ALL too few cars ever attain any sort of legendary status, vanishing into the mists of time — as they do — in a haze of exhaust fumes as noxious and unpalatable as the designs themselves.
And even those cars which do grasp the public’s imagination, generally come at a cost so prohibitive as to make them aspirational to Lotto winners only.
Occasionally, however, there comes along a genuine legend and 25 years ago that’s exactly what happened when Mazda unveiled the MX-5. In one fell swoop Mazda reinvented the two seater open top roadster concept that had once been the preserve of a host of long since vanished British companies such as Austin Healy, Triumph, Lotus, MG, and others.
The cute-as-a-button Mazda MX-5 got the essence of the genre down to a tee: front engined, rear drive, 50:50 weight distribution and steal-your-heart looks. It was an instant success across the globe and instead of having a toe-in-the-water design exercise which won critical acclaim and little sales, Mazda found itself with a commercial winner which was equally a hit with pundits and customers.
The car harked back to an innocent era in which cars were fun and frivolous and Mazda found itself having tapped into a zeitgeist which nobody even realised existed and which numerous others — Fiat with the Barchetta and Toyota with the MR2 — subsequently tried to emulate.
But they never got the same beauty and simplicity — or appeal, for that matter — which Mazda had nailed-down and consequently it was the MX-5 which became the icon of the new age.
Nearly a million units later and three generations down the road, the latest MX-5 is now with us and it is, as far as I can tell, the best of the lot of them. While the second and third generation MX-5s pretty much repeated the recipe of the original, they were fatter and less engaging than the first version and never quite matched the simple unadulterated joie de vivre which had gone before.
Now though, Mazda has gone back to pared-down basics and the use of aluminium and high tensile steel throughout sees the new car shed some 100kg of kerb weight. It has also trimmed back on size and is 55mm shorter than the last model.
Visually this will not impact on you, but it has distilled the essence of the MX-5 into a tighter all-round package and one which is now even more cutesy than before.
Stuff like aluminium suspensions — front wishbones and rear multi-links — as well as an aluminium engine frame, front wings and a lighter rear differential and gearbox, combine with high tensile steel construction for much of the body and the front cross member to provide a very rigid chassis and for the purpose needed here, that is very much on message.
One of Mazda’s main engineering and design credos has been that of ‘Jinba Ittai’ — loosely translated as ‘oneness between man and machine’ and that is a doctrine which has been taken very seriously here because the MX-5 is not a car you get into, per se, rather something you wear. You slip it on moreso than anything else.
But to people familiar with the breed, this is a very comforting thing because the MX-5’s interior is a cockpit with the sole purpose of engaging you entirely with the process of driving it.
Certainly it is not commodious and most large people will most certainly not be comfortable here; on the other hand, 13-stoners like me can still be at ease here without your wobbly bits filling up the cup holders or the door pockets.
There is something of a lack of adjustment with the steering column which does not fine-tune for reach, but that is probably the only flaw of any consequence I could find in the car.
All switchgear is easily to hand and the amount of controls they have integrated into the steering wheel has to be seen to be believed, but once you get the hang of it, is incredibly intuitive.
As is the case with most modern cars there is the ubiquitous touchscreen to handle all infotainment requirements — seven inches in this case — as well as a raft of stuff you might not expect. We did try the ‘upper’ specced GT version and here you get things like heated seats — as if your ass wasn’t close enough to the ground — cruise control, adaptive LED lights, a nine-speaker Bose sound system and loads more.
And then you get to the driving experience — and what and experience it is. One of the original attractions of this car was the short-throw gear-change where a mere flick of the wrist had you changing cogs quicker than Lewis Hamilton. It is the same now, only perhaps even more pleasing to live with. The six-speed ’box might be new, but the joy of using it is now even more engaging than before.
The engine is new too and it is also a joy to behold. Smaller than the original four cylinder 1.6 litre petrol unit at 1.5 litres in size, it probably has more guts than ever and although output might seem puny at just 129 bhp, it is here that the joy of the power-to-weight ratio comes into play.
This means that every ounce of power available can be fully mined at all times. It revs sweetly to the 7,500 rpm red line all the time and while the 0-100 kph dash does take a tad over eight seconds, the rest of the time the performance seems more hot hatch than anything else.
Factor in a particularly rorty exhaust and you have a companion which is not only willing and very able, but it sounds great too; not to the point of frightening timid children or old ladies of either sex, but an aural treat nonetheless.
And then you have the joyous handling which is the essence of sportscar. Although it does not have the muscular brutishness of say, an M3, it is every bit as much fun to drive.
Sure it is possible to get the tail end hanging out if you so wish, but in general the manner with which the car grips and the way it displays composure on sweeping, curvy roads, is a joy to behold and a credit to the engineering team behind it.
All that and wind in the hair motoring too — courtesy of one of the easiest manual rag-top roof mechanisms you’ve ever seen — and you’ve got a winning combination of flair, style, performance and handling that you will find anywhere.
Thus the MX-5 is now the great driver’s car it always was — only better.
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