Road­sters to the four

The Courier-Mail - Motoring - - Feature - PAUL GOVER CHIEF RE­PORTER

NOTH­ING makes me smile the way a Mazda MX-5 does.

I first started smil­ing back in 1989, when I drove the orig­i­nal MX-5 with its cre­ator — Mazda en­gi­neer Toshi­hiko Hi­rai, who got the idea from my good friend Bob Hall in the US — at its Aus­tralian pre­view run near Coffs Har­bour.

Since then I’ve smiled on all sorts of roads and in all sorts of weather in Ja­pan, Europe and the US and across Aus­tralia. To­day it’s Al­bury.

For the first time, Mazda Aus­tralia has as­sem­bled a car from each of the four gen­er­a­tions of MX-5 and put them to­gether at a closed road course for a bit of fun.

I know ex­actly what to ex­pect but I’m also won­der­ing which one will come out best from the com­par­i­son drive.

And there is a track­pre­pared MX-5, from the Global MX-5 Cup in the US, for a fun run at the end.

When the first MX-5 hit the road, Bob Hawke was prime min­is­ter, Can­berra and Hawthorn were foot­ball cham­pi­ons, In­di­ana Jones and the Last Cru­sade was the world’s favourite movie and Daniel Ric­cia­rdo was born.

Much has changed since but the NA model MX-5 is just as I re­mem­ber it: light and dainty, with one of the best gearshifts of any car I’ve driven plus a rorty ex­haust —and it fits like a glove. I have a big smile from the time I turn the key, then I romp through a cou­ple of laps to en­joy the sen­sa­tions that are still crisply in fo­cus from 1989.

“We put our driver in the cen­tre of at­ten­tion,” says cur­rent MX-5 chief Nobuhiro Ya­mamoto, who is also in Al­bury for the day.

“The NA is the best car for fun-to-drive feel­ing, the NB is best for han­dling and the NC is best for per­for­mance. If I get my wish, I would like my ND to be called best road­ster.”

Now the se­cond-gen­er­a­tion MX-5 is call­ing and my smile droops as I re­mem­ber styling that went back­wards, in­clud­ing the loss of the orig­i­nal pop-up head­lights due to safety rules.

But the smile re­turns when I re­alise this NB is one of the 50 tur­bocharged SP mod­els built in Aus­tralia. It was a project run by Mazda’s long-time mo­tor­sport chief, Al­lan Hors­ley, and he did a bril­liant job. The car is re­ally quick, with a huge surge of power and enough grunt to loosen the back tyres’ grip in a cou­ple of cor­ners. It re­ally needs a lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial, as I re­call from a de­vel­op­ment drive for Hors­ley in the 1990s.

In con­trast, the NC model looks and feels very mod­ern and more re­mote to drive. It’s quick, that’s for sure, and it has lots of stan­dard equip­ment. But it’s not as friendly and the fron­tend grip is the lim­it­ing fac­tor in a car that feels a bit dull.

Be­fore I go any fur­ther, it’s worth re­vis­it­ing one thing about the MX-5.

When it ar­rived it was priced from $29,990, af­ford­able but not cheap in ’89, but it jumped to $39,800 for the NB. The SP was $55,540, which is un­der­stand­able with the ex­tra go pack­age, and the NC was in­tro­duced at $41,860.

“Af­ford­abil­ity means a lot. This car was never in­tended for the lim­ited, rich peo­ple,” Ya­mamoto says.

So I head for the cur­rent car, think­ing about its $31,990 start­ing price, its 1000kg mass (al­most match­ing the orig­i­nal) and all the equip­ment in­clud­ing a bril­liant new fold­ing roof, ter­rific head­lamps, five-star safety score and the en­thu­si­as­tic Sky­ac­tiv en­gine.

There are two ex­am­ples to try, so I jump first into the 1.5-litre model and am trans­ported back to the orig­i­nal MX-5 by a car that is light, re­spon­sive and great to drive.

Then I switch to the 2.0, the punchier en­gine mak­ing Ya­mamoto-san’s car the fastest around the closed-road course, with ea­ger re­sponse in ev­ery cor­ner and a nice punch down the straights.

And the racer? It’s a su­per­tight fit and left-hand drive, but the blar­ing ex­haust and slick rac­ing tyres make it a treat. It’s my dessert for the day.

But I have to pick my favourite main course and it’s tough. The MX-5 is called Miata in a lot of coun­tries, be­cause it means “prize”.

My prize for the quick­est car goes to the lat­est ver­sion, in 2.0litre form. But, re­ally, it’s the orig­i­nal MX-5 that still has my heart and is the one I’d choose to park in the garage at home.

Then it’s the win­ner? Well, no. If I could drive home in one it would be the lat­est 1.5-litre MX-5 — it is clos­est in spirit to the orig­i­nal yet still has all the mod­ern gear that spoils me.

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