Great idea, the Mazda MX-5. Launched in 1989, with the third generation appearing four years ago, it’s the world’s most popular two-seat sports car of traditional front-engine, rear-wheel drive, mechanical layout and accessible price. In fact, it’s the only one left in a world once full of open MGs and Triumphs, unless you include expensive Germans or the soon-to-be-axed Honda S2000.
Car-nuts and sun-worshippers alike have loved the MX-5 for years. Early ones, the cars that most resembled the original Lotus Elan from which the design inspiration came, are neo-classics. Mid-period ones lost the taut looks but were better to drive. And the third generation? That’s where it went off the rails.
It got back the crisp looks, and it weighed barely more than its immediate predecessor, despite being slightly roomier and much stiffer of structure. But the steering lost its precise, mechanical, intuitive feel, the engine lost its crisp-edged, smooth-revving energy, and the MX-5 lost its point. To those who love sports cars for the driving experience, anyway.
Now, Mazda has refreshed the MX-5. It has finally lost the Lotus-like front air intake to a bigger aperture with the Mazda-obligatory “five corners”. The posher Roadster Coupé version, with electrically retractable hard top, even gets a chrome rim around the intake.
It also gets new soundproofing in the form of foam filling for the front suspension crossmember and the hollow piece at the front of the roof. I hope it works, because the last RC I drove was a noisy, boomy thing. It does. Sound levels are now normal and consistent. But other good things have happened, too. Very good things. The engineers have clearly listened to the criticisms and they have acted on every one.
The first thing you notice is how the MX-5 now steers. It’s back to how an MX-5 should be, with the sort of steering that draws you into the whole process of aiming joyfully along curvy roads. In place of rubberiness, stickiness, initial uncertainty and then a springy lunge into the corner is a smooth, flowing response which tallies exactly with your intentions.
The engineers achieved this by altering the front suspension’s geometry, so the imaginary point about which the car pivots as it leans into a corner is now 26mm lower. This reduces the transient loading on the outside front wheel by allowing more of the Mazda’s mass to move gradually against the springs, so the way the steering effort increases with cornering force is more proportional. Trust me, it works. Previously you would fight with the MX-5, trying to second-guess the steering while making sure you didn’t slip over the dynamic knife-edge and send the tail a-sliding. Now you can feel what is happening, and the sensation is as good a thrill as any act of physical, sporting co-ordination.
The engines are sweeter, too, thanks to some re-engineering and strengthening of vital parts. If you have the top 2.0-litre version with 160bhp, now reached at 7,000rpm, and combine it with the Sport specification, you get a six-speed gearbox and an extra sound duct which transmits intake noise to the dashboard and windscreen frame. So you get a racy sound without inflicting it on the world outside.
This feels a strong, smooth, punchy engine now, and combined with the other Sport components – bigger wheels, uprated Bilstein suspension dampers, a bracing bar across the front suspension towers and very body-hugging seats – it makes for a properly swift and satisfying sports car. That is more than can be said for the new PowerShift version, which uses a six-speed automatic transmission whose manual mode, operated by buttons on the steering wheel, is slow to respond and jerky in the downshifts. The auto mode is quite sleepy, too, and this car’s suspension is set soft and squidgy. This is the MX-5 for posers, not drivers.
I’ve left my favourite MX-5 till last. This is the base-model 1.8 with 126bhp, five forward gears, no artificial aural sportiness and regular suspension dampers. The engine is crisp, natural-sounding and lively enough, the steering, handling and ride-comfort are the most fluent combination of all. This bargain MX-5, price from £16,345, matches perfectly the tone set by a soft-top of stunning simplicity: pull a handle, push it back over your head until it clicks into its storage well. Who needs electro-hydraulics? The trad sports car lives, and we should rejoice.