The Mazda MX-5 is the best selling sports car of all time, and for good reason. The roadster has long been admired for its blend of near-perfect rear-drive handling, bargain price, and simple design and is now in its third incarnation. But with time the car has become heavier and more sophisticated - so does it still offer cheap thrills and razor-sharp roadholding? The PH team got one in for a week to find out - and this is what we thought...
'My first taste of the Mazda MX-5 was a 1990 G registered version finished in bright red. It was as basic as they came, with the pop-up lights, small chrome door handles and a numberplate stuck to the bonnet. It felt so light and I loved the simplicity of the roof, the thin-rimmed steering wheel, the handling, the rasp from the exhaust and the fantastic gearbox. I only had it for a weekend, but from that day on I always looked at the original MX-5 with fondness.
'A few years later and my then company car was off the road for some repairs. My employer booked me a hire car and when it arrived at the office it was a steel-wheeled Mk2 1.8 MX-5. I spent another weekend hooning about the place remembering just how good these cars were. But the Mk2 had more creature comforts and felt a little bit more civilised than the Mk1. Still great fun though.
'I had to wait until 2006 for my next MX-5 drive, and at the time I was working for Autocar and borrowed their blue long term 2.0 for a trackday. It still handled well, but felt solid and heavy. The steering was still precise but now the wheel was adorned with controls for the stereo and my rear window was heated and made of glass. It had grown up and I wasn’t sure that was a good thing.
'When the latest version rolled into the PH car park I was the first one to take the car home. That night I lowered the metal roof (electronically), adjusted my leather (heated) seat, set the climate control and turned on the Bose stereo. The steering felt a little over assisted, but that aside the gearbox was nice and tight, the chassis provided impressive handling and I remember thinking that this car is still the best handling car I have driven straight out of the box - but I don’t love it anymore.
'It is a comfortable car, with airbags, electric everything. As the car has evolved it has lost the very essence of what made it so special in the first place, that being a lightweight, no-frills sportscar, and that is a great shame.'
'I have decided to start a new organisation called the Convertible Police. They are in charge of making sure anyone who owns a fold down roof has it down unless it is torrential rain. What’s the point of buying the experience of hair fashioned by the wind if you aren’t going to lower your top?
'This new Mazda MX-5, as well as the latest convertibles, poses my newly founded organisation a problem – foldable hard tops. They are harder to notice and to issue the on the spot fine of a scowl or other gestures. So stepping into the little Mazda meant, despite the slow English drizzle, the roof was electronically removed for a blast across East Sussex B-roads. The whole hard top neatly folded into the rear with complete ease and effortlessness. This causes me another problem.
'The appeal of this roof-down motoring is getting stuck in a rain shower struggling to put up the roof manually. With the earlier revisions it meant that you sometimes forgot you had flimsy fabric in the boot to protect your head – because rain and rear-wheel drive tail action was much more fun than staying dry – and also you were already sitting down so getting up to sort out that rain protector was just too much hassle.
'Don’t get me wrong, the car is still a lot of fun to drive. As rain pelts my forehead the mouth it shares with my face certainly has a smile on it. Roof down and rear drive is still a magical formula and with traction control turned off – a must do action in this car - the rear slips controllably through winding bends.
'It is pleasing to know the new MX-5 hasn’t lost any of the handling characteristics that earn it top spot in many people’s cheap two-seater list. The engine is also nippy and the height low enough to make sure even at 50mph you feel you are driving much faster - the ultimate appeal of this little car. Unfortunately the electronic roof has made things a bit too convenient and it will probably be seen on top of the car more – which will make my new police force certainly busier.'
Mr Will says:
'I’ve always been a fan of little convertibles, so I was chuffed when I was told I could take the MX-5 home overnight. All the evening’s plans went straight out the window and instead I surprised my girlfriend by picking her up from the station and taking her to the seaside for fish and chips.
Even though we took the back roads to Brighton there was quite a bit of traffic about, but it really didn’t matter – the sun was shining, the roof was down, the stereo was up and we were having a ball just cruising along. Even when the speed eventually picked up, it was calm enough in the cabin that my girlfriend wasn’t asking me to put the roof up to save her hair and the stereo went loud enough to be heard over the wind noise.
'Dinner and a stroll along the seafront later and it was time to come back. On the motorway with the roof up, the MX5 was quiet and comfortable and the journey seemed to be over in a flash. I found myself pulling up at home wishing the drive wasn’t over and when I noticed I hadn’t used half the fuel I’d put in, there was nothing for it, I just had to take it out for a midnight hoon.
'Now just me in the car and on empty country roads, I could at last find out what the MX-5 could really do. The engine, although not massively powerful, was revvy and fun to keep on the boil and the car turned in to corners willingly. The traction control was keen to spoil the fun though, cutting the power early when cornering even moderately quickly.
'A wide roundabout and a quick press of the traction control button later and I was surprised to find the back end remaining firmly pinned in place at speeds far above those that were triggering the traction control before. It stayed firmly off for the rest of the night until I finally pulled up at home at nearly 2am, tired but with a big grin on my face and lot of respect for this little car’.
Oli S says:
'What’s the best way to put this? The Mazda MX-5 is a pretty car that is dismissed as a choice for people who like clipping hair not apexes. Of course, this is a sweeping generalisation and not at all fair, but it means that this little roadster took me even more by surprise. Initially the MX-5 seemed painfully slow and more suited for nipping around town and sunning yourself than for anything remotely sporty.
'But hold down the traction control button and it turns into total hooligan. Stabbing the throttle going into the first decent bend I came to resulted in oversteer of epic proportions. But the beauty of this Mazda roadster is the way it reacts when the back is trying to overtake the front – catching a slide is easy, pampering you into thinking you are a far better driver than you actually are.
'Flick the wheel and the MX-5 can be caught easily, and with crisp steering feel you never feel out of control. The 1.8-litre unit may not be that powerful but it is responsive and revs eagerly. The MX-5 has certainly piled on a few pounds over the years but it is still a focused, fun roadster that is well bolted together and good value.
'OK, so it’s not that macho to look at but if you can live with that you’ll have a car that can be used everyday (thanks in part to the clever roof) and can be let off the leash whenever you feel the need.'