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Mazda MX‑5 Mk3 – the car world's greatest misses

The MX‑5 had been a deserved hit, but with the third generation Mazda somehow missed the mark

Mazda MX5 mk3 miss

'A pale pastiche of the original Lotus Elan…’ ‘A hairdresser’s car…’ The Mk1 Mazda MX‑5 got a hard time from some quarters, but we’ve always admired Mazda for having the guts to build an affordable, front-engined, rear-drive sports car when the market had withered away to a few tarted-up, pensionable oldies. Mazda was up front about being inspired by the sublime 1960s Elan too and, honestly, what was there not to like about a roadster that was lightweight, fun to drive and as painless to own as a Mazda 323 (not very Lotus, granted). 

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The MX‑5 was a huge and deserved success, scooping many accolades, and the second-generation car, the ‘NB’, refined the idea a little, dropping the pop-up headlamps but adding a bit more power and a six-speed gearbox. Almost three-quarters of a million had been sold when in 2005 along came the third-generation car, the ‘NC’, a bold redesign with a much classier interior (to help it compete with the BMW Z4), a more powerful engine and an all-new, stiffer body with a sort of Doctor Who ‘Cyberman’ face. It weighed a mere 10kg more overall, which was impressive, but to drive it was awful.

Perhaps the clues were there. Take the launch venue: rather than go somewhere with wonderful roads such as northern Spain or north Wales, Mazda flew journalists to the tiny volcanic island of Hawaii in the Pacific, 2000 miles off the west coast of America. It’s like the Isle of Wight but with better weather, fewer roads – and a strictly enforced 55mph speed limit. 

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> Honda S2000 – the car world's greatest misses

Despite the limited driving opportunities, our correspondent, John Simister, quickly recognised that the NC MX‑5 was a stinker. For all the talk of it being inspired by the symbiosis of horse and rider, it drove like a horse and cart; the steering was sticky and inconsistent, the new 2-litre engine was flatter than a bypass hedgehog, and while the shift of the six-speed gearbox was still superb, its ratios seemed to have been chosen by a rogue algorithm. ‘Am I being over-purist?’ asked Simister before scoring it 3.5 out of 5. 

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eCoty 2005 would tell. Simi had driven a US-spec car; we in Europe were promised a punchier engine tune, better gearing and more polished steering. Promises, promises… Again, the clues were there. The car didn’t look right, jacked up so high you could count the spring coils, which we did, in passing, soon after we’d driven it, to check that the PDI hadn’t overlooked the removal of the transportation suspension packers. It had only 500 miles on the clock but, sadly, its engine got no sparkier over the week. The only place the MX‑5 felt OK was lapping Knockhill in the rain, but slithering around a racetrack is less about nuance and more about overall balance. 

It finished dead last. We wrote: ‘It might seem melodramatic to report the death of a much-loved sports car but that’s what it felt like… The MX‑5 has become just another car in the Mazda range. Better built, better equipped, but they’ve misplaced its soul.’ 

It did get better as the months and years passed, and happily the fourth-generation ‘ND’ MX‑5, launched in 2015 and still going strong, is once again an excellent, lightweight, front-engined, rear-drive sports car. So our advice is simple: if you want an MX‑5 that’s great to drive, shun the Cyberman and always buy an MX‑5 with a smile.

This story first featured in evo issue 318.

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