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The Enduring Popularity of the Mazda MX-5

By Dr Alan Moran - 02nd Apr 2023

Mazda MX-5

I get a lot of questions about Porsche cars. Usually second-hand, often old, sometimes very old.

And, occasionally, I just get questions about old cars. But I rarely get questions about one of the most iconic sports cars made in modern times, the MX-5.

For a long time, the British made innovative and fun cars. They had wonderful engineering, but they had too many manufacturers and too many strikes. They tried to solve this problem by amalgamating firms into one large car group, called British Leyland. Unfortunately, it was a time of high inflation, and the strikes that became a character of British industry brought it to its knees. Quality suffered too, with the result that the company was labelled ‘British Playland’. But they left a legacy of wonderful cars, such as the Triumph TRs, the Austin Healey Sprite, and the MGs. But the best of them all was the brilliantly quick Lotus, particularly the Elan.

With the reputation of the British car industry in tatters due to its poor quality control, who better to step into the void than the Japanese, whose reputation for quality was unbeatable.

The MX-5 was an instant hit when launched in 1998, with pop-up headlights and a classic interior copied from the Elan. Even the engine, for those who tend to lift bonnets, was an item of beauty. In the interests of light weight – power-steering and assisted brakes were not included. The first cars had a model designation of NA, second generation were NB, third generation NC, and the current generation is ND. Funny how these abbreviations overlap with a lot of what we write into patients notes.

Anyway, with time and with safety regulations, the MX-5 improved. Even the basic MX-5 now comes with air con, steering wheel with Bluetooth and audio controls, cruise control, stability control airbags, and the higher-spec model has keyless entry.

Any good average driver will feel they are close to the car’s limits and feel very satisfied with it

It is a far cry from the original, but back then it weighed only 980 kgs.

The current model, the ND, was introduced in 2015 with a choice of 1.5 and 2.0 engines, producing either 130 or 181bhp. Not alone is it available as a convertible, it is also available with a solid, but retractable roof.

To drive, it is rewarding. Any good average driver will feel they are close to the car’s limits and feel very satisfied with it. Driven down a familiar road, it is a satisfying car that will behave within the legal limits. The latest MX-5 has an option of what they call their new ‘Kinematic posture control system’. Equipped with Bilstein shocks, it gives a lower suspension and allegedly sharper handling. If you have a nice second-hand example, there are firms out there who can sell you a suspension lowering kit for reasonable money.

With an approximate 50:50 front/rear weight balance, the car has nearly neutral handling. Inducing ‘tail-out oversteer’ is easy and very controllable, making the MX-5 a popular choice for amateur and club racing. At Kirkistown in the Ards peninsula in Co Down, there is regular MX-5 racing. In the UK, the BRSCC MX-5 Championship is described as: “One of the best-supported, single-make championships in UK club motorsport, the Mazda MX-5 Championship provides intense, door-to-door, single-make sports car racing.”

Speaking of changes, there are firms out there who will increase the power of your standard MX-5 by adding either a turbo or supercharger. Reputedly, the best is by BBR Motorsports, who can sell you a kit that will bring power outputs from the standard 159bhp giving 0-to-60 in 7.5 seconds, up to 304bhp with 0-to-60 in 4.8 seconds. I would suggest suspension and brake upgrades too. But then all that money will bring you into Porsche
Boxster territory.

In comparison, not only is the Boxster much more expensive to buy and to run, most people will never get near the
limits of a Porsche on public roads. The Porsche is wonderful, and you will always feel the car is capable of much more than you can achieve.

Many years ago, a certain Jeremy Clarkson complimented the MX-5 by saying the only reason he gave it five stars was because he could not give it 14. What Clarkson did not know at that time was that over the years, the MX-5 suffered from a certain, let’s say, ability to rust. I don’t know why, but Mazda does not seem to have paid much attention in their earlier models. Maybe they assumed the car would only get driven on dry, sunny weather. Maybe they were saving weight. I don’t know.

The one thing that the MX-5 has over any sports car is an entry into the Guinness Book of Records. It is not for rust or speed, but for production numbers. By 2016, over one million of the cars had been produced.

There is a British website called Pistonheads. Recently, it held a vote for the best ever sports car. The winner was the Lotus Elise (the Lotus Elan’s successor). Elise sales figures are hard to come by, but in 2021 the total sales were 1,719, its best year yet. It appears those who voted with their wallets have voted MX-5.

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