MX-5 V Midget special
MIKE I’m the first to admit that the Midget 1500 isn’t exactly a rocketship. And yes, I know that everyone keeps going on about how its Triumph engine doesn’t sound as nice as the old A-series, or rev as sweetly, and blah-blah-blah. But the fact is, you could probably put a lawnmower engine into a Midget and it’d still be exciting to drive, simply because it’s so tiny and weighs next to nothing. That, and the fact that your backside feels roughly an inch away from the road. The MX-5 is great to drive – I ought to know, I used to have one – but only great to drive for a modern car. Step out of a Midget and straight into an MX-5 – and I have, many times – and the Mazda feels, relatively speaking, like a bit of a heffalump.
MURRAY Heffalump? Right, let’s get this sorted right now. Performance can be measured in cold hard figures. Your 1.5-litre engine produces a measly 65bhp, whereas my 1.8-litre unit blasts out 130bhp. Exactly double the horses. And it’s the same for torque – the Midget’s Triumph engine just about measures 76lb ft of torque; the MX-5 a meaty 110lb ft. I won’t go into 0-60mph times because I’m not too sure if the Midget does actually get to 60mph. I will concede, however, that the Midget is a great steer, especially in comparison to other cars of its era. Objectively, though, the MX-5 is a much better drive.
MIKE Oi, the Midget’ll do 70mph, thanks very much! And yeah, yeah, so the MX-5 handles like a boss. No, really – it does. The thing is, it’s a more modern car, so there’s more mass to shift, which the laws of physics state can only blunt the handling. The MG, on the other hand, is very much an analogue abacus to the MX-5’s electronic calculator. There’s no interference from power steering or ABS braking. Get it wrong, and it’ll bite – it is rear-drive, after all. But get it right, and it’s an absolute riot in the bends, yet still irons out the bumps on longer journeys. The steering is immediate, too, with no electronic interference or slop – turn the wheel an inch, and the car responds straightaway. You don’t get that sort of reaction in a modern, even one as good as the MX-5.
The MX-5 is a multi-faceted thing. On the one hand, you can have a Japanese import with the lower-powered 1.6-litre engine, automatic gearbox, and fripperies like air conditioning (I’m looking at you, David Simister). On the other hand, you can have the ‘i’ model like mine – no power steering, no ABS. And it’s all the better for it. Feedback is instant and it’s so positive – even after five minutes in one you can feel it working with you. And the ride – because it’s bigger than the Midget and sits on 14in alloys rather than castors, it doesn’t get lost in potholes and won’t break your back on motorway journeys. X FACTOR
OK, I guess we’ll have to agree that both cars handle and ride brilliantly, if in subtly different ways. Where the Midget really does pull it out of the bag, though, is in how it makes you feel. Call it the X factor, if you like. Everything that makes the Midget a bit tiresome as a daily driver in the 21st century makes you feel utterly exhilarated on the right road on the right day. The noise. The vibrations. The smells. The way you have to constantly adjust the steering. The high revs at cruising speeds. The less than perfect driving position. The rush of air into the cabin. No-one used to driving a new Mondeo every day would put up with it, but for an adrenaline rush on a Sunday morning blast, nothing else can touch it. Not even an MX-5.
MURRAY You’ve got me on this one, Mike. If you polled the general public, they’d say the Midget is much cooler. Plus, if you did the same poll with traditional classic enthusiasts – they’d say that the Midget is the only classic out of the two of them. But people’s opinions change, and for the slightly more liberalminded enthusiast, the MX-5 is a bang-up-todate classic. My big engine model, with manual box, and no electric windows or steering, is as close to a classic as something made in the 1990s can get. And you know what? It turns every trip in to something special.
Hmm. Don’t feel like I’m on secure ground here. I bet the Mazda’s never broken down, has it? The Midget, though… well, that turned breakdowns into something approaching an art form before I ironed out all the teething troubles. Thing is, people expected breakdowns back in the 1970s, but won’t tolerate them now. Subtle upgrades – electronic ignition, a red-top rotor arm, an electric fuel pump, a better radiator, etc. – mean it now starts first time, every time. Well, most of the time…
MURRAY I’m happy to say that my MX-5 has let me down on just two occasions. I’m less happy to admit that both were my own fault. The engine is almost bulletproof – even if the cambelt goes, it won’t wreck the noninterference engine. I agree with you, though – car technology has advanced so much in 20 years, it’s hardly a fair comparison. Plus, aren’t breakdowns kind of fun, and part of getting to know your car? Saying that, the MX-5 does at least rust like a proper classic.
Two sporty rear-drive ragtops – but which delivers the biggest driving thrill? MX-5’s cabin is more luxuriously appointed than MG’s, but still spartan by modern standards.
Transmission tunnel and non-standard Moto-Lita wheel dominate MG’s cabin. Twin-cam Mazda engine inspired by Lotus. OHV MG engine nicked from Triumph.