MAZDA MX-5 IN JA­PAN

What’s the essence that has made the MX-5 a global icon over its 30-year run? We re­con­nect with the up­dated fourth-gen­er­a­tion car on its home turf in a quest to un­lock its se­cret

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

Road­trip un­earths one­ness between car and coun­try

WITH the ex­cep­tion of that time I was on my way to an air-cooled Vee Dub fes­ti­val in Corn­wall and a group of bikini-clad girls started dis­tribut­ing lol­lies to the end­less tail­back of cars, and that time a ho­tair bal­loon made a bad land­ing on the A303 and side-swiped a Saab 900, traf­fic jams have never been ex­cit­ing. And yet, here I am, sit­ting in a queue of mo­tion­less cars, about to add a third oc­ca­sion to that list. The rel­a­tive si­lence around my lit­tle con­vert­ible is re­sound­ingly oblit­er­ated by a swarm of lurid 1980s mo­tor­cy­cles. The bat­tal­ion of pos­sessed Boso­zoku bikes scythe their way through the traf­fic, free-flow ex­hausts pierc­ing my eardrums, a trail of daz­zling lights and fluro air­brushed liv­ery trac­ing through the traf­fic like a hal­lu­ci­na­tion. On a week-day, these rep­re­sen­ta­tives of bizarre youth sub-cul­ture are prob­a­bly rid­ing the JR Line train, faces buried in smart­phones like mil­lions of other Ja­pa­nese com­muters, but to­day – Sun­day – they are ex­press­ing them­selves in the most un­for­get­table and un­apolo­getic way. The way some­one be­haves in their own en­vi­ron­ment of­ten serves as a di­rect por­tal to their in­ner char­ac­ter, and pro­vides a unique glimpse into what makes them, well, them. That’s ex­actly why, only a short time be­fore these psy­che­delic bik­ers as­saulted my senses, I was stand­ing hold­ing the keys to a 2019 Mazda MX-5 some­where in Tokyo’s south­ern in­dus­trial dis­tricts. At­tribut­ing the suc­cess and recog­ni­tion of the ban­tam sportscar solely to the recipe of light­weight con­struc­tion, front-en­gined, rear-wheel-drive lay­out is un­fairly sim­plis­tic. Mazda’s en­gi­neer­ing ac­co­lades have been ex­ten­sively ex­am­ined and doc­u­mented, and there’s lit­tle to dis­cover re­trac­ing those el­e­ments. In­stead, I’m hop­ing some time in the up­dated MX-5 RF at its home ground will help me un­ravel ex­actly what it is about the lit­tle two-seater’s per­son­al­ity that has helped pave a 30-year path to uni­ver­sal ac­claim, in­clud­ing three Wheels Car of the Year wins.

IT’S A jour­ney that starts on a sul­try early morn­ing in the cap­i­tal and will end, all go­ing to plan, in the shadow of Mt Fuji, the coun­try’s most iconic ge­o­log­i­cal land­mark, where I’ll cel­e­brate the 40th an­niver­sary of the MX-5’S older sib­ling, the RX-7. But be­fore that, I have some Ja­pa­nese cul­ture to ab­sorb. And I’m not talk­ing about karaoke bars and hot cans of cof­fee from vend­ing ma­chines. I’m seek­ing the un­ex­pected side of Ja­pan that sur­prises and amazes me with­out ex­cep­tion each time I visit this fas­ci­nat­ing coun­try.

As the psy­che­delic bik­ers dis­si­pate and the grid­lock clears, the free­way to Tokyo’s west be­gins to un­clog and the dis­tant moun­tains roll closer, prompt­ing my first de­tour into hope­fully more in­ter­est­ing by­ways. Un­til now, the pre­dom­i­nant traf­fic has been al­most ex­clu­sively small and Ja­pa­nese, but as the road climbs and the turns tighten, a Porsche 911 GT3 RS blasts past. A few sec­onds elapse and it’s fol­lowed by a Mclaren 650S in hot pur­suit.

I think I’m head­ing into a driv­ing en­thu­si­asts’ mecca. But in­stead of an ad­dic­tive black rib­bon stretched out in­def­i­nitely, the road ter­mi­nates at the Daikan­zan Ob­ser­va­tory. You might come here for views of the in­cred­i­ble and im­pos­si­bly placed Mt Fuji or to catch a spec­tac­u­lar sun­set, but this af­ter­noon the carpark is rammed with a dizzy­ingly di­verse spread of cool cars.

