Mazda MX-5 MkIII
The MX-5 is that rare beast: a sequel as good as the original, says Michael Booth
Sunday 23 April 2006
Would suit: Anyone who simply loves to drive
Price: £18,900 (as tested 2.0-litre Sport)
Maximum speed: 131mph, 0-60mph in 7.6 seconds
Combined fuel: economy 34mpg
Further information: 08457 484 848
Sequels rarely improve on the original. The Godfather: Part II, Blackadder II and Elvis's fat period are the exceptions that prove the rule. The Godfather: Part III, Basic Instinct 2 and Roseanne's thin period are a more salutary guide. So where does that leave the new Mazda MX-5?
I know that, technically, the new MX-5 is the MkIII, but the last one was really just a re-jig of that first, epochal MX-5, launched in 1989. It's easy to forget how revolutionary the original MX-5 was. Let's just say that for about a decade prior to that, most people's idea of a budget sports car came with a hatchback and a GTi badge.
The new car is every bit as good as the old one: compact, light, agile and perky. It has the same precise and immediate steering; knobby little snick-snick, six-speed gearstick; unpretentious, manual cloth roof (none of your bourgeois, mumsy, folding hardtop flimflammery here); and, most important of all, from the moment you wiggle your bum into the hugging seats and grip the chubby leather wheel, you feel like an electrical plug slipping into its socket.
What I'm trying to say is that the MX-5 is electrifying, albeit not in a hair-raising, whizz-bang Lamborghini kind of way (the MX-5 was never about spearing across the salt flats in a quest for land speed records). No, the best thing about this car is how much fun you can have at legal speeds (which is why I'd go for the cheapest £15,600, 1.8-litre version, which also does without a limited slip differential). This is a car you drive with your fingertips and toes; like all the best sports cars its power and poise (it's still rear-wheel drive, of course, with near 50/50 weight distribution) flatter you into thinking you are a better driver than you are without risk of a long-term hospital stay. It grips, but not so much that you can't "have a bit of fun in the wet", as Spitfire drivers term it, although it does grip enough so that you won't end up in a hedge, as most Spitfire drivers do from time to time. This is a car that doesn't so much worm its way into your affections as wrap itself around your heart like a boa constrictor and squeeze until you give in.
The new car is better equipped, has a classier interior and seems heftier than before. It has more safety equipment - more airbags, traction control, ESP - but, best of all, it weighs just 10kg more than the original. Trust me, at a time when VW Golfs have been known to cause eclipses, this is little short of miraculous.
One thing that has changed, albeit slightly, is the new car's sexuality. If we were to assess the old MX-5's gender by use of a scale depicting, let's say, the sexuality of old school Hollywood film stars, placing Charles Bronson at one end and Audrey Hepburn at the other, it would have come in around about the Doris Day mark (feminine, but with underlying notes of butch - think Calamity Jane). The new MX-5, however, edges the brand more towards Rock Hudson. Its bulbous wheel arches give it a more masculine stance and they've done away with the ickle 1.6-litre version (there's even a 200bhp monster due for launch in a couple of years), but it is still going to have strong opinions on your soft furnishings. It seems that, with old rivals like the MGF and the Fiat Barchetta dead, the MX-5 is, once again, the only proper sports car in the village.
It's a classic: Mazda MX-5
Very few cars truly deserve to be called instant classics - and they are usually phenomenally expensive Ferraris and the like - but the Mazda MX-5 was one.
This was partly because it so obviously harked back to a classic era of lightweight, open-top, front-engined, rear-wheel drive two-seaters, epitomised by the Lotus Elan (the main inspiration for the car's Californian-based designers).
The MX-5 evolved from a design sketch by Tom Matano in 1983 and was, famously, developed as a "garden shed" operation in the design team's spare time. Their self-imposed remit was to design a car with responsive handling, lively performance, timeless design, a pleasant place for two and a simple roof at a price affordable to anyone who loves to drive.
The price did creep up a bit by the time of its launch in 1989, but the MX-5 turned out to be wildly more successful than Mazda ever imagined, becoming the bestselling sports car of all time (overhauling the Ford Mustang and Datsun Z series), with almost half a million MkIs and almost 300,000 MkIIs being sold.
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