a sequence of turns. Keep the engine buzzing (which unfortunately is still about as appealing a sound as it makes) and you can feel the rear end almost gliding along behind you, swishing left then right as it follows the grippy front. On more open roads you can really throw the front of the 2.0 into a corner early, working the rear so that you’re pointing up the road by the time you’ve reached the apex.

The red car feels surprisingly familiar after the blue one. According to owner Peter Esders (a man who would probably say ‘Mazda MX-5’ if John Humphrys were ever to ask him for his specialist subject) the only part that is common to all three series is the side indicator repeaters. However, the layout of the dials, the position of the switchgear, the easy one-handed operation of the roof and the general intimacy are all identical despite being two decades apart. Even the very tight gearshift seems the same as it positively releases from one ratio then equally positively slots into the next across the short gate. If only Mazda could have kept the pop-up headlights…

The mk1 feels slow to react after driving the mk3 – a little more roll to be overcome, a little more sidewall to be squidged. But this is part of the magic, because where it takes slightly longer to turn and lean into a corner it also spends longer actually in the process of cornering and whilst it’s pressing on its outside tyres you can adjust its attitude gracefully and in an extended fashion. A corner in the grippy mk3 seems to last the length of a short YouTube clip, whereas in the mk1 it lasts the length of a director’s cut feature film. String several corners together and the mk1 flows continuously as it delicately transfers its 970kg from left to right, almost giving you enough time to shift and reposition yourself in the narrow seat as it changes direction. There isn’t really the power to work the rear tyres very hard (unless it’s wet) yet still all four are involved as the balance reacts to lifts of the throttle or dabs of the brake or changes in lock.

In many ways it feels like the differences between new and old are simply wrought by the growth in wheel and tyre diameters over the years. The little 14in Minilite-alikes, wearing 185/60 Pirelli P6000s on this car, are dwarfed by the spidery 17-inchers clothed in 205/45 Bridgestone Potenzas. The relief is that despite the bigger rims the new car deals with bumps as well as the original. It never once thumps or jolts during our day on the passes and although it doesn’t quite float over the road like the older car, neither does it feel quite so bendy in its chassis!

As we crest the top of the Wrynose Pass heading back towards Little Langdale, the road drops away again and momentarily there seems to be nothing at the end of the bonnet other than clouds scudding in the strong breeze. Then the rollercoaster dives down and twists out ahead. When you’re heading down a steep hill, gravity instils a strong temptation to use the brakes more than you actually need to. But despite the freewheeling feeling of falling there is still grip to be had and if you’re brave enough to hold your right foot back from the middle pedal it’s an exhilarating rush downhill, threading and sweeping through the rocks faster than feels natural.

It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we didn’t top 50mph all day in the MX-5s – the road simply wouldn’t allow it. And that may sound boring. But it wasn’t, and that’s the magic of the little Mazda. Speed is not the answer. We all get seduced by impressive numbers, and as we’ve shown elsewhere in this issue those numbers can be breathtakingly exciting. But the most gobsmacking bhps and 0-60s would have been useless and frustrating on this fantastic piece of road.

What was required was poise, a small footprint and not a lot else. In a world where authorities seem to want to strangle the speed of cars more and more, it’s a philosophy that will become ever more relevant and one that we should embrace. If we do, with luck we’ll be holding up a mk6 MX-5 as a beacon for driving in another 20 years.


  MX-5 Mk1 MX-5 Mk3.5
Engine     4-cyl in-line 4-cyl in-line
Location     Front, longitudinal Front, longitudinal
Displacement     1597cc 1999cc
Bore x stroke     78.0 x 83.6mm 87.5 x 83.1mm
Cylinder block     Cast iron Aluminium alloy
Cylinder head     Aluminium alloy, dohc, four valves per cylinder Aluminium alloy, dohc, four valves per cylinder
Fuel and ignition     Electronic engine management, and fuel injection Electronic engine management, multipoint injection
Max power     115bhp @ 6500rpm 158bhp @ 6700rpm
Max torque     100lb ft @ 5500rpm 139lb ft @ 5000rpm
Transmission     Five-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive Six-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive, lsd
Front suspension     Double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar Double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension     Double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar     Multi-link, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes     Ventilated discs front, solid discs rear 290mm ventilated discs front, 280mm solid discs rear, ABS, EBD
Steering     Rack and pinion, power assisted Rack and pinion, power assisted
Wheels     14in aluminium alloy front and rear 17in aluminium alloy front and rear
Tyres     185/60 x R14 Dunlop D89 (OE) front and rear 205/45 x ZR19 Bridgestone Potenzas front and rear
Weight (kerb)     971kg 1165kg
Power-to-weight    120bhp/ton 138bhp/ton
0-60mph    9.0sec 7.5sec (claimed)
Max speed     114mph 132mph (claimed)
Basic price     £14,249 (1989) £19,690
On sale     1989-1997 Now
Evo rating 3.5/5 4.5/5

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