Thursday, August 12, 2010

NA Mazda MX-5

The use of nuclear weapons is generally acknowledged as a pretty antisocial way to behave. You have all the bloodthirsty unpleasantness of blowing a massive hole in whatever the bomb happens to be sitting on, as well as the depressing likelihood of the local residents – those that survive, that is – looking forward to a bizarre future in which they raise a generation of octopus-children. While nukes do have the ineffably cool ability to burn shadows onto walls (trust me, this isn’t easy; I’ve tried, I can’t do it) they are, on the whole, a fairly messy and destructive affair. The Japanese city of Hiroshima was unfortunate enough to be on the business end of an A-bomb in 1945 and it did cause a certain level of discomfort for one or two hundred thousand people.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. 60-odd years later Hiroshima is a thriving city; broad in its multiculturalism, strong in sporting prowess and hugely prolific in industry and manufacturing. By far the biggest company operating out of the city is Mazda, makers of a certain little sporty roadster that you’ll no doubt be reasonably familiar with…

Known as the Eunos Roadster in Japan and the Miata in the US, the Mazda MX-5 is such a logical idea in concept that it’s rather taken for granted after so many years of production. Now on its third revision, the purist will opt for the original version (designated ‘NA’) which was produced between 1989 and 1997: with the funky pop-up headlights and minus the dulled edges of the second generation, it represents so much more than merely a cheap and cheerful roadster. Designed to be a sort of modern-day Lotus Elan, the diminutive MX-5 took giant steps towards re-igniting public passion for the roadster segment, with the first generation selling over 400,000 units.

Now, there’s one misguided stereotype that we need to nip in the bud right here. A lot of people – cretinous, misinformed Neanderthals – will have a little snigger when they see a man emerge from an MX-5. It is their considered opinion that the dinky roadster was designed exclusively for hairdressers. This is wrong. These misguided folk, of course, have clearly never driven an MX-5, so their opinions may reside as inconsequential fripperies for it is they who are missing out. Hairdresser? Whatever. Have a nice drive in your Vectra, slowcoach.

You see, it’s a wonderful little car. The front-engine/rear-drive layout was always going to be fun in a car that weighs as much as a couple of makizushi, and combined with the two important facts that they really don’t cost that much and that there's enough wasabi under the bonnet to keep you smiling long after you’d climbed out of the cockpit, it amounts to a rather sensible proposition. Most importantly for Mazda, although the bloodline can be traced back to British drop-tops of the sixties (think Triumph Spitfire, Austin-Healey 3000, MG Midget), the MX-5’s sublime handling royally spanked its contemporary rival, the MGF – an inadequate monstrosity rushed out of Longbridge to jump on the roadster bandwagon, seemingly designed solely to alleviate some unseen head gasket mountain by eating as many of them as possible. (Interestingly, the MGF was designed specifically for hairdressers. If you know an MGF owner, you should hereafter refer to them as [friend’s name] Scissorhands. Do this until they learn.)

In keeping with the ‘modern Elan’ ethos, the MX-5 concept developed through some very Lotus-like principles. The aim of the project was to create a car that was lightweight with minimal frills or mechanical complications. Initially the car was sold with a spicy 1600cc DOHC 16-valve four, producing 120bhp – more than enough to get the tail out on demand. Slightly quicker is the later 1.8, although even the run-out detuned 1.6 has more than enough power to exploit the sublime chassis.

The huge popularity of the model has resulted in a steady stream of cheap Japanese imports to the UK. (It’s easy to spot a Japanese example; their number plates are a different shape to standard UK ones. They're generally better-specced too, but much harder to insure...) As a result, there are a vast amount of them on the market, meaning that you can be very fussy about the spec you choose and you won’t be paying through the nose for the privilege. And when you’re blasting down a winding B-road at the outer extremes of the grip limit, cocooned in leather and with the wind in your hair, you’ll find it very difficult to give the image a second thought.

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