The best successes are often the biggest surprises. Coke, Penicillin, The Monkees. One could argue that unexpectedness is key to their brilliance, and that if their creators had been intentionally trying to make a global impact they might have missed the mark. Too many focus groups and you end up with a drink like New Coke, and nobody wants that.
And so was the case with the original Mazda MX-5, the NA of 1989. What started as a flippant comment on the demise of the British sports car by American journalist Bob Hall to Kenichi Yamamoto, head of R&D at Mazda, led to the development of a back-to-basics, affordable sports car built purely for fun. I’m sure they hoped their new little tourer would be a success, but they probably never imagined they were creating arguably the most influential sports car ever built. Had they intended to create a revolution, failure would almost certainly have been the result.
The trouble with such a wildfire success is updating and then repeating what the original NA did so well. In the following twenty-six years the MX-5 evolved through NB and NC generations, each a little larger, porkier and more expensive than the last. It reached boiling point with the addition a few years ago of a standard folding hardtop to the NC which made us question Mazda’s commitment to the lightweight, basic sports car they themselves pioneered.
But the good news is that with the just-released ND, Mazda have gone back to basics and readdressed that original design brief with the materials and technologies available to us in 2015. The curb weight with a half tank of fuel is a scant 989kg, just 49kg more than the original NA and some 100kg less than the NC it replaces. To its benefit the ND has little power, it has a clever folding fabric roof, a six-speed manual gearbox and as few electronic driver aids as you can get away with these days. Equipment levels are basic but build quality is top-notch, and it has that indestructible feeling that the original MX-5 became so well known for.
I have fond memories of my old NA MX5, and within under a minute of driving the ND I felt at home. It has the atmosphere of the old car; the cabin material finishes are similar, the dash design is thoughtfully laid out and there is nothing unnecessary cluttering the driving experience. Like the NA, you still sit up a touch more elevated than I’d prefer but my only real complaint is a lack of reach adjustment on the steering wheel. It was impossible to find the perfect driving position, which is oddly the same issue had with my old NA. But I’m certain all it would take is for a Mazda engineer to show me some rough calculations about how much weight a fixed column saves and I’d be on board.
The biggest departure from tradition is the exterior styling which borrows heavily from Mazda’s current ‘KODO – soul of motion’ design language. It works better in real life than it did in those first press photos last year, and the ND gives the aura of a proper mini exotic, especially in the Soul Red hero color pictured here. A quick flick through the accessory catalogue shows an available factory front lip spoiler, side skirts and rear diffuser in black that look the business. Drop the ride height a little and add some meaty lightweight racing wheels in 16 or 17 inch and you’ve got a little sports car with serious aesthetic appeal.
The ND will soon have the option of a 2.0 engine for an extra $1400, but this first shipment of Australian spec cars are all fitted with the 1496cc, 96kw (129bhp) four, sharing not only a similar capacity but its character and even physical appearance with the powerplant of the 1989 original. This is no carryover though; it is a thoroughly modern performance engine that uses Mazda’s clever Skyactiv technology and a stratospheric 13:1 compression ratio to extract the most power possible from its diminutive size. Good fuel economy is a bonus too, and over my 500km of spirited driving I averaged just 7.7 l/100km.
The engine is beautifully matched to the chassis; it doesn’t overpower the car and it encourages you to rev it hard to extract every last horsepower. It initially feels a little doughy around town as there’s barely any torque on offer (just 150nm at 4800rpm), but once you build the revs it develops into a strong midrange that extends all the way to the 7500rpm redline. When you take it right to the top you are rewarded with a harder edged note over those last few hundred rpm; its character and delivery is identical to a Porsche 991 GT3 closing in on 9000rpm. It may be small in size and output, but the little 1500 is a cracker.
The front/mid-mounted engine sends its drive to the rear wheels via a six speed manual gearbox with trademark short throws and the firm, positive engagement that is always a highlight of any MX5. The ratios are closely spaced to make the most of what little power and torque is available at hand, but sometimes that delicate shift feel sucks you in to changing up too early and you forget that the ND needs to be properly revved to make serious progress. You then arrive into the next corner two gears too high, and with no torque to pull you through there is an awkward scramble to get down through the gears before you turn in. The ND will make you look like a mug if you don’t drive it perfectly, and I like that.
The Toyota 86 reinvigorated the slow but fun sports car segment and the ND is its first true challenger and closest competitor. Both cars aim for the same target of delivering thrills at sane speeds, but they go about the task in very different ways. The 86 famously has little grip, giving its joy by allowing the driver to safely slide the car and feel it move about beneath. With a different approach to the same goal, Mazda have softened the dampening to induce a little more roll through corners whilst still keeping ultimate grip levels as high as possible. It seems counter intuitive and dare I say it a slightly French approach to vehicle dynamics, but it certainly works well at conveying a sense of speed to the driver without needing to be right on the ragged edge of adhesion.
Despite the lean there is minimal loss of grip or momentum, and you can feel the chassis with its perfect 50/50 weight distribution reacting quickly to the inputs of both the driver and of the road surface beneath. It’s good fun to punt the ND across a back road but its approach won’t satisfy everyone, and I imagine that some of the better-known aftermarket suspension manufacturers would already be working on kits to cancel the body roll and push dynamic levels far higher. Although unless you’re planning regular track work, I wouldn’t bother messing with it.
Discussions deep into the minutiae of suspension tuning are a little irrelevant when the keys to the ND are on your bedside table and the empty hills roads are waiting. I’m not usually a morning person but I wanted to photograph the sunrise, so I set my alarm for just before six on Sunday morning, the ND waiting in the garage as an effective magnet to draw me out of bed. The ambient temperature was just 2deg but there was no chance I’d have the roof up.
With a beanie keeping my head warm and the heater on max, I made my way through the hills to catch the first golden rays just outside of Strathalbyn. It was here, slicing around the second gear hairpins that repeatedly encircled the olive grove, that the new MX5 properly clicked. Jinba Ittai – horse and rider as one. And to think that this brilliant little sports car can be driven off the showroom floor for under $36k seems incredible value. The MX-5 as we know it is back.
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