Roadsters to the four
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.