A pair of KTM X-bows – one stan­dard, the other barely road le­gal – a fleet of Cater­hams, all the key Eu­ro­pean play­ers, a squadron of NB MX-5S; they’re all here. The owner of one par­tic­u­larly sav­age-look­ing belly-drag­ger takes great pride in show­ing me the ex­pen­sive Lithua­nian short-shifter, but I’m dis­tracted by his car’s ridicu­lously fat haunches and rac­ing rub­ber that barely clears the arches. More rare bikes turn up fol­lowed by more ex­otic su­per­cars and the carpark dol­lar value sky­rock­ets.

The Porsche, Mclaren and all the other de­li­cious hard­ware did not head here ex­clu­sively for the drive. They came here to be among their own – petrol­heads united by a love of per­for­mance and cool metal.

Fuji pokes out from above the clouds, dwarf­ing every­thing, but there’s no time to gawp – the cars are dis­si­pat­ing and I fol­low their lead.

More free­way miles pro­vide an­other neat anal­ogy for this coun­try. The ef­fi­ciency of fast, well-main­tained roads is con­stantly punc­tu­ated by toll booths, rep­re­sent­ing the na­tion’s pas­sion for bu­reau­cracy.

But the monotony is at last sev­ered by an­other de­tour, this time via a 10km pri­vately op­er­ated toll road that hacks through the ver­dant Ja­pa­nese coun­try­side like a pissed wood­worm, tip­toe­ing along a ridge­line and fol­low­ing the western shore of Lake Ashi. With views of an even closer Fuji ahead and vis­tas div­ing down to the lake to the east, it re­ally is as good as it sounds.

Satel­lite im­ages sug­gest the Hakone and Ashi­noko Sky­line roads will of­fer the kind of re­mote moun­tain blast sportscar fa­nat­ics fan­ta­sise about. But on ar­rival, hopes are dashed by the dis­cov­ery that a blan­ket 40km/h speed limit, from start to fin­ish, hob­bles this oth­er­wise per­fect road. How­ever, it be­comes ap­par­ent that the ma­jor­ity of users bla­tantly ig­nore the signs and hey, I’m not one to mess with lo­cal cus­toms.

It’s only now, with an ir­re­sistible mélange of turns laid out be­fore me, that I get a proper chance to ap­pre­ci­ate the changes Mazda im­ple­mented for the up­dated ND.

A few boxy kei cars are quickly despatched and I’m al­ready grin­ning at the new rev limit that nudges 8000rpm. There’s a more ur­gent ex­haust note that an­nounces the ex­ten­sive in­ter­nal me­chan­i­cal im­prove­ments and a strength in the top end of the rev range that wasn’t present in the less highly strung 2.0-litre four.

For the 2018 up­date, Mazda gave the en­gine a ro­man­ti­cally old-school power-up, with shorter skirt pis­tons, lighter con­rods, mod­i­fied crank, larger valves, re­vised camshaft pro­files, new in­jec­tors and a re­designed in­let man­i­fold. It’s re­fresh­ing in an era of chip-tun­ing.

Where you might have pre­vi­ously banged the se­lec­tor over an­other notch early, the en­hanced 2.0-litre urges you to tickle the red­line in ev­ery gear. The ex­tra spice in the top end also helps off­set the ex­tra weight of my RF over the soft-top.

There’s no doubt the pre­vi­ous ver­sion was a great unit for the MX-5, but while that en­gine felt like it had been bor­rowed from an­other more pedes­trian model, the 2018 2.0-litre feels as though it was de­signed specif­i­cally for a light­weight sportscar.

The first au­tum­nal fresh­ness creeps into the damp air as the sun slides be­hind Fuji, and I de­scend the moun­tain to our digs for the evening, but the roof stays open.

I’M WO­KEN the next day by the un­mis­tak­able sound of a rotary en­gine cold-idling in the ho­tel base­ment carpark. Its bark is a war horn sum­mon­ing oth­ers to the nearby cir­cuit nes­tled be­neath the moun­tain, but be­fore I join them I have one last chance to stretch the MX-5’S legs.

The Mikuni Pass cleaves a path from Lake Ya­manaka over Mt Mikuni and ends, con­ve­niently next to my des­ti­na­tion – the Fuji Speed­way. Tear­ing my­self from the fu­ton’s em­brace will al­low me a cou­ple of hours be­fore the crowds gather. And I’ll be glad I did.

The roads are de­serted and the pass beck­ons

The roads of­fer the kind of moun­tain blasts fa­nat­ics fan­ta­sise about

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