How often do you hear that cars have changed beyond all recognition? Too complex, too heavy, too far removed from the original mantra. There's plenty to substantiate that belief as well: look at a Porsche 993 against a 992 and they're a world apart, in terms of performance, size, dynamics and everything else. The upcoming 3 Series isn't going to feel anything like an E36. And think where the mid-engined Ferrari berlinetta has come since the mid-1990s: back then the 355 was the height of tech sophistication, with 380hp and near-180mph potential. Today its equivalent is the 488 GTB. With another 300hp...
Bring together Mazda MX-5s from then and now, though, and they seem remarkably similar - on paper at least. They're differentiated by just 35mm in length, 159cc in engine capacity, and 60kg in weight (for a convertible, at least), which is remarkable when you consider how many years separate them. An entry level Audi A8 from the mid-1990s is hundreds of kilos lighter and hundreds of millimetres shorter than today's equivalent, even if its remit remains broadly similar.
Presumably, therefore, credit should be due to Mazda for sticking to the original formula. Certainly it would seem the sales figures support that. But has that been the right thing to do? Has Mazda's unerring dedication to the MX-5 concept, first conjured up in the 1980s, been a worthwhile endeavour? Is there still a space in the world for small sports cars when it seems so many have abandoned them? After all the GT86 and BRZ, which have been the most recent rivals, haven't exactly been roaring successes - even if they should have been - and nobody needs reminding how many hot hatches are there for the same money.
The green MX-5 you see here belongs to Mazda's UK heritage fleet, a 1995 1.8i with just 40,000 miles on it. As a result it's almost perfectly preserved, as sweet to look at and appreciate as it's ever been and a real testament to how good that original design was. The gearbox still feels slick, the peculiar boot and fuel filler releases (located in a central cubby) work faultlessly and the car is as happy being nudged around for photos as the new one. It says a lot about Mazda durability that none of that comes as a surprise; whether the same would happen with a contemporaneous MG F, Alfa Spider or Z3 is up for debate.
As for the drive, it takes all of about 400m to discover just why the MX-5 template has endured so well. Combine that dependability already mentioned (and which was so sorely lacking in the roadsters it aimed to evoke) with the fizzy twin-cam engine, drop-top excitement and rear-drive balance that they definitely did possess and it's very easy to be totally charmed. The original MX-5 is small without feeling dangerously so, fun at sensible speed but also brisk enough and refreshingly simple - yet clearly very smartly engineered, too.
It even carries over some of the traditional sports car elements that weren't that desirable. In this example it's the non-assisted steering; not only does that make it harder to work with in a town centre than a night club bouncer, the situation doesn't improve with speed - the weighting is consistent, but there's never much in terms of actual feedback. Combine that with a wheel that doesn't adjust and feels like it belongs on the high seas rather than the high road and it's a clear weak link in the MX-5.
Despite that, and despite the chassis rigidity feeling rather more classic than contemporary, there remains a lot to admire about this MX-5, even after a quarter of a century. It's a peppy, vibrant little car, helped in no small part by an engine that's still happy to sing out past 7,000rpm and that fantastic gearbox. And while a combination of slow steering and an open differential mean it's not a natural skid weapon, the benefits of its weight distribution are clear throughout - the handling is balanced, consistent and transparent, if not the last word in immediacy or thrills. But then that's what the aftermarket has catered for, since probably a week after the MX-5's arrival; the foundations are there to build something sportier if you wish, or
Perhaps what's more remarkable, actually, is how far the attributes of the first MX-5 have made it to the current car. Exactly the same good ones and the same bad ones, in fact. This dinky Mazda is still blessed with an absolute gem of a powertrain, worthy of more acclaim now than the old car's because of the ongoing purge of atmospheric engines. With this latest Skyactiv-G, Mazda has proven there's (hopefully) life in engines without forced induction for a little bit: as with the original it's rev happy and insatiably eager, at its best beyond 5,500rpm and with a gearbox that couldn't make the process easier or more satisfying. Yet unlike the original 1.8, there's now genuine performance on offer, a chunk more torque and vastly improved efficiency. Bravo Mazda, and a round of applause; let's hope one or two more can follow your lead.
Dynamically, the similarities are uncanny. There remains a steering wheel a little too big and with insufficient adjustment (even if the situation has improved), allied to a system that isn't the most tactile for those who care about such things. It also feels like a few kilos sacrificed to increased rigidity might be worth it, as well as a suspension set up that traded a sliver of comfort (and the associated roll) for greater support.
That shouldn't detract from the long list of positives, though. In a world where a Focus RS weighs 1,600kg, an M5 is two tonnes and 2,500kg is apparently not a daft 4x4 mass, to drive something with the inherent agility and willingness to turn that comes from a 1,050kg kerb weight is bliss - even more so, surely, than it would have been in the mid-90s. Furthermore, that featherweight mass means the MX-5 doesn't require four-wheel steer to make it turn, active anti-roll bars to keep it on line or adaptive dampers to monitor huge mass movements. There's simply the predictability, involvement and enjoyment that's there - and always has been there - in small, front-engined, rear-drive sports cars. Which might explain one or two of the exuberant cornering pics... It requires commitment (because there's not much power) and concentration (because the wheelbase is quite short), but little feels better going sideways than an MX-5.
Yet at its core this RF remains true to everything that's there in the original, even with a more complicated roof than it needs. There's an endearing simplicity to it, from the way it drives to the way it's constructed, that proves added complexity doesn't necessarily mean added satisfaction or reward. There's everything you'd need, everything you'd want and nothing superfluous, which is as relevant a message now as it's ever been.
So yes, Mazda has been right to persevere with this formula, even as so many others have dropped by the wayside, because it's a fantastically entertaining one. There's arguably no better vindication of Mazda's work than the fact that when the Fiat 124 - one of those classic European roadsters that the MX-5 always aimed to emulate - needed resurrecting, it was the MX-5 that it was based on. The current ND car in facelifted form is not perfect, but it is the best this generation has been and, crucially, offers something different in an automotive world that can look increasingly (and depressingly) homogenous.
In the mid-1990s your fun and reasonably affordable car could have been an MX-5, or it could have been a 306 GTI, or a Toyota MR2, or a Nissan 200SX, or a Ford Puma, or a Honda Prelude, some kind of Impreza or various others - a broad price range, though the point stands. More variety existed, and yet the MX-5 package continued to appeal.
Therefore today, with the car at its most competitive and the rivals typically a variation on the hot hatch theme, the charm is greater than ever. Sure, a Fiesta ST will be cheaper and probably quicker still. What you won't get with that, though, is the joy of being exposed to the elements, an engine that thrives on revs and the purity of rear-wheel drive. As driving proper roadsters like the MX-5 inevitably becomes a rarer experience, so it becomes all the more pleasing. If it's a car you've dismissed for five, ten, fifteen or more years because of one reason or another, the case to make for it now couldn't be stronger - light, naturally aspirated, rear-drive sports car won't be around forever. Give one a try, old or new. You might just be surprised.
SPECIFICATION - MAZDA MX-5 SKYACTIV-G 2.0 (ND)
Engine: 1,998cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 184@ 7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 151@4,000rpm
Top speed: 137mph
Weight: 1,148kg (with 75kg driver)
SPECIFICATION - MAZDA MX-5 1.8i (NA)
Engine: 1,839cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 5-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 130@5,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 112@5,000rpm
Top speed: 126mph
Weight: 990kg (without driver)