The great thing about the Mazda MX-5 (Miata in North America) is that is a true sports car that is huge fun to drive. It may be small, but it can give just as much enjoyment as faster and bigger sports cars. And it handles really well – the hallmark of a real sports car.
To tell the truth, I wasn’t going to include the MX-5 in Fast-Autos. But then I drove one briefly round a test track, and I enjoyed it so much I knew you’d want to know about it – even though the car has been around for about 14 years. It had a major rework some years ago, but is as fresh today as it was then – and it’s great value. So here it is…..
Like the Lotus Elan, lots of sports cars of yesteryear, the Ferrari 575M, Honda S-2000 and all TVRs it has the classic layout of a powerful engine slung low just behind the front axle in a low two-seater body which is quite light. Of course, it is a convertible and is low, which helps improve cornering and top speed.
The suspension is also similar to the best sports and racing cars – it has double wishbones front and rear to give good wheel geometry. Basically, that means keeping the wheels upright without any sudden changes in track or toe-in. An unusual feature is the light backbone frame that connects the engine to the rear axle, so all the mechanical units are as one.
With the hood up the MX-5 Miata is only 48 in high – that’s 2 in lower than the Porsche Boxster, which is mid-engined, and the Mercedes-Benz SLK. When you sit in this car you are near to the ground, but still have an excellent view of the road ahead over the hood and fenders, which helps you aim the car.
The original MX-5 was modelled on the Lotus Elan. But it was a truly international project with Japanese, American and British teams being involved, and the first prototype was built in England. The pop-up headlamps, pioneered by Lotus, and quite common in the 70s and 80s, were replaced by low conventional headlamps when the car was rebodied in 1989.
Undoubtedly the current MX-5 is a great-looking car with sweeping fenders and low grille, and a little turn-up at the back to reduce lift a little. When you jump in, you’re not disappointed either. The wheel is just about where you’d like it – it doesn’t adjust as the whole point of the MX-5 is to keep it simple. The instruments are clear and as easy to read as any you’ll find – they’ll black on cream. In the dark,t hey become red on cream, and when lit up at dusk are actually less easy to see than in daylight.
As you’d expect from a Mazda, it is very quiet and civilised at low speed, and the clutch has a smooth take up. I drove the 1.8i Sport, which gets Bilstein dampers and a limited slip diff to improve perforemance. This latest 1.8 liter model has 145 bhp on tap at 7,000 rpm and a six-speed gearbox which seems like a good idea at first, since it gives you a good set of close ratios. Also, the stubby little lever just about sticks out the tunnel, promising short shift movement.
You get a pair of bucket seats, and I found I could get myself really comfortable. The weather when I had the car was typical of autumn (fall) with cool days and a bit of rain. There is a heated rear window, but don’t expect it to dry off any rain that settles on the glass, although it does a good job of clearing mist.
How does it drive? You need to work the engine to move along; it generates its power at 5,000 – 7,000 rpm. At lower speeds you make reasonable progress, but not fast, and it will soon lose speed up a motorway gradient. On the other hand, the engine is beautifully quiet until you let her rip, when you’re rewarded by a howl as the engine gets over 5,000 rpm and shoots up to 7,000 rpm. This is a marvellous engine; none of that running out of breath you get with some engines. It’s like a young terrier straining at the leash, even at 7,000 rpm – just wanting to give you more revs.
Most of the time the gearbox is a delight. The shifts are short and quick up to fourth, these are the gears you want when you’re hurrying. It’s not so much fun going from fourth to fifth, or from third to fifth. The problem here is that reverse is beyond the fifth-sixth gate and has a fairly weak spring to prevent it going across to the reverse gate.
When you’re driving at moderate speeds, this is no problem as you can move the lever across and fin the right slot. But of course just when you need to flick quickly up to fifth is the time when you find you’ve gone too far and have to go stirring around to the find the slot you want.
Shifts in the opposite direction are just find, smooth and slick. I found that sixth was useful only on motorways or very fast straight roads, and that otherwise it was best not to use anything higher than fifth. Mind you, if you’re just tooling along in traffic, the engine will run very smoothly at low speeds in sixth. But basically it’s for the motorway or expressway.
The pedals are nicely spaced, and as you’d expect on a self-respecting sports car, you can heel-and-toe, which is not such a useless skill as you might think. When you shift down from fifth to third or third to second coming into a corner, a little heeling-and-toeing gives a smoother shift.
‘Well-matched’ sums up the engine and gearbox – and delightful with it. Needless to say I spent little time on motorways and the like, because the wind noise is pretty high, and with that soft top you hear all the noise of the trucks you’re overtaking. I did drive with a hood down for some of the time, but it was getting a bit cold for that!
Anyway, once you head for the some of the great roads we use for testing, the Mazda MX-5 comes into its own! Pure joy. Over roads with sweeping bends, the odd sharp brow, and some slower corners the car just goes where pointed. And it turns in straightaway – none of this waiting for the steering to haul that heavy front-end round that you get with front-drive or front-heavy cars.
You turn the wheel a few degrees and instantly you are turning into the corner. It follows the line brilliantly, and can be threaded through s-bends as quick as many a faster car because it is compact and steers so well. The steering is well weighted, and gives plenty of feedback of what is happening.
The test car was shod with Bridgestone Torunza 205/45R tires on 16 in wheels, and they grip very well in the dry but are perhaps not quite as progressive as some other tires in the wet.
How does she handle? In almost all conditions, she just steers round corners with neutral handling. Go into a long slow corner, such as one of our roundabouts, and you can feel the understeer build up. Flick the wheel a little toward the apex, and you can kill the understeer, and power your way out. When you press harder on slow corners, though, you can feel that you’re going from neutral to oversteer as the back end wants to move out.
Go faster into that corner, and the back end does lose grip, but is easily corrected and brought back into line with a bit of corrective lock. I didn’t find myself overcorrecting – the car just came into line and accelerated out of the corner as if that’s what I’d intended. Well, it was more or less, but I was surprised how responsive it was. Definitely a well-balanced sporty two-seater, with handling to give you some huge fun. A car to smile about – and with.
Mind, it isn’t the car I’d choose if my driving involved a lot of journeys along fast motorways or autobahns. It is just too noisy. The ride is not that bad on most surfaces, but is not good on ripply surfaces. When you get into your Miata or MX-5 just head for the byways and old roads and you’ll have much more fun, and get there surprisingly quickly and safely.
The Miata is still a reasonably light car at 2,423 lb, but like most car suffers a little from middle-age spread – eating too many extra fatty ‘features’ – as in 1990 the car weighed just 2,100 lb. The engine was smaller then, and there weren’t so many refinements, but a weight reduction of 300 lb would make quite a difference to the acceleration.
You might think the answer would be to put in a V-6 200 bhp engine. The result would be too much weight on the nose, almost certainly destroying the super balance of the car. And of course, everything would have to be bigger to take the extra power.
No, this car is best as it is – a great little car, with good performance, which you can use safely on ordinary roads.