For over a quarter of a century and four generations of development, Mazda and owners of the MX-5 have had to tread carefully. First, Mazda smiled sweetly and self-effacingly as it took the idea of the classic British two-seat roadster and showed fair Albion, and arguably the world, how it should really be done. Then, on delivery of the first ever MX-5 and probably on every occasion since, the new owner has had to turn around to disbelieving friends and say, voice quavering, “…but trust me guys – it’s amazing to drive!”.
Aye, there’s the rub.
For every bad boy on the internet kitting out his MX-5 with aftermarket turbos, roll cages, magnesium wheels, spoilers and bucket seats, there’s someone like your mum, who thinks it would make a lovely car for your sister. And you have that one friend who bought theirs because they wanted a nice little red car and oh look, it’s so cute. What a nice little car. Good car. Sit. Stay.
Frankly, I hate making excuses for Mazda MX-5. I resent how this car conjures up love and pity at the same time. You could never convince the average punter sizing it up that it’s, you know, a proper drivers’ car. The first generation sits there with a let’s-play smile, headlights popping up like puppy ears. Too nice. The louche second generation is a tiddler all glammed up ready for the town; it’s ID says Jag, but you still ain’t getting in, love. The third generation car for me has this slightly unsettling square-jawed grin, like that weird kid at your birthday who would suddenly scream and plunge his hands straight into the cake.
Traumatic childhoods aside, while it may have won heaps of awards and a legion of fans, at no point in the last 25 years has the MX-5 ever really, hand on heart, heart in mouth, been a proper looker. And that has made fighting the MX-5’s corner doubly difficult.
Until now. Because everyone has to grow up some day. And some would say that in its latest incarnation, the MX-5 has finally come of age. I don’t know what happened when Ikuo Maeda, Mazda’s global head of design, locked himself with some underlings in a room in Fuchū, Hiroshima around about 2014. But whatever that glorious man did in there, it completely turned the design language of the modern MX-5 around. The idea is a word: KODO.
With its debut at the Paris Motor Show in 2010 in the form of a concept car called the Shinari, the KODO design language lies at the heart of all current Mazdas. Translated as “soul of motion”, the word is intended to embody the alluring beauty of imminent movement and the effortless muscularity of the predator about to pounce, an aesthetic of potential energy. The form of the car is an expression of function, the object designed to be as beautiful as it is mechanically and aerodynamically sound.
Under the bodywork, the KODO challenge is one of engineering, making the driver feel that the machine is an extension of themselves. This requires all the car’s elements to work together: the manner in which the engine delivers power, how the suspension allows the car to flow through turns, and where the centre of gravity is placed to maximise mechanical grip and the feeling of control. The underlying point of all this is to create what in Japanese is called jinba ittai– the close connection between a rider and his horse. It’s a sense of security, empowerment, and confidence.
The modern MX-5 is the flagbearer of this design philosophy. The contours of the new design are fluid and purposeful. It’s quite deceptive – delicate and neat from afar, substantial up close. I hadn’t been in one for months and was pleasantly surprised when I walked up to it – it confidently commands the space it occupies. The flowing lines pull in your gaze and hold on to it until you’ve inadvertently walked around the side to get a better view. It just wants to move.
So it looks good – really good – but how does it drive?
It’s useful to compare the new MX-5 with a car that we’ve covered previously and which shares the same underlying architecture – the Abarth 124. After a few sprints you quickly realise the two cars demand wholly different styles of driving. The Abarth wants you to search for the thrill of the turbo boost, and prefers long, flowing roads. The Mazda, with a naturally aspirated engine, likes the higher rev range but feels so planted that you want to be challenged by your route, shuttling through the gears and whipping round tight corners with supreme efficiency.
On roads which the Abarth would find frustratingly twisty and dismiss with a haughty turbo’d snap and crackle, the Mazda excels. There’s no orgasmic conclusion to pushing up the revs like in the Abarth, even with the 30 more horsepower the 2019 2.0 litre MX-5 gets over the previous model; but what the Mazda lacks in fanfare and raw machismo it makes up for in its flowing, tight ride and a sensation of control at speed. It’s a car which makes you a better driver, which gives you faith in your ability to shift in time, to step on the accelerator sooner, and to control your speed into corners. With the Abarth you blast straight through the countryside with a supersexed snort; with the Mazda you weave and slice across it. It’s automotive calligraphy.
What you also get from the MX-5 is the impression that someone who actually likes driving has thought about every little detail. For example, the power steering motor is at the end of the steering rack rather than at the top, near the driver, as with many other cars. The reason? To maintain directness and prevent steering feel being lost. No energy is wasted putting twisting force into the actual steering rack itself, and so you only get as much assistance as you need at the wheels. It’s brilliant. And I’m not even going to rhapsodise about the decision to make the steering rack fully adjustable so the car fits you like your favourite pair of shoes. Or the wonderful gearbox. Or the seat bolsters. Or the Bilstein damping. Because all that is not design. It’s love.
The one downside is the exhaust note. While Mazda have, in their own quiet and sensible way, coaxed only the most musical purr from the exhaust system, there was a part of me which wanted just a bit more presence from the pipes. Perhaps few can match the riot of the Magneti Marelli system on the Abarth 124. Perhaps it should stay that way.
Waiting at the lights, buzzing from my latest blast down country lanes, I watched an Aston Martin coming the other way. I caught eyes with the driver – and I suddenly knew, just knew, that I was having more fun than him. However many hundreds of mechanical horses he had under the hood, he couldn’t even begin to unleash the true potential of his car on a public road.
I, on the other hand, could easily hustle the MX-5 into the top of third gear with a little tyre squeal and feel a genuine thrill while staying, just about, on the right side of the law. And that’s not something you buy; it’s something you have to admit to yourself – that for just about twenty five thousand pounds, you can have a motoring experience that captures everything one could love about driving. The rest of it is just marginal gains